The 111th edition of the U.S. Open Championship teed off Thursday, and without Tiger lurking, the American portion of the field is feeling quite confident, though because of golf's global expansion, they are still not quite out of the woods.
One such hopeful is 38-year-old Stewart Cink, an Alabama native and six-time winner on the PGA tour. He enters the season’s second major tournament, which is being held at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Md., ranked 71st according to the Official World Golf Rankings, having already accrued what is approaching $1 million in earnings this season after making 12 of 14 cuts. But if he is going to accomplish the vaunted feat, nerves are something he'll need to manage.
"Every single round I play, I’m nervous on the golf course," Cink says. "First tee, I'm nervous, anticipating. I’ve got butterflies. Down the stretch, I get nervous. It's part of the game and I think if you stop getting nervous, it's time probably to retire, because that’s a sign it doesn’t mean anything to you anymore. But it sure means a lot to me."
Americans covet the national title most of all and have won the prestigious major tournament 79 out of the 110 times it has been played. However, they have not done so well at keeping the title home in the past decade, taking possession of it just four of the past 10 years. And the last time the tournament was held at Congressional in 1997, South African Ernie Els won it for the second time in four years.
"I think the reason that it's that way is a lot of those happened a long time ago before it was real easy to travel across the pond, and the fields were vastly made up of Americans," Cink says. "That's all changed now. Golf is a global sport, and there's people from everywhere challenging for the No. 1 ranking. So the whole landscape has changed in that regard. I think you can throw the record books out."
Cink, who played collegiate golf at Georgia Tech and has been on the professional tour since 1995, did fairly well at that same 1997 Open, just his second trip to the tournament. He was tied with Els for second at 2-under after two rounds. Els would go on to finish at 4-under, while Cink went the other direction, ending the tournament tied for 14th, eight back from the leader.
Cink remembers playing Congressional's Blue Course just once more in 2005 since flirting with destiny in '97, but thinks the 7,574-yard, par 71 course suits his style well.
"It will be a ball strikers type of paradise, where you’ve got to hit fairways, hit greens and be smart, and be patient, and grind out a bunch of really tough pars," Cink says. "And that's my game. So if there’s a golf course that fits me for the U.S. Open, it would be a Congressional type of course. But, of course, it remains to be seen."
Making matters even more difficult, weather forecasters are calling for thunderstorms and a 50 percent chance of rain three out of the tournament's scheduled four days, including the opening round. Heavy heat is also being predicted, which Cink suggested will make the ball travel even further distances than one might anticipate.
Nevertheless, Cink lists winning the premier American tournament as the supreme goal on his golf bucket list, despite already capturing The British Open in 2009, and placing as high as third at the U.S. Open, in 2001 at Southern Hills.
"It would mean the world, obviously," he says. "You can't really say one major is better than the other one, because they're all wonderful tournaments and they mean a lot to your career. But I really think the U.S. Open, for sort of being the national championship for the country I'm from, that would be a definite plus to be able to call myself a champion of that."
-- Watch this video interview for more from Stewart Cink.