x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Cink will get the credit ... eventually

Stewart Cink was only partly right when he said that the 138th British Open Championship will be remembered as the one that Tom Watson lost.

Stewart Cink splashes out of a bunker in the Open play-off.
Stewart Cink splashes out of a bunker in the Open play-off.

Stewart Cink was only partly right when he said that the 138th British Open Championship will be remembered as the one that Tom Watson lost. All those who watched the drama unfold at Turnberry will have eternal sympathy and admiration for 59-year-old Watson after he went within an 8ft putt of what might have been the greatest modern day victory in sport. But, in time, Cink will get the credit he deserves for the way he played the Ailsa links when the weather and the emotional roller coaster of a final round challenged every aspect of his game and character.

When the pressure was intense, he birdied the last two holes to get into the play-off and then covered the extra four holes in two-under par as Watson finally ran out of steam. It was sad to see one of the game's greats, and the best links golfer of all, miss out on a place in history as the oldest winner of a major, a few weeks short of his 60th birthday. But rather than commiserate, we should celebrate with Watson for a performance which turned back the clock to his classic "Duel in the Sun" with Jack Nicklaus in 1977, and acclaim the new champion as a worthy one.

Cink has been heading for great things since his parents, both single figure handicappers, first led him to the driving range when he was too young to play his hometown course in Alabama. After joining the PGA Tour in 1997 he wasted no time in making an impression, winning the Greater Hartford Open in his rookie season. Four more tour victories and a succession of good finishes followed, and for four years from 2004 he spent 39 weeks in the top 10 of the world rankings, climbing to No 5 at his peak.

He's back in there again at No 9 after rising 24 places, and there can no longer be any doubt about the pedigree of a player who missed a 2ft putt on the last hole at Southern Hills in 2001 to get into a US Open play-off. Cink has always had huge potential, without quite living up to expectations, and his Open triumph could lead to more major success. As Watson headed south from Turnberry for the Senior Open Championship at Sunningdale, there was no consolation in his record leap from 1,374th to 105th in the world rankings.

He felt he could win, and backed his belief with four wonderful rounds, displaying superb control over his striking and highlighting his unlimited range of shots and imagination in the face of tricky winds which wrecked the hopes of others. In the end he was let down by an old weakness. After some brilliant putting in the first three rounds, Sunday brought a reminder of the problems on the greens which have plagued him for years.

He left at least five shots out there, missing from 7ft at the first, less than 4ft at the third, making only one of six putts in the 15ft range and leaving his eight footer for victory short on the last. Final-round putting setbacks aside, I was left imagining how a 30-year-Tom Watson would have fared, hitting the ball 30 yards further off the tee. He won eight majors between 1975 and 1983, four of them by beating Jack Nicklaus into second place, and in those days was the best putter in the world. It's irresistible to wonder how many majors he would he have won if Nicklaus hadn't been around at the time, and how many major titles Nicklaus would have amassed if Watson had not been there to deny him.

By comparison, Tiger Woods has not had anyone to seriously challenge him in recent years, and despite his Turnberry failure will start as favourite for this year's final major, next month's US PGA Championship at Hazeltine. Tiger has yet to win the British Open on a course with serious rough. Based on his ball striking early in the week I thought he had a marvellous chance to change that. But the contrast between his play in practice rounds and his performance in the championship must worry him.

The easy, controlled swings he made in practice were replaced by hurried swipes unbefitting the world No 1 but which we've seen a lot of in recent months. He lost his height on the backswing, his body was too far ahead of the ball on the downswing, and while great co-ordination normally gets him out of trouble, on this occasion there was no escape. When the wind picked up on the second day, control of the ball and consistency were called for, with trouble waiting on every hole.

But Tiger hit some of the wildest shots I have seen from him. Over two rounds, only 15 of 28 fairways and 21 of 36 greens hit underlines why he missed the cut for the fifth time in his career and the second time in a major. He had no answer when the wind blew from the left. Modern golf equipment makes the ball go higher and straighter. Metal drivers have a huge sweet spot, encouraging players to hit as hard as they can. Golf has become a bomber's game. This works week in, week out on tour but not on links courses.

So much skill and ability to control the ball and play creatively has been lost. Around the greens, players get backspin even from the rough because of square grooves, although these are banned from next year and tour players may turn to old pro's like Watson for help. Whether Woods will stand by his coach, Hank Haney, remains to be seen. Clearly there is major work to be done on his swing. Former tour player Philip Parkin was a member of the BBC TV commentary team for the Open at Turnberry.

pparkin@thenational.ae