With just a hole to play in last month’s Travelers Championship, Stewart Cink knocked his tee shot well to the right, the ball careening off a cart path and settling in about two inches of rough. All Cink needed was a par to win his first PGA Tour event in almost four years, but he wasn’t exactly the game’s most reliable closer. In fact, he was at the opposite extreme; nine times in his career he had gone into the final round as the frontrunner, and only once had he walked away with a victory.
Oh, to have been a fly on Cink’s cranial wall as he stood on the spectator hill, pondering his 137-yard shot to the green. Oh, to have been able to hear the self-talk, the psychobabble, the positive reinforcement every golfer gives himself in these situations.
After managing his nerves and the course, TPC River Highlands, well all afternoon, even through a rain delay on the back nine, Cink had reached The Moment. If he hit a passable wedge, the title was likely his. Anything less, though, and people were sure to say, “That’s why Stewart Cink, talented as he is, doesn’t win more often. The man can’t finish.”
On this day, however, Cink put his approach shot safely on the back fringe and got up and down for his fifth Tour win. On this day, he conquered the doubts and palpitations that plague so many players on Sundays. Finishing a golf tournament … How many things in sports are harder than trying to maintain a lead over the last 18 holes? Heck, sometimes there’s no lead to maintain. Sometimes you’re tied for first at the beginning of the round.
“It definitely is something that snowballs either way,” Cink said afterward. “You[‘ve] got the way that Tiger [Woods] goes, where any time he is sniffing the lead he just seems to will it through. Then you[‘ve] got the way I was, which is one for nine, where it seems like any time there’s a chance to lose you lose. … But there’s definitely been times when I felt like I’ve made a few poor mistakes that cost me tournaments. Like [at the] PODS this year for sure. I made mistakes and gave the tournament away to Sean O’Hair. … It’s a crazy game, this game of golf.”
And so often, reputations hinge on a single question: Can a player close or can’t he? If he’s comfortable being atop the leader board on the final day, he’s going to win tournaments, endorsement deals and galleries of groupies. And if he isn’t, well, he’s going to be like Stewart Cink - familiar, respected, maybe even a Ryder Cup regular; but ultimately, he’s going to be ranked on a lower rung, despite his earnings (in Cink’s case, nearly $25 million) and frequent Top 10s.
Let’s bat this subject around a bit, because it came up at last year’s inaugural AT&T National, too. Stuart Appleby took a two-stroke lead into the last round, and Steve Stricker was up by one with five holes left, but it was K.J. Choi who wound up holding the trophy. Which prompted Stricker to say of his travails: “It’s difficult. You have your nerves to worry about, and you have course conditions to worry about, and just trying to execute, you know, is sometimes the toughest thing to do.”
Maybe it would help players to know that last year, only 16 of 46 events were won by a guy with at least a share of the lead entering the final round. That figures out to 34.8 percent - about 1 in 3 - the same odds, roughly, that a 3-point shot will go through the hoop in the NBA (36.2 percent this season).
That’s right, folks, when the leader tees it up on Sunday, he’s actually The Underdog. There’s a 65.2 percent chance Someone Else will win - or rather, there was in ‘07. Perhaps if Cink and his fellow pros were aware of this they wouldn’t get such sweaty palms down the stretch.
The problem is Woods. He skews the numbers - and gives the entire Tour an inferiority complex. When Tiger is in the lead going into the last round, his record is an inhuman 44-3 (according to the data diligently compiled at GolfObserver.com). That’s better than Mariano Rivera is in save situations (93.6 percent to Rivera’s 88.7).
There’s one golfer out there, though, who’s even more of a killer than Tiger, believe it or not: The aforementioned Mr. Choi. K.J. is a perfect 5-for-5 when he’s the Saturday night leader.
Phil Mickelson (22-7, .759), meanwhile, isn’t half-bad himself - even if he did give away the 2006 U.S. Open.
Unfortunately, there are many more players at the other end of the spectrum. Ever wonder why Jeff Maggert hasn’t won more? Answer: Because he’s 1-9 when leading heading into the final day. The same issue dogs Mike Weir (1-8), Chris DiMarco (1-5) and Scott Verplank (3-11).
The last time Verplank won, in last year’s Nelson, he was so shaky standing over a two-foot putt on 18 that “I about passed out,” he said. “I’ve never been that light-headed and nervous … over a putt in my life.”
And with good reason. Golf ain’t a team sport, and near-misses can extract a heavy price. I mean, think about it: Would we feel differently about Justin Leonard if he’d won the 1997 and 2002 PGA Championships after leading through three rounds? Sure, we would. After all, that would give him three major titles instead of one (the ‘97 British Open) - as many as Mickelson, Vijay Singh and Ernie Els.
But it works both ways. Because Ben Crenshaw won two Masters, we tend to overlook the three he didn’t win when he had the third-round lead (1977, ‘87, ‘89). (We even ignore his 0-8 record in playoffs. Let’s face it: Gentle Ben, for all his renown, wasn’t one of the great closers. But he’s got that pair of green jackets …)
In the end, Cink - who doesn’t own a pair of green jackets - found his way to the winner’s circle in the Travelers only after listening to his wife Lisa. She was an athlete herself - tennis and softball - and there’s “something about the way she can just simplify things from an outsider’s point of view,” he said. “Sometimes you have to step back in order to see the whole thing.”
After Cink sank to second place on the final day of the PODS Championship, he poured out his feelings to her. Here’s what she told him: “Sometimes you just have to be willing to run naked across the green.”
“That sounds crazy,” Cink said following his victory two weeks ago, “but if you think about it, it’s true, too. I mean, guys like Tiger and Phil, when they are in contention, they let it all out. They don’t think about the consequences. They just go for it. And that’s one thing, I think, I have been unwilling to do until this year.
“[So] I decided I am going to run across the green naked. I’m not going to leave anything in the bag. [And] today, you know, [it] worked out in my favor.”
Yup, on the 18th tee, Cink hitched up his trousers and crushed a 366-yard drive. It was far from straight - indeed, in went into “the next county,” runner-up Hunter Mahan noted - but it was playable. So it was that Stewart Cink became a closer - for a day, anyway. Maybe, in his memoirs, he’ll title this chapter: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Run Naked Across The Green.