If it’s possible to feel sorry for a guy who just won his first major tournament, I feel sorry for Stewart Cink. Because 10 years from now, maybe 10 days from now, nobody outside Atlanta will recall the 2009 British Open as Cink’s breakthrough. It will forever be the one Old Tom Watson almost won.
And that’s a shame. Facing the onrushing tide of history, what was Cink to do? Jump out of the way and grant the watching world its fervent wish? On ABC, Paul Azinger said afterward: “This would have been the greatest feat in the history of sports,” and a listener’s first thought wasn’t, as is always the case when confronted with such absolutes, to yell, “Heck no!” but “Well … maybe.”
But Stewart Cink didn’t pull a Tonya Harding and club Watson with a mashie. Cink simply played winning golf when Watson’s body remembered that, 46 days hence, it’ll turn 60. Watson missed an eight-foot putt on the 72nd hole and Van de Velded the playoff, and the Georgia Tech man was a six-shot winner over those four holes. And the watching world turned away saddened by what it had witnessed.
Watson’s first words in the press tent: “Would’ve been a hell of a moment, wouldn’t it?”
Yes, it would’ve been a Great Story, and I’ve been around long enough to know what happens when we writers are denied our Great Stories. I remember Rick Reilly, then of Sports Illustrated, ripping the unassuming Scott Simpson for having the gall to win the 1987 U.S. Open over an immortal named Watson who, 22 years ago, was even then in comeback mode. Reilly called Simpson “a square in a groove” and then got really nasty:
“Now Simpson is a decent enough player. But on the thrill scale he ranks just behind Edwin Meese and slightly ahead of a tuna sandwich. Though he had no right to, Simpson ruined Watson’s longed-for coming-home soiree, partly because of an ungodly run of putting and partly because of one ungodly piece of luck.”
And who was sitting there in Scotland on Sunday, serving as ESPN’s “essayist”? The same Rick Reilly. Good luck with this week’s “essay,” Mr. Cink. Perhaps you’ll get upgraded to a BLT.
But the Tech man isn’t without allies. He has 590,000 followers on Twitter — he’s @stewartcink — which is 590,000 more than Watson enjoys. (”I don’t twit or tweet,” Watson told reporters this week.) And maybe his Jacket background helped Cink steel himself for the playoff against the people’s choice. As we know, the Institute is an underdog, at least numerically, in its own state.
It’s a tough place to be, one man (plus assorted Tech fans and Twitterers) against the tide of history, but the pride of Sugarloaf did himself proud. He played steadily, was exultant but not excessive in victory and was duly deferential afterward. As he told ABC: ““I have such an admiration for Tom … I was a little reluctant to be pitted against him.” But then this: “I’m elated I won.”
Let’s hope Cink won’t have cause to regret the circumstances of his Open championship. Golf fans tend to love everybody — except J.C. Snead; never understood that — so there shouldn’t be a problem there. Golf scribes, however, are a tougher lot.
Surely more than a few had this one written — “Aging golfer wins one for the ages,” yada yada — and the only thing we writers hate more than a dull winner is rewriting. That sound you heard yesterday from across the pond? The “thwack” of a hundred correspondents hitting the “delete” key in ticked-off tandem.
New headline: “Cink wins, hearts sink.” Not his fault, though. Just the rub of the green.