Brian Viner: Cink and Watson renew a particularly good-natured rivalry

'Do I feel sorry for Tom after last year? No. He's lifted that Jug five times'

Rarely has a defending champion arrived at an Open quite as unheralded as Stewart Cink, the good-natured 37-year-old from Alabama who in some quarters has still not been forgiven for trampling Tom Watson into the Turnberry dirt a year ago, during a four-hole play-off that finished anticlimactically for everyone except Cink and his overjoyed family.

But Cink doesn't want or need to be greeted by heralds. The 138th Open might for ever be remembered as the one that Watson lost rather than the one that Cink won, yet it is his name in the record books, and more importantly, on the Claret Jug itself. Yesterday, incidentally, he was asked about his year-long stewardship of the Claret Jug, a topic of media interest ever since Padraig Harrington's son sized up the venerable vessel and asked if he could put ladybirds in it. Cink replied that he had asserted his right to fill it with his favourite beer, Guinness, and that his children had later drunk Coca-Cola from it. It was even used to baste the Fourth of July barbecue. Old Tom Morris will be spinning in his grave.

As for another old Tom, Cink had barely settled into his seat at yesterday's press conference before being asked, bluntly, whether 12 months on he still thinks about "being the guy who prevented us all from writing up a fairy tale". Golf writers can be a merciless bunch.

"A little bit," Cink replied. "But in no way has it taken anything off what I felt from last year, and the joy I've been able to have... being the Open champion has been almost indescribable. It's just fantastic." And no, he added, he does not feel sorry for Watson. "I don't feel sorry for him because he got five Claret Jug titles and I only have one, [but] it was a spectacular display that he put on last year. Every time I play with him, though, I see that it's possible because he hits the ball very solidly."

The last time they played together was a practice round over the Old Course on Tuesday. That was at Watson's suggestion, a characteristically thoughtful demonstration that he feels only respect for the man who capitalised on his poignant collapse last year. And Cink evidently saw enough in Watson's game to suggest that the old-timer might just mount another challenge this week.

What, though, of his own challenge? He hasn't been performing well this year, although his form has picked up in recent weeks. Promisingly, he carried the same slight improvement, after some poor results, into last year's championship. Moreover, and by no means in common with every player here, he adores St Andrews. "It's my favourite place to play golf in the world," he said, enthusing about the variety of shot-making required, and approvingly quoting his compatriot Scott Verplank, who recently said that "the Old Course will teach you everything you need to know about playing golf".

In the wind and rain sweeping in from the North Sea yesterday, the lesson was even more challenging than usual, especially battling into elements on the back nine that Cink described as "virtually unplayable". Yet hardly anyone was happier to be in the Kingdom of Fife on a gruesome day than the defending champion, reminded by the presence here of former winners stretching back more than 50 years of the illustrious company he now keeps. "Do I feel like my name matches up to everyone on that list? No way. But am I worthy to be on the Claret Jug? Yes, because I played as well as I played for 72 holes last year at Turnberry [and] when it counted I was able to come through and polish it off."

The man he polished off was also in fine form yesterday, and still glowing after being awarded an honorary doctorate of law by the University of St Andrews. Nobody will ever again make the mistake of seeing his participation in the Open as purely honorary, but Watson took issue with Cink's assessment of his game.

"I'm putting pretty well but my ball-striking isn't quite where it was last year," the five-times champion said. "I just hope that I can get that 90 per cent feeling where I'm hitting nine out of 10 shots the way I want, rather than that 50 or 60 percentile, where I've been the last few days.

"Frankly that's where I am right now. It's no different than what it was, except I've got an artificial hip, I'm a little stiffer and don't hit the ball as far. But I do have a little more experience under my belt."

Rather sweetly, the two antagonists from last year's play-off have formed a kind of mutual admiration society. Cink, said Watson, was playing well enough to defend his title successfully. "He's thinking the right way from a strategy standpoint, and he may be flying in under the radar," he said.

The Open champion hasn't troubled the radar, either, in terms of public recognition. But last week he was driving in a rented car through Dublin when a taxi driver started hooting his horn. Cink assumed that, in trying to deal with driving on the left, he had committed some basic highway error. But when he looked closely at the cab driver, he saw that the man had both thumbs up, and was mouthing "good luck". "I went from being embarrassed to being honoured," Cink said. "It was neat."

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