TURNBERRY, Scotland - Only when it looked easy did Stewart Cink face his toughest challenge.
With one hole remaining in the British Open playoff, Cink split the middle of the 18th fairway and had a four-shot lead. His opponent was in the weeds short of the green in two. Not even Jean Van de Velde could blow this.
Cink struggled to contain a smile as he stood next to caddie Frank Williams, and who could blame him? In his dozen years on the PGA Tour, he had five victories and played on four Ryder Cup teams, yet had done nothing to otherwise distinguish himself.
That's what made the final, meaningless hole so vitally important.
This wasn't just any opponent he was beating. It was Tom Watson. And if the world was watching, no one in the world was rooting for Cink except for his immediate family. Even then, an exit poll might have been in order.
Cink wore a lime green hat. It might as well have been black.
'It's mixed feelings, because I've watched him with such admiration all week,' Cink said later.
Walking the fine line between celebration and condolences, Cink struck his best pose of the championship.
Standing behind the 18th green as the Open champion, Cink began clapping his hands to salute this 59-year-old marvel. So did everyone else. During the trophy presentation, as Cink admired the silver claret jug, he quickly turned his attention to Watson.
'He turned back the clock, just did a great job,' Cink said.
'I speak for all the rest of the people here, too.'
Cink hit all the right shots Sunday. The most crucial of all was a 12-foot birdie putt on the last hole in regulation to finish at 69, which got him into the playoff when Watson missed an 8-foot putt for par. He blasted out of a pot bunker and made a 10-foot par save on the first extra hole, then went fairways-and-greens over the final three holes as Watson imploded.
Even in defeat, this Open belonged to Watson.
Yet if people occasionally forget that Cink's name is on that silver jug, they should always remember his graciousness in victory.
It's one thing to be a gracious loser. Golfers have plenty of practice since victories are so rare. Gary Player still needles his friend Jack Nicklaus by introducing him as 'golf's greatest loser.'
It's quite another to show class in victory.
Twenty years ago at Kemper Lakes, the late Payne Stewart was seen laughing during Mike Reid's meltdown that cost him the PGA Championship. That moment stuck with Stewart for years until he won the U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2. He held both sides of Phil Mickelson's face and said, 'Good luck with the baby. There's nothing like being a father.'
Mickelson won his second Masters in 2006 and asked the gallery for a moment of silence for Tiger Woods' father, who was dying. In one of the most poignant scenes at Augusta National, Nick Faldo shared a long embrace after overcoming a record six-shot deficit against Greg Norman, telling the Shark, 'Don't let (them) get you down.'
Cink shouldn't have to apologize for winning the British Open, although you wouldn't know it reading some headlines Monday in Britain.
'Stewart Stink!' one of them declared.
It's hard to rattle a guy with the oldest trophy in golf, and Cink was busy Monday evening trying to decide which beverage to pour first. Based on one of his Tweets, he settled on Guinness.
Besides, he isn't the first major champion to share the stage with a runner-up, if not be overshadowed completely. Go back 10 years ago, and some might have a hard time remembering that Paul Lawrie won the British Open. Yet hardly anyone will think of Carnoustie in 1999 and forget Van de Velde's triple bogey on the final hole.
It seemed as though all of New York wanted Mickelson, not Retief Goosen, to win at Shinnecock Hills.
And while it isn't a major, it sure felt that way at the Canadian Open five years ago. On the 100th anniversary of golf's third-oldest championship, and the 50-year anniversary of the last Canadian winner, Mike Weir three times had a putt to win the tournament. He wound up losing to Vijay Singh. Woe, Canada.
Cink was asked if he felt any disappointment that Watson wasn't able to challenge him in the playoff.
'I think it might be dangerous for me to answer that question,' Cink replied to laughter.
'Given the way Tom owned the week,' one reporter asked, 'does a part of you feel as though you came in at the end of a syrupy, sentimental Hollywood movie and stole the girl at the end?
'Well, as long as the result is I get the girl, I'm OK with that,' Cink said. 'No, I don't feel that way. Whether Tom was 59 or 29, he was one of the field, and I had to play against everybody in the field and course to come out on top. I don't think anything can be taken away.
'Somebody may disagree with that, but it's going to be hard to convince me.'
Cink doesn't need anyone to convince him of anything. He played the best golf over 76 holes. In unusual circumstances - the runner-up received the loudest cheers - he said and did all the right things.
In British Open tradition, Cink was introduced as the 'champion golfer of the year.'
He was a champion winner, too.