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Sunday, July 19, 2009
Cink's win forever linked with Watson

By Bob Harig
ESPN.com

TURNBERRY, Scotland -- One of golf's truly great guys turned out to be the bad guy.

Even Stewart Cink recognized that in the gathering darkness Sunday night at Turnberry, where you could hear a Claret Jug drop.

Tom Watson was the story here, a par away from perhaps the biggest happening in 149 years of the game's championship history. And there was the nice guy, Cink, with cold blood in his veins, stepping on a Hall of Famer's neck and not letting go until he sucked the life out of Scotland.

Cink did not so much steal the 138th Open Championship from Tom Watson as he put himself in position to have it handed to him, turning the Ayrshire Coast into a funeral and leaving the hallowed links with a trophy that was well-earned but dulled.

Stewart Cink
In his 50th major appearance, Stewart Cink broke through with a playoff victory over Tom Watson.

As Jack Nicklaus, the loser to Watson in the famous "Duel in the Sun" in 1977, said afterward from Florida: "This was absolutely Watson's Open, win or lose."

A final-hole birdie in the tournament's last, tense moments gave Cink a share of the lead and a prominent place on the scoreboard for the first time all week. But that would not have been good enough if Watson had been able to par the final hole.

As the golf world knows now, that did not happen.

Watson's 8-iron approach went over the green, his putt from a hollow went too far, and his putt to win -- with Cink watching -- drifted harmlessly away.

And then it was a matter of Cink taking apart the golf legend in a four-hole aggregate playoff, making two birdies to win by six shots.

"It's been a surreal experience for me," said Cink, 36, who began the final round in a tie for sixth, 3 strokes behind Watson. "Not only playing one of my favorite courses in such a wonderful tournament, but playing against Tom Watson.

"I grew up watching Tom Watson play on TV and hoping one day maybe I could follow in his footsteps at the Open Championship. He's turned back the clock and I've just been feeling so many different things. I just feel so happy to be a part of it, let alone win."

Nobody Cink's age could ever dream of taking down Watson. The man is going on 60 and hasn't been a factor on the PGA Tour for more than a decade.

But there was Watson doing the unthinkable, on his way to perhaps the biggest victory the game has ever seen until falling into the playoff that Cink dominated.

Cink might have denied a Hall of Famer, but his victory should not be diminished. Ranked 33rd in the world, Cink for years has been among the top Americans in the game, even if his résumé lacked numerous victories.

"I just believed all week I had something good," Cink said. "My swing felt great. I was hitting the ball solidly. I was curving it the right direction, and that's so important here. And I just felt so calm. I never even felt nervous at all. I mean, I did not feel nervous today in a situation that in the past I would be extremely nervous. I just felt calm all day."

Even when he missed a 5-foot birdie putt at the par-5 17th that seemingly ended his chances, Cink responded. He hit a perfect drive, an approach to 15 feet, and then made the putt to give himself a chance.

Behind him, Watson had birdied the 17th and was seemingly in the clear. With a par, Watson would have joined Harry Vardon as the only six-time Open champions. He'd have joined Gary Player and Ben Hogan with nine major titles, tied for fourth all time. He'd have become the oldest major champion by a whopping 11 years.

"Playing in the playoff with Tom, it's mixed feelings because I've watched him with such admiration all week," Cink said. "And, of course, it would come down to me against him in the playoff."

It did, but it was no contest. Cink made a nice par at the first playoff hole, getting up and down from a bunker, while Watson bogeyed. He would never give up that lead, and when Watson chopped up the third playoff hole with a double bogey, all that was left for Cink was to walk triumphantly up the 18th hole.

Cink's best finish in a major was a trio of thirds, the most famous of which came at the 2001 U.S. Open, in which he 3-putted the 72nd green -- missing a 2-footer for par -- that would have put him in a playoff with Retief Goosen and Mark Brooks.

At the time, Cink felt he was out of it when he missed his birdie putt, figuring Goosen was a lock to make par. He quickly tried to get out of the way and missed his putt -- then looked on in horror as Goosen missed.

It was eerily similar to what happened to Lee Westwood on Sunday. The Englishman thought he needed a birdie at the last, ran his first putt past, then missed the par putt -- and a playoff by 1 stroke.

"The biggest disappoint is obviously 3-putting the last," Westwood said. "Before I'd hit my putt, I figured [Watson] had hit the middle of the fairway, so I thought he was going to make 4 from there, but I shouldn't have got ahead of myself, really. … I thought I needed to hole it."

Cink has been there. He went into a bit of a funk after his failure at Southern Hills eight years ago -- "I was embarrassed," he said -- and needed three more years to win again, capturing the MCI Heritage and the World Golf Championship-NEC Invitational in 2004. Then he didn't win again until last year's Travelers Championship, just his fifth PGA Tour victory.

A big change came earlier this year at the Players Championship when Cink decided to scrap the belly putter he had been using in favor of a conventional-length model. He began to get some confidence again on the greens and had some decent success recently -- although nothing to suggest he was going to win Sunday.

Despite his proximity to the lead when the final round began, there were few -- other than Cink -- who were looking for him to emerge as the year's third major championship winner.

But a final-round 69 in treacherous conditions left him tied with one of the game's all-time greats, and nobody is going to blame him for taking care of business from there.

In time, Cink's victory will become a popular one. He is well-regarded on the PGA Tour. He has become one of golf's most prolific Twitter members. He has been elected to the PGA Tour's policy board.

"I am also very happy for Stewart Cink," Nicklaus said. "Stewart was on several of my Presidents Cup teams. He was a terrific member of those teams, and he has been a very talented and deserving player for a long time. This victory is a stepping stone in his life, and it validates his career. I am very happy for him, but unfortunately in this case, well, I was hoping for one of the old folks to finish it off."

As Cink proved Sunday, he's got a lot more killer instinct than he had showed.

Afterward, Cink was asked whether he felt like the guy in a sentimental Hollywood movie who stole the girl at the end.

"Well, as long as the result is I get the girl, I'm OK with that," Cink said.

You can't blame him, even if he helped ruin a terrific story.

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.