Cink looks for redemption in return to Southern Hills

8/6/2007 - Golf

TULSA, Okla. -- The 72nd hole of a major championship can be a lonely place, with golf history providing numerous examples of desolation.

We saw it last month at Carnoustie, where the eventual champion won despite making a big mess at the home hole. Padraig Harrington held the Claret Jug after hitting two balls into the water and making double-bogey. He was saved because Sergio Garcia and Andres Romero also bogeyed the hole, leaving them to forever wonder what might have been.

And we are reminded of such torment again this week at Southern Hills Country Club, where the last time a major was played here, three would-be winners hockey-sticked their way to infamy.

Retief Goosen, Mark Brooks and Stewart Cink each three-putted the 18th green during the final round of the 2001 U.S. Open.

Goosen, at least, redeemed himself in an 18-hole playoff victory over Brooks, who might be excused for having the longest first putt and could not conceive the calamity that was about to unfold.

And then there is Cink, who thought the tournament was over for him when he missed a 15-foot par putt. He was simply trying to get out of Goosen's way when he botched his 18-inch bogey putt -- a meaningless putt that ultimately meant everything when Goosen, amazingly, missed a few minutes later.

"That little putt I missed … it was a tap-in," Cink said. "So it stays in my mind the most because it's the one that caused the most scars."

Cink, 34, gets to relive his inglorious finish this week as, six years later, the PGA Championship returns to Southern Hills.

Never one to shy away from talking about it, Cink even showed a sense of humor when a year after his goof, heading into the 2002 U.S. Open at Bethpage, he agreed to pose for Golf World magazine with his trousers pulled down to his ankles and the headline: "Caught With His Pants Down."

Cink really believes what cost him the tournament was his approach shot to the final green, a 5-iron that he pulled.

"If I hit a good 5-iron to the middle of the green, maybe 20 feet, then there's suddenly a lot more pressure on Retief," Cink said. But he missed the green, and Goosen stuck his approach to 12 feet. After Cink chipped on and missed his putt -- and then the short one -- all Goosen had to do was two-putt to beat Brooks.

But he ran the birdie putt 2½ feet by and missed the par putt coming back.

All eyes were on Goosen -- and soon on Cink, too.

Coming to grips with that disappointment was far more difficult than Cink initially imagined. He sought to take away from the tournament all of his good play, a solid ball-striking and putting week that led to a third-place finish in a major championship.

Cink tied for third place the following week at the Buick Classic and figured everything was fine, but that was far from the case. The missed putt -- a constant subject of conversation and conjecture -- affected him more than he realized. Over the next 11 months, he did not post another top-10 finish in a span of 25 tournaments.

"I didn't feel like the player who had potential stardom," Cink said. "I felt like the player who should have won the U.S. Open, or had a chance and didn't. That weighs on your mind. In golf, any little thing that gets into your head is tough to erase. It stayed with me a long time."

Partly because of the high finish at the U.S. Open, Cink qualified for his first Ryder Cup team in 2001. But the competition was postponed due to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Everyone who made the team in 2001 was assured of a spot when the matches were rescheduled for 2002. Trouble was, Cink was not the same player. And it bothered him.

"9/11 happened and my game kept going down," Cink said. "I had this mental stuff I was already going through and now I had to wait a year on the Ryder Cup and put all that extra pressure on me. People were going to be looking at me because I was a Ryder Cup player. I didn't handle it very well. It was a yearlong crucible to play in."

Cink slowly fought his way back. He posted six top-10s in 2003, then won twice in 2004, including a win at the NEC Invitational. He's played on five of the last six U.S. Presidents Cup or Ryder Cup teams.

But while he stayed among the game's top players -- including a 15th-place finish on last year's money list and 23rd this year with more than $1.9 million -- that victory at Firestone remains his last.

"I see more wins in my future," he said. "I still don't feel like I've realized my potential as a golfer. I feel like I'm an underachiever. But I feel like there's a lot of good stuff waiting for me."

The 18th green at Southern Hills might be a good place to find it.

Bob Harig is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.