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Cink’s climb to the top

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TURNBERRY, Scotland – The fine folk of Scotland could be forgiven for thinking the new Open champion is not the most serious of characters.

Stewart Cink's Turnberry adventure has been a whirlwind of comedic anecdotes, with the garrulous Georgia Tech alumnus holding court on everything from swine flu, mountain bears, pints of Guinness and condoms. Eh? Don't worry, all will be explained later.

But beneath the wit lies a serious golfer with a serious work ethic, one which paid off in the most satisfying fashion deep into Sunday evening. Cink didn't tame Turnberry's wilds, but he survived everything this extraordinary edition of the oldest championship had to toss into his path.

From the improbable surge of a golden great to the turbulent gusts bursting in off the ocean, to sickness he briefly feared was the deadly swine flu, Cink met it all with an unflappable mood and a cheery disposition.

These weathered links of west Scotland spent the weekend gleefully dicing the game and the psyche of golf's finest. Yet they also turned out to be the landing spot for Cink's ultimate leap of faith, one which took him from the depths of despair to the winner's circle.

It was just a few short months hither that the 36-year-old, a veteran of 14 years on tour and six tournament victories, felt more in common with your average driving range hack than a would-be major champion.

Cink never got flustered when he wasn't mentioned among the best not to have tasted success on the biggest of stages. The reason was simple.

“I never heard my name tossed in there with that group of guys who should have won a major,” he said. “I didn't think about whether I was good enough or not, I never believed it.”

Winners' checks were the furthest thing from Cink's mind earlier this year. Despite millions in the bank and a career most would be proud of, he was in a rut, with a pressing need to keep his game from disintegrating altogether.

A crumbling putting stroke had put his tenure in the upper tier of the game in peril and the future looked to be one of struggle rather than excellence.

That was when he turned it around, setting light to his “toxic dump” of a game and ushering in a fresh technique and a modified mindset.

He switched to a short putter, even when his gut told him it was a risk that may not prosper. Even then, the signs of improvement were slow and his form heading into this tournament mediocre, with a missed cut in his defense of the Travelers Championship.

But it all clicked into place this week, the culmination of effort and thought and a positive approach.

For all the feelgood stories the British Open had to offer, Cink was not near the top of the list. This event could have been all about the 59-year-old legend (Tom Watson), the British hero (Lee Westwood), the father-to-be (Ross Fisher) or the young gun (Chris Wood).

Instead, this was a triumph for the courageous man, one who said enough is enough and it's time to start again.

“It can't get any more satisfying than this,” he said, the claret jug nestling in the crook of his arm. “It has all paid off, everything I changed. It was a leap of faith, I trusted other people and I trusted myself. The transformation is now complete. The journey is not over but as for whether it works, I'm a believer now.”

Cink had rarely used stats in his life but he turned to them in his darkest moment, and didn't like what he saw. A lot of categories didn't make for pleasant reading, but those involving putting were especially gloomy.

Yet it was with the putter that he set up his victory, a brilliant birdie on 18 taking him to two under and laying down the challenge to the men that followed.

With the maelstrom of activity then surrounding Westwood and Watson, it was a putt that could have been lost in the annals of time. Instead, it was the putt that changed Stewart Cink's life.

It preceded a nervous wait, while Westwood faltered and Watson missed the chance to cap a miraculous week. If he had, few would have associated Cink with this event.

He spent the day away from the spotlight, playing alongside fellow American Bryce Molder in the fourth-from-last group, while carefully crafting an outstanding round of 69.

But he saved the best for last, with no one else in the top 20 managing to birdie 18.

The playoff was all Cink's, from the moment a rapidly tiring Watson stuffed his second shot into the front bunker on the first extra hole.

He needed to do little more than keep himself together and by the time he approached the 18th again for the fourth and final playoff hole, it was all wrapped up.

“All week I felt I had something good,” said Cink. “I never felt nervous. The course tried to beat us down for three days and I knew someone would lose it with mistakes.

“At a major someone always has that calm and peace about them. I had it this week.”

Interviews and presentations over, it was time for Cink to meet his family, down a few pints of his favorite Guinness, and update his Twitter account.

His offerings over the course of the week ranged from a photo of the machine selling condoms in the Turnberry locker room, to his need to avoid bears on his forthcoming vacation in the Montana mountains.

After surviving Turnberry, it will seem like a picnic.

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