Americans had a big week at the 2009 British Open, filled with both fun and frustration

Americans had a big week at the 2009 British Open, filled with both fun and frustration

Cink's trip to the tee box overhanging the Firth of Clyde and, ultimately, the winner's circle was delayed by passport trouble and almost derailed by a potential case of the swine flu.
Bob Martin/SI

For the American touring pro the British Open is both a business trip that can forever alter a career and a fun-filled safari to an exotic land. Adapting to the vagaries of links golf might be the easiest part of the adventure for these innocents abroad.

On July 8 Stewart Cink was to leave his home in Duluth, Ga., to begin a circuitous journey to the Open along with his wife (and high school sweetheart), Lisa, and their sons, Connor, 15, and Reagan, 12. As the Cinks were packing up, it was discovered that the boys’ passports had expired. So on July 9 the entire clan made a side trip to Washington for an emergency visit to the passport agency, and from D.C. they flew on to Dublin, arriving a day later than planned.

In 11 previous British Opens, Cink had fared better than 14th only once; that was a tie for sixth in 2007, when he spent the preceding week playing golf with his buddies on the eastern coast of Ireland. Hoping to once again get some extra prep time on the linksland, Cink and his sons toured the sacred earth of Lahinch and Ballybunion and took two spins around Doonbeg. (Lisa, a natural athlete and an accomplished tennis player, had planned to play with them but changed her mind when she saw the small crowd of onlookers that greeted her husband at every course.) “I think there is a correlation,” the 36-year-old Cink said of the preparation that preceded his victory at the 138th British Open. “And I think next year I will be going to play links golf before the Open again.”

Cink’s new pretournament ritual is a reminder that the Open tests not only every aspect of a player’s game but also his ability to adapt — to the firm turf, slower greens, ever-changing weather conditions, to long flights and jet lag, unfamiliar food, warm beer and a host of other inconveniences and irritations. Getting proper rest is in many ways the most important adjustment. In addition to all the golf, the Cinks also did plenty of sightseeing in Ireland, including a visit to the Cliffs of Moher. “Anything to be outside and stay awake,” says Lisa. For Americans the trip to the Open almost always begins with a red-eye flight, but the seasoned traveler knows that “taking a nap over here is deadly,” according to Mark Calcavecchia, who in 1989 took home the claret jug. Too bad nobody told poor Steve Marino, the affable young Tour pro who in his first Open began 67-68 and was tied for the lead before fading to 38th on the weekend. Perhaps scrambled biorhythms were a factor — on his first day at Turnberry, Marino lay down to catch a few winks and awakened six hours later, messing himself up for the better part of a week. Some cagey veterans turn to sleeping aids. Tom Lehman, the 1996 champion, is partial to Tylenol PM. Last week Calcavecchia preferred a local beer, St Mungo. “I’m allowing myself four [per night]. It’s just enough, but it’s not too many,” said Calc, who last week hung around the leader board for the opening two rounds before finishing 27th.

Cink had little trouble sleeping upon arriving in Turnberry. In fact, he was feeling ill for most of the week, and on the day of the first round began taking antibiotics for a possible sinus infection. This Open happened to coincide with a swine flu panic in Great Britain, and Cink, who holds a management degree from Georgia Tech, is one of the rare Tour players who reads more than the sports section. So on the morning of the third round he went to the on-site medics and asked to be tested for the H1N1 virus. The docs shooed him away, but Lisa took it more seriously; after Stewart tweeted about his swine flu hunch, she made him remove the post. “We don’t want to get quarantined here in Scotland!” she said.

Cink picked up the narrative following his crucial third-round 71; he had played the front nine in two over par and then rallied for a 34 on the back to put himself in a tie for sixth, three strokes off Tom Watson’s lead. “I feel fine when I’m out there on the course,” Cink said, and with a smile he revealed the secret formula he was counting on to help him survive the rigors of the final round: “More coffee, more drugs. I’ll be as high as a kite!”

The stimulants may have helped, but Cink’s victory really was the result of his always solid ball striking and adjustments to his putting, both mental and physical. In his first 11 events of the 2009 season Cink missed the cut three times and finished better than 24th only once. He was so fed up after a 77 at the Players Championship that he discarded his longtime crutch — a belly putter — and went back to a standard-length wand. More important, he overhauled his mental approach, again, committing to a new preputt routine that “I could lean on under pressure,” he says. Cink is a cerebral type who for years has undergone psychoanalysis, focusing on self-esteem issues that may or may not have been exacerbated by the 18-inch bogey putt he missed on the 72nd hole of the 2001 U.S. Open that ultimately cost him a place in the Retief Goosen-Mark Brooks playoff. He survived a case of the yips in ’02 but remains a perennial work in progress, employing a second psychoanalyst to help with the more prosaic details of his golf game.

After his victory Cink was asked to name a key shot, and he chose an interesting one — a missed two-footer on the 7th hole on Saturday. “I didn’t let it get to me,” he said proudly. Expanding on the mental grind of links golf, Cink said, “It requires patience. You hit good shots that don’t end up good. Or bad shots that end up really bad. You have to be prepared for that.”

That ultimately may be what separated Cink from everyone else: he refused to give in to Turnberry’s quirkiness and the trying gales of the final three rounds. J.B. Holmes was one of the stories of the first round, birdieing 15, 16 and 17 to shoot a 68. His scores got worse every day, and by the final round he was up to 80. “When the bounces are going your way, it’s fun,” said Holmes. “When they’re not, it drives you crazy, like [it does] everybody else.” Except Cink, he might have added. Calcavecchia was four under through the first two rounds and eight over on the weekend, but he blamed it all on forces beyond his control. “I played about the same all four days,” he said on Sunday. “For the first two rounds every bounce went my way. The last two days my luck turned. I hardly hit a bunker Thursday or Friday, and three times today I had a ball in there and couldn’t even take a stance. Tell you what — I’m ready to get the hell out of here.”

The Cinks were supposed to begin their journey home on Sunday night, but before the champion’s press conference Stewart was overheard plotting to spend an extra night at the Turnberry Hotel, the better to savor victory’s afterglow. Virtually all the players stayed at the stately old hotel that is perched on a hill overlooking the links. Its in-house pub, bearing the name Duel in the Sun, was a nightly gathering spot. “There was great camaraderie hanging out with all the guys,” said Boo Weekley, who played four solid rounds en route to finishing 13th. “At home you never see nobody, except at the golf course. I was in [the pub] every night. That was the good part. The bad part was having to eat the same food over and over.”

On the grounds of the hotel is a wonderful little pitch-and-putt, and that, too, was a place for the players and their families to unwind. Cink’s boys, both tall and smart and a little shy like their parents, played the course a couple of times during tournament week. On Saturday evening Briny Baird and 2004 British Open champ Todd Hamilton enjoyed a spirited match, while nearby Butch Harmon was overseeing a rowdy skins game involving Rory McIlroy and a handful of friends and caddies, each playing multiple balls and employing old-fashioned stymies on the greens, which meant that instead of the balls being marked they were left in place as obstacles, leading to some billiards-style combos and very loud trash talk. It’s these little moments that make Open week different and memorable.

What nobody looks forward to is the trip home. The departure of the Lehman family was particularly thorny. Tom and his wife, Melissa, had brought over all four of their kids. From Turnberry, Tom was traveling to this week’s Senior British Open at Sunningdale, but Melissa was responsible for getting the brood home, an arduous series of connections from Glasgow to Amsterdam to Minneapolis to San Diego. Following the final round Melissa had to inform her daughters, Holly and Rachael, and elder son Thomas — ages 13 to 19 — that they were in steerage while she and their little brother, six-year-old Sean, would be flying first class. After some protestations Melissa said, “I’m not buying six first-class tickets.” After a little more whining she rolled her eyes and said to an amused onlooker, “They’re teenagers; they’ll be fine. When I was a teenager I never got to go to Europe.”

Eliminating some of the travel hassles were Weekley, Jim Furyk, Zach Johnson, Davis Love III and a few other players and their various wives and caddies, who on Sunday night hopped on a chartered Airbus to take them directly to Brunswick, Ga. That’s a convenient port of call for the Cinks, but in advance of the tournament they passed on the invitation. “It was too much,” says Lisa, though it’s not clear if she was referring to the money or the thought of such close quarters with so many colleagues. It’s probably just as well. The British Open week may be a fun communal experience, but you can be sure no group of players would have enjoyed spending a long flight over the Atlantic having to stare at Cink’s very shiny new carry-on.