Monday, March 10, 2008

The 19th Hole: It's In His Head Now

Stewart Cink made his first start this week since the WGC Accenture Match Play by playing in the PODS Championship at Innisbrook outside of Tampa. If you remember, and Cink certainly does, the tall Georgia Tech product advanced all the way to the final of the tournament for the first time in his career. Unfortunately for him, he faced Tiger Woods in the finale of the event. Woods crushed Cink 8 & 7, setting a record winning margin for the championship, and flat out embarrassing Cink on a national stage.

The question for Cink this week was whether or not the loss would have a long-term sting in how he approaches tournaments. After all, Woods was supposed to beat Cink in the final of the event. Certainly the margin of victory was a bit of a shocker, but Cink played good golf in the process of getting obliterated. Cink could walk away saying he gave it his best shot, but simply ran into the buzzsaw that is Tiger Woods.

For the first 53 holes of the PODS, it seemed like Woods had nothing but a positive impact for Cink. Cink had positioned himself as the leader of the championship in very difficult conditions, despite having to play 27 holes on Saturday to catch up from rain delays.

Then, on the final hole of his third round, 28th of the day, and in total darkness, Cink’s unraveling began to take shape. He decided to finish out the hole instead of coming in early on Sunday to make one putt. A potentially easy par in the daylight turned into a costly bogey in the night – all to avoid having to get up early. That may very well have cost him the championship. It appeared to set his momentum back considerably, even though there was no way he should have made a putt in pitch black conditions.

He came out on Sunday and managed to stem the tide working against him. With birdies in the first two holes, Cink opened up a sizeable lead – one that appeared to have enough cushion to get him his first win in nearly four years. Then bogies on three and eight left him even on the round and without as much of a lead to brave the very difficult back nine at Innisbrook.

Cink was holding on up until the 13th, when he proceeded to bogey consecutive holes. In the meantime, Sean O’Hair was lurking and getting closer just a group ahead. Sensing that the tournament may be slipping away, Cink began to get wild with his swing. Ultimately, on the 16th hole, those damaged mechanics proved to be his fatal blow in his bid to win. An errant drive to the right landed in the water hazard and resulted in the double bogey that cost him the championship. He could not believe it.

Sean O’Hair eventually won comfortably by two shots. Cink was left in a massive tie for second place – an almost symbolic finish. Still, could Tiger Woods claim Cink as another victim due to the massive beating at the Accenture Match Play? That link is not necessarily so certain.

Unfortunately, Cink has made a career of losing 54 hole leads. He is now 1 for 9 in his career when holding a share of the 54 hole lead in a tournament. He has also found himself in the final group in 3 of his last 5 PGA Tour events. Cink is still winless.

The Woods final in the match play event probably did not help his confidence, but it may very well have further engrained a mindset that Cink cannot finish an event. Cink is not known as a closer and it would seem inevitable that a negative thought would creep in his mind every time that he is in this position. That is just the nature of the human mind – if a pattern develops, it is hard to ignore the constants. In this sport, the only constant in failure is yourself.

Hopefully, Cink can overcome this mindset in time because it is clear that his significant talents are being wasted because the string of failures from the final group has added up in his head. He has said himself that he feels he has underachieved as a pro. But, until that happens, Cink will have to wait for someone else to collapse ahead of him to capture his next PGA Tour win.

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