At the time, it seemed a rather reasonable point of view, that some of us felt Stewart Cink hadn’t really bulldozed his way to classic heights in golf the way he should have. Could have.
Not that he should have been shaking Tiger Woods’ foundation, but at least Cink should have been right there knocking on his door.
There were grounds for that, if you feasted on events that took place here in Georgia, pre-Masters. In 1995, the Stanford University golf team came through on its way to a championship played at The Farm, near Dalton. In a team match played at Druid Hills, sort of a warm-up session, Georgia Tech competed against the Stanford team. Cink took out Woods, 3 and 2.
And he did it again the next week in the tournament at The Farm. Pretty darned impressive stuff, if you ask me. So I guess I let that influence my expectations beyond reality.
He wiped out the Nationwide Tour his first year as a pro. At Oakland Hills, I followed him most of two rounds and he finished 16th in his first U.S. Open. He was off and running. Nothing out there to stop him. Then nothing happened. Oh, he won the Hartford Open, and he won twice at Hilton Head, then Hartford again, but he wasn’t rustling up headlines in any of the majors. Everybody was left in Woods’ dust, including Cink.
But life was good. He even won one of the World Championships, the Bridgestone Invitational at Akron, by four strokes. Tiger finished second. Two years later they tied, and Woods won in the playoff.
But how about the majors? Have we forgotten? He was within a putt of breaking his maiden, as they say in horse racing, at the U.S. Open at Southern Hills. He and Retief Goosen and Mark Brooks all played the 18th hole like a day at Putt-Putt. You miss, I miss, and in the end, Cink missed the playoff by one short putt.
“I’m not going to let that change my life,” he said. And it didn’t.
“Very important that you learn to dictate the game; you don’t let the game dictate life to you,” he said.
Puggy Blackmon, his coach at Georgia Tech, came to know him as few do.
“Golf is very important, but I don’t think in any case golf is going to interfere with family,” he said. “He’s not obsessed with becoming the best in the world. You might say that the old Sinatra song, ‘My Way,’ is his theme. He and Lisa [his wife] have it right. You saw who he had with him at Turnberry — family.”
Some might suggest that he’s too tall to be a great player. He’s 6-feet-4. But Cary Middlecoff was tall, and George Archer, and “Long Jim” Barnes, but height doesn’t rule golf.
Cink tried to compensate by going to the broom-stick putter, but he backed off that about the time of The Players championship. He has the usual coterie of consultants, but one dating to earlier days has been overlooked. When he first came out, his swing was in question, and when he found himself searching he went to a coach in whom he had great faith, George Kelnhofer, long an Atlanta professional.
“I’d pretty much given up on 2009,” Stewart has said. “I couldn’t get anything going, so I made a lot of changes, especially going back to the short stick.”
Then he comes to grips with history, snatching out of Tom Watson’s grip the most astonishing golf story since the first shepherd struck the first stone with his crooked stick.
“And there I was, standing in the way of it,” Cink said. “I’ve known what it’s like to be the unnoticed one in the group. I’ve played with Tiger and with Phil and with Lee Westwood the other day, with everybody pulling for him. Then I played those four playoff holes better than any holes I played all week.”
And he held the celebrated Claret Jug high in evidence, winner of the 2009 British Open championship.
He wrecked “a helluva story,” as Watson said, but this is one time the very polite Stewart Cink offers no apology. And didn’t he handle it with grace and good sporting manners?