Cink made most of time with Claret Jug

ST. ANDREWS, Scotland -- Some guys win their first major championship, collect the revered trophy and place it atop the mantle for all to admire from a safe distance.

Stewart Cink isn't one of those guys.

A big-time hockey fan, the reigning Open Championship titleholder treated the Claret Jug like the Stanley Cup. For the past 51 weeks, it played the role of port-a-party. The treasured hardware filled in when beer steins weren't available (and even when they were), was loaned out to friends, starred in television commercials and even served, well, other purposes.

"One of my buddies is a huge barbecue guy. I mean, he's like an authentic smoker of meats. He's a master," Cink explained recently. "He wanted to use it to baste a pork shoulder on the Fourth of July. And so during our picnic, he filled up the jug with homemade baste that he uses and we poured it over the smoked pork butt."

Butt-baste? Forget the customary kiss. This week's winner may choose to lick the jug clean instead.

For the first 11 years of its existence, the Open rewarded champions with a belt -- an honor that now sounds more Hulk Hogan than Ben Hogan. When the belt was retired after Young Tom Morris won three straight editions of the event, the Claret Jug was born.

Though it's true each champion is awarded two versions of the trophy (the real thing is returned after a year; the replica is for keeps), imply that Cink is using anything but the genuine article for his extracurricular pursuits and he'll sink that theory like an uphill two-footer.

"The replica doesn't count," he maintained. "We're pouring things out of the real one. We were drinking our wine out of it, our Guinness out of it. The kids drank milk out of it. Everybody had a chance to do what they wanted to do with it and I approved."

In case you were looking for a silver lining following the close call to end all close calls, there it is. After all, you likely remember Cink as That Dude Who Beat Tom Watson, in effect robbing the sports world of one of its greatest stories of all time by defeating the 59-year-old in a playoff more than three decades after Watson's last win at Turnberry.

The 14-year PGA Tour veteran has turned the past year into a victory lap, though -- not only for himself, but family, friends and the 1.2 million Twitter users who follow him. The fact that he has so publicly enjoyed the spoils that come with being an Open champion softens the blow for the majority who were disappointed that Watson came up short.

Looking back on last year's scenario, even Cink can separate himself from it and acknowledge the importance of an elder statesman nearly claiming his sixth title at this tournament.

"It had to be great to watch," he said. "To see if he could hang on and do it, then the playoff -- it just had to be really interesting competition. And so I'm fine with it. I ended up with the Claret Jug and I don't care what the circumstances were. I don't care how you do it. When you get your name etched on that thing forever, there's no bad way for that to happen, so I'm OK with it."

For all of the accolades that come with being Open champion -- the celebrations, the inner satisfaction and yes, the trophy -- Cink maintains that "my life hasn't really changed at all."

That's not entirely true.

While the first five victories of his PGA Tour career spawned all sorts of greetings from fans, it was the sixth one which really catapulted the Atlanta-area resident into the public consciousness.

"I'm now known by everybody I see as the British Open guy, the guy who beat Tom Watson," he said. "For a while there, people would pick out different things -- they'd say, 'Go Jackets!' because of Georgia Tech; they'd say, 'Ryder Cup!'; they'd say, 'I was pulling for you at the Southern Hills U.S. Open!' Now it's 100 percent British Open. That's a great thing to be identified by. In our business, if you're in public and people don't recognize you, then you're not doing a very good job."

In celebrating a whirlwind year as major champion, Cink has played like a guy who's been celebrating. He hasn't won since that triumph and owns just four top-10s in 22 starts during that span.

Though he might add another major title to that victory, the 37-year-old said he no longer feels the weight of having to win the big one.

"I got one and I don't feel pressured to win another one," he said. "I just feel very satisfied that I got one. I don't mean that I'm laying down at all. It's just that the satisfaction trumps every emotion or pressure that comes along with it."

No pressure. That could be the perfect recipe this week for Cink, who refers to St. Andrews as "my favorite course in the world." And if he repeats as champion? Well, someone had better get the butt-baste ready.

Jason Sobel is a golf writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn.com.