Post-Turnberry, Cink still struggling

LYTHAM ST. ANNES, England -- It is not a stretch to say that Stewart Cink played a part in ruining one of the best stories in golf history.

Harsh, perhaps. But still a belief held by many.

When Cink defeated Tom Watson in an aggregate playoff to win the 2009 Open Championship at Turnberry, he denied the golf legend his sixth Claret Jug and ninth major title.

Watson, then 59, would have been the oldest major championship winner -- by 11 years.

It was almost too unbelievable for words. And it turned out to be just that.

Watson needed a par at the last and made bogey; Cink, an afterthought for most of the day, had rolled in a 15-footer for birdie a few groups prior. That was good enough to get him into a playoff, which he won, squashing a great story but at the same time showing amazing competitiveness and calmness in winning.

The general feeling was that while Cink might not have been the popular choice that day, he was nonetheless a highly regarded American player who might build on that victory, pile up more wins, use it as the launching point for his own greatness.

Cink has not won since.

And he is now ranked 183rd in the world.

So much for that stirring victory three years ago propelling him to bigger and better things.

"I can see how it might be viewed that way," said Cink, who begins play Thursday in the Open at Royal Lytham. "I was an intermittent winner. I won in '08 and the British in '09. I felt like I was going to take off."

Instead, he has rarely contended.

"Except for the Open, 2009 wasn't any good for me," Cink said. "I was kind of at a place where I was losing confidence in my swing. Even if I felt like I hit six, seven good tee balls in a row, I just kind of knew in my heart that the next one could go anywhere. I really didn't know why. And the ones that went straight down the middle, I didn't really know why.

"In that regard, I'm a lot better today. If I go bad, I know what to do. That is where the time [put in] is going to help, to get into that feeling a little better."

None of this, of course, takes away from the notion that Cink got in the way of some incredible golf history.

Had Watson won, he would have tied Harry Vardon for most Open victories at six. He would have surpassed Julius Boros, who was 48 when he won the 1968 PGA Championship, as the oldest major winner. He would have joined Gary Player and Ben Hogan with nine major championships.

Cink won for the sixth time in his PGA Tour career, and since that time has never finished better than a tie for fifth. This year, he has no top-10 finishes as he is now working with Chris O'Connell, Matt Kuchar's instructor. Cink is among the last 15 different major winners.

Following the 2010 season, Cink, 39, parted ways with Butch Harmon -- who had coached him since 2002 -- and went to work with Dallas-based instructor Pat O'Brien.

Although a promising move at the time, Cink said it simply did not work out.

"He was a good coach, [but] we just didn't speak the same language," Cink said. "I didn't understand a lot of the stuff he wanted me to do. I need to understand. That's the way I operate. I'm not just, 'Line me up.' ...

"It wasn't a setback. It delayed things. I don't think I was really accomplishing things, or ridding myself of my major flaws. I didn't know what they were. When I started working with Chris O'Connell, we identified those flaws quickly and got to work quickly. That started in December."

So far, however, the results have not been apparent. Cink is going on two years without having played in a World Golf Championship event, all of which makes the Open success at Turnberry more curious.

Watson, for his part, doesn't hold any grudges. It was two competitors trying for the same prize. He acknowledged that Cink had said he wasn't playing that well in 2009 prior to winning the Claret Jug. That's golf.

"I had the benefit of understanding the course so much better than my young rivals, under those conditions," said Watson, who won the 1977 Open at Turnberry. "It wasn't that out of my length range, either. It was within my capabilities of playing."

Watson's finish prompted the R&A to change its rules regarding past champions, who were eligible to compete only until age 60. Under the previous setup, Watson's last Open would have been in 2010 at St. Andrews. But a top-10 finish now gives an Open champion an extra five years, so Watson, 62, is good through 2014.

Last year, he tied for 22nd at Royal St. George's and is looking forward to another opportunity this week at Royal Lytham, where he has played in the Open four times.

He also is thinking ahead to next week -- when the Senior Open Championship returns to Turnberry.

"I had one really heartbreaking experience there, but I've had a couple of really exciting and pleasurable experiences there as well," he said. "That's the way I look at life and golf; that's the way it is. It's not going to be all good. It's not going to be all bad. You think it's going to be one way or the other, then you're wrong."

Watson knows that Cink was just trying to do what he was trying to do -- win golf's oldest trophy.

"I don't feel sorry for him because he got five Claret Jug titles and I only have one," Cink said. "It was a spectacular display that he put on. Every time I play with him, though, I see that it's possible because he hits the ball very solidly, and I think the way the wind blows, if it's blowing and the course is dry and firm, that's when Tom Watson has the best chance.

"There's no bad feelings between us. ... I think we both understand that when you get into the battle and you're between the ropes coming down the stretch in a major like that, it doesn't matter what age you are or how many titles you've won before. That's the satisfaction I get from it. I don't feel lessened in any way."