Little did Stewart Cink know how much it meant. After all, it
was such a nothing putt, barely two feet, shorter than your
shirtsleeve, a spaghetti strand, the hair in your soup. It was a
gimme. Leather. Uphill. Dead center. Grandmothers make them all
day. Blind men. Toddlers. Pick it up, and let's get a beer.

But Stewart Cink blew a chance at his life's dream when he missed
that putt on the last hole at Southern Hills Country Club on
Sunday. He gagged away a spot in the U.S. Open playoff and
guaranteed a lifetime of That's the poor bastard who choked away
the Open whispers.

Yet, afterward, he would not crack. His wife, Lisa, did. She
staggered to the players' parking lot, her face flush, her right
hand held to her sternum, biting her lower lip, until she found a
railing to sit down on and buried her brown eyes in her hands.

Stewart, however, just smiled broadly, tousled the haircuts of
his two small boys and shook mourners' hands, as if he were at
his own funeral. That's how his mother, Anne, knew how much he
was hurting. "I can tell he's so disappointed," she said,
misty-eyed, "because he's grinning."

Golf is so cruel, it will take everything but your grin. Cink had
played gorgeously all week. On the 72nd green the tournament was
down to him and South Africa's Retief Goosen. They were tied at
five under par. One shot back was Mark Brooks, who was packing
his bags in the clubhouse. Goosen had a 12-footer and Cink a 15.
If Cink missed his for par, Goosen could two-putt to win. Cink
did miss his, and he was left with the simple two-footer that
meant absolutely nothing. Or so he thought. "I couldn't
concentrate," he said later. "I figured I had just bogeyed the
final hole to lose the U.S. Open. I didn't think there was any
way Retief would three-putt from where he was."

Politely, Cink decided to putt out so Goosen could have his
moment of glory. "I didn't rush it," Cink continued, "but, I
don't know, I guess I pushed it. It all happened so fast."

My God, Cink had sunk that little putt 100,000 times. Every
practice day he makes 24 three- to five-footers in a row before
going home. He hadn't missed a putt like that all week. This one,
though, didn't even frighten the hole, throwing him in with Scott
Hoch, Bill Buckner and Jackie Smith as men who, standing a foot
from the top of Mount Everest, slipped on a banana peel. Finally,
Cink made his double-bogey putt, finishing the tournament at
three under.

Then the unthinkable happened. Goosen hit his lag putt two feet
past the cup and then--and then!--missed that one!

Little did Cink know how much it meant. At first. "It took me a
while to realize I'd lost a chance to win the Open," he said. "I
was feeling so sorry for Retief that he'd missed, because
something like that can do real damage to your confidence. It
didn't dawn on me until he made his [third putt] that I was
finishing one shot out of the playoff."

Yet he would not crack. His father, Rob, did. All six-foot-six of
him was red-eyed and shaky. "I am so proud of him," his father
croaked, "but, I mean, how many chances do you ever get to win a
U.S. Open?"

In the Tragedy at Tulsa, Cink goes down as the saddest victim. At
least Goosen and Brooks, who tied at four under, got to play
another day. Cink went home with a three-second horror movie
running forever through his brain. Still, as he kept talking and
rubbing his kids' hair for strength, the tortured grin was slowly
replaced by a real smile.

"I don't know," he finally said. "I guess I should feel pretty
bad, but I keep thinking of tough things that would be hard to
handle. I keep thinking of Paul Azinger [overcoming cancer] and
of Casey Martin. That's stuff that would be hard to handle. This
is golf. This is a game. I can handle this."

He looked at his boys, who were giggling, and his wife, who was
smiling at him now. He thought about the pair of boxers he had
gotten that morning for Father's Day and about the card his sons
had made him. He thought about his and Lisa's eighth wedding
anniversary, which would be the next day. Suddenly it hit him,
how lucky he was.

Until then, little did he know how much it meant.

COLOR PHOTO: DANA FINEMAN/SYGMA

Stewart just smiled broadly and shook mourners' hands, as if he
were at his own funeral.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)