In the wake of Phil Mickelson’s victory in last month’s PGA Championship at Kiawah Island to supplant Julius Boros as golf’s oldest major champion, would it be surprising to see a player of similar vintage win this week’s 121st U.S. Open at Torrey Pines?
The easy answer is, simply, no. The more complicated answer is, which player? Because there are options. Three, in fact, besides Phil himself.
There is Richard Bland, the inspiring Brit, who last month won the British Masters for his first European Tour victory in his 478th start.
There is countryman Lee Westwood, a veteran with several close calls in majors without winning one who last year won the European Tour Race to Dubai and this spring posted runner-up in consecutive PGA Tour events, the Arnold Palmer Invitational and The Players.
And there is Stewart Cink, of Duluth, Ga., who has won two of his eight career PGA Tour titles this season after going without a victory dating to his lone major, the 2009 Open Championship at Turnberry.
The three men have very little common except this: each is 48 years old.
“I would absolutely say, ‘Why not?’ Unless there is some kind of weather delay that would force us to play a lot of holes in one day – and I played 34 recently [at the Memorial Tournament] and really felt it, so I know the challenges in that – I see no reason why someone our age couldn’t win,” Cink said. “All three of us have proven recently how competitive we are against the younger guys.”
Westwood will get plenty of attention this week, and rightfully so, having finished third in the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines while playing in the final pairing with eventual winner Tiger Woods. His search for a breakthrough in a major championship continues. His owns eight top-three finishes without a victory, the most recent coming in the 2013 Open Championship at Muirfield when he held a two-stroke lead after 54 holes only to shoot 75, opening the door for Mickelson’s lone Claret Jug.
Cink and Bland, meanwhile, might get overlooked, but their respective games have properties that figure to conform to the challenges of the South Course at Torrey Pines, an exacting par-71 examination of 7,652 yards that annually hosts the PGA Tour’s Farmers Insurance Open. They bring different strengths to this National Championship, not to mention different career paths.
Appearing in his 21st U.S. Open, third-most in the field behind Mickelson (30) and Sergio Garcia (22), Cink is a renaissance man in several respects. Yes, there are his two victories, the first in September at the Safeway Open and the second in April when he won for the third time in the RBC Heritage at Hilton Head Island, S.C.
What makes Cink, who is 45th in the Official World Golf Ranking, a marvel is the retooling of his swing to become among the longer hitters on the PGA Tour – and he did it without making wholesale changes. Cink ranks 29th in driving distance with an average of 305.8 yards. That’s longer than J.B. Holmes, Tony Finau, Bubba Watson and Justin Thomas, all recognized for their power games. The previous year he averaged 295.7, which ranked 113th on tour.
“The great thing about it is I didn’t have to change my swing. It’s just a bigger version of it,” he explained, noting that he merely moved his ball position slightly forward and loaded more on his right side on the backswing to take advantage of his 6-foot-4 frame. “I really felt like I was leaving power on the table and I needed to find a way to unlock that because the strokes-gained stats show that for every 10 yards, you gain about one-tenth of a stroke, which is huge when it’s hard these days to separate yourself. Bottom line is that I’m delivering the club into the ball more efficiently.”
While he’s still negative in strokes-gained off the tee, Cink’s improvement shows up in approach, where he ranks 20th (compared to 67th last season). His is seventh in greens in regulation. His 70.742 scoring average is more than a half-stroke better.
Of course, there always is more to the equation of improved scoring. He is much healthier than last year when he was still on the rebound from a 2019 back injury. And he has better focus, a part of the game that tends to wane as a player ages. Mickelson has expressed his struggles with focus, and the two men discussed it at the Wells Fargo Championship two weeks before Mickelson rose up at nearly 51 years old to win the PGA. Probably not a coincidence.
“I don't feel like I'm 48 years old, but my brain, my physiological makeup feels a little bit older because I’ve just had a hard time staying intensely focused, and I have done some things to manage it,” he said. “It's just something that I knew it was coming and I was going to have to plan for it.”
Playing in his first U.S. Open since 2017, Cink doesn’t have a strong resume in the championship. His best finish was third in 2001 at Southern Hills in Tulsa. He finished joint 14th in the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines, finishing at 5-over 289 – and that was with a game that he thinks isn’t as strong as it is now.
“It really fits my style of game pretty well,” he said. “I've got plenty of distance and it's a distance kind of course. Everybody is going to miss fairways, so it becomes a contest of who can have the shorter shot out of the rough. And then it’s short game and putting, which always matter in a U.S. Open.”
Bland is coming into the U.S. Open with neither Cink’s length off the tee or length of service. His only previous start in the championship came in 2009 at Bethpage Black, where he missed the cut. This week’s appearance is his fourth major start of a pro career that began in 1996.
As for his driving ability, he averages 285.7 off the tee on the European Tour, which would rank 192nd on the PGA Tour. Knowing he wasn’t going to get appreciably longer with the driver, Bland was forced to figure out a different path to proficiency, concentrating on, well, direction, rather than chasing distance.
“I’ve worked really hard on my wedges,” Bland said after his victory in the British Masters, which along with his T-3 in his next start essentially qualified him for the U.S. Open via the European Tour series. “I’m far from the longest on tour, so I have to hit the fairways. I don’t have any sort of big ‘miss,’ so I’m always going to be there or thereabouts.”
Indeed, Bland is among the top 25 on his home tour in hitting fairways, and he is 22nd in putting. Fairways and greens... nice combination.
Bland, who played a practice round on Monday with Westwood, lost his European Tour card in 2018, and knew he had to figure out another way of staying competitive. “They’re better at me at driving the ball – they drive it so much further,” Bland told the Wall Street Journal. “I can be better than them from 150 yards in. Even though length is hugely important these days, golf will always be a game of turning three shots into two. If you can do that, you will always be very, very hard to beat.”
When a hitherto unknown 40-something golfer from abroad is the subject of a Wall Street Journal feature, it shows the impact of his victory and the perseverance it took to achieve it. Bland’s achievement touched a lot of souls.
“I’ve seen people who are my age, maybe even older – they’ve said it’s inspired them,” he said. “If they have a dream, or if they’re on the same journey as me, in whatever profession they’re in, that they’re going to keep going, and make sure that they complete that journey.”
Who knows what sort of journey Bland, Cink or Westwood can complete this week.
Dave Shedloski is an Ohio-based writer who frequently contributes to USGA websites.