Sunday, February 24, 2008

The 19th Hole - Seriously, This is Ridiculous

Just after Stewart Cink defeated Justin Leonard to advance to the final of the WGC Accenture Match Play, reality set in for the 22nd ranked player in the world. The reality was that he was going to be facing the best player in the universe the next day. Lucky him, he was going to face Tiger Woods for 36 holes to determine the champion of the event.

Even as one of the best putters on the PGA Tour, Cink knew he was going to be in for the challenge of his life. Cink had played Woods once prior in a very familiar match play type setting. In another WGC event – the Bridgestone Invitational – Cink took Woods through four extra holes before Tiger ultimately prevailed. I am sure that memories of that encounter came through the mind of Cink as he tried to sleep on Saturday night. What I am more sure of, though, is that Woods remembered that encounter the second after he shook the hand of Henrik Stenson – his semifinal opponent.

Tiger Woods has an incredible memory and the proof goes way beyond the Accenture commercial where he identifies golf course holes. He does not forget. One need not look much further than this very event for proof. Do you recall 9 and 8? Stephen Ames sure does and he has not said a word about Tiger since.

How about Rory Sabbatini? He still has not learned his lesson about angering the supposed new Tiger. It is almost a part of Woods’ routine now to make sure he embarrasses Sabbatini on the course at every opportunity.

Those are some of the guys that manage to get under Woods’ skin, though. The incredible thing about Tiger Woods’ competitive streak is that he can be just as ruthless with enemies as he can with people he considers to be friends – friends like Stewart Cink. Woods was nothing but complimentary of Cink in his post-semifinal comments. He expected a good match. Deep down, though, he knew he was going to throw everything he had at Cink in order to win his third Accenture Match Play Championship.

Sure enough, he did just that. Woods demoralized Cink in the opening 18. He had won five of the first eleven holes before Cink could put a win on the board for the twelfth hole. Despite having a few opportunities in the closing holes of the morning round, Cink could not answer the game that Woods brought. After the opening 18, Cink had to know that a loss was practically inevitable. Woods knew it, too.

Even though he knew winning his fourth straight PGA Tour start, sixth straight global win, and eighth triumph in nine tries, Woods never let up in the afternoon round. Cink managed just a single win in the eleven holes he had to endure in the afternoon Tucson sun. Woods wanted to make a point. But he also wanted to follow the mantra that his father Earl taught him to always finish out strong and play with full focus. It is the combination of that focus and his amazing talent that make him the champion he is.

To be clear, the difference on Sunday was not that Cink was playing terrible golf. He played admirably. The factor was that Woods was so on that it would have been difficult for a four ball team of Nicklaus, Palmer, Hogan, and Hagen to topple him. Interestingly enough, Woods took a step past one of that magical foursome on Sunday and a step nearer another legend with the victory.

Tiger Woods is undefeated globally in 2008. Would it be that big of a shock if he won every event he played this year? Sure, it would be, but have you not thought in the back of your mind while watching him this year that it is actually a possibility? I have. A few weeks ago, I wrote regarding Tiger’s modest comment that the Grand Slam was possible this season. I said that it seemed much closer to probable than possible after his win at the Buick Invitational. It seems ridiculous to try to expand upon that prediction, but one cannot help but be blown away by the golfing display all week long.

It was also ridiculous to make predictions about this tournament. Predicting match play is like playing the lottery. In fact, one would be better off playing the lotto. Still, when I made my bracket this week, I immediately penciled Woods into the winner’s slot. To have that kind of confidence about any golfer in match play would normally be foolish. With Woods in 2008, though, it seemed foolish not to.

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