The putt was so easy a child could have made it. Stewart Cink, playing with Davis Love III and leading in the final round of the 2000 Colonial, went to tap in, to get out of Love's way, to tidy up on the 5th hole ... and missed.
"I just couldn't get over it," Cink told me recently, "and played bad the rest of the day. I was in the last group, leading by at least two or three shots, and I played bad the rest of the day and finished second. That was the day Phil [Mickelson] shot low and posted a number in the clubhouse [and won], and I was a mess."
The Colonial, which will be played this week as the Crowne Plaza Invitational at Colonial, has been the one that got away from Cink since before and after that day. It's been what the Masters was to Greg Norman, what the U.S. Open was to Mickelson. Cink has done everything but win. He finished T2 in 2000, the year he foozled the short putt, but also tied for 15th in 1997, 13th in 2003, 14th in 2004 and 4th last year. His blown par putt, and the ensuing embarrassment, was the starting point for the affable golfer and his psychotherapist Preston Waddington. The two still talk once a week, usually on Wednesday, almost always by phone.
It doesn't take an advanced degree to see that Cink's results at Colonial, a classic, par-70, 7,054-yard track, are a microcosm of his entire career. Even he would admit it: He just hasn't won as much as he'd hoped. Cink is a huge talent who beat Tiger Woods in a college exhibition match. He throttled Sergio Garcia in one of the few highlights for the U.S. Ryder Cup team last fall. Big things were expected of Cink, the 1997 Rookie of the Year after winning that year's Canon Greater Hartford Open, but he has won just three times since. To go along with his four victories in 300 PGA Tour starts, he's racked up eight seconds and six thirds. He turned 34 on Monday.
"I think many years ago I said to somebody that I felt like I was in the next tier down [from Tiger Woods], and I think I put Jim Furyk in that tier with me," Cink said. "But now he's elevated for sure. Jim Furyk has done the kind of elevation of his career that I hoped I'd be able to do after I was out here two or three years, and I haven't made it. I haven't made that jump."
Of course that can change in a hurry. Before he won at Riviera earlier this year, Charles Howell III was zinged for his fast-growing collection of near misses: 10 runner-up finishes, four thirds and one win. Mark O'Meara was a nice player until he turned 41 and won the Masters and British Open. Todd Hamilton was an unheralded Texan who'd scratched out a nice living for himself in Japan, but he became a household name when he won the Honda Classic and British Open at age 38. Cink has time.
He'll have to fend off a diverse group of contenders this week; cozy Colonial rewards all types. Last year Richard S. Johnson, the littlest dude on Tour (listed generously at 5-foot-7), came tantalizingly close to his first career W before losing to another everyman, Tim "Lumpy" Herron, in a playoff. Colonial is good to long hitters (two-time champion Kenny Perry), medium-length hitters (Cink) and even banjo-hitters (1996 champion Corey Pavin). There aren't many such courses on Tour anymore. TPC Deere Run, home of the John Deere Classic, is one such track, which is why Michelle Wie, 17, announced on Tuesday that she'll be teeing it up there July 12-15 for the third year in a row. Harbour Town is another tournament site where the short- to medium-length guys still have a chance. Westchester Country Club has always been a favorite of traditionalists (read: plinkers).
Although Cink doesn't fit that description, this would be a good week for the 6-foot-4 Atlantan to break out. He's coming off a T24 at the AT&T last week, a T3 at the Players and a T5 at Wachovia. He'll be one of the biggest things going in Fort Worth, with stars Ernie Els, Retief Goosen, Colin Montgomerie and Vijay Singh challenging up-and-comers Paul Casey, Luke Donald, Justin Rose and Henrik Stenson at this week's European tour counter-programming, the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth Club in Virginia Water, Surrey, England.
Fewer big names at Colonial ought to make the thing easier to win, in theory. Or not. As Cink proved seven years ago, the key to getting the most out of his game may not be what Mickelson's doing, or getting out of Love's way. The key might just be getting out of his own way. Maybe a W at Colonial, finally, will open the floodgates.