March 11, 2008

Golf Hurts - Just Ask Stewart Cink

Sometimes you've got to be hard as nails and walk right over the guys that get in your way

It was hard to watch Stewart Cink melt down Sunday at the PODS Championship, just as it was difficult to see Ernie Els miss those short putts on the back nine at Dubai and then splash down in the water on the 72nd hole.

But that's golf, and the great players simply get back on the horse, while the weak ones lay in the dust. PODS Championship winner Sean O'Hair, who showed at last year's Players that he knows a little something about handing over tournaments on the back nine, showed something about his character by coming back to win in Tampa after a tough week at the Honda Classic one week prior. Sometimes you have to learn how to lose before you learn how to win. How many majors did Phil Mickelson give away before he figured out how to win one? The answer: About as many as Payne Stewart, and before him, Tom Watson.

Having said that, there are too many nice guys in golf. I hate to live in the past, but Lanny Wadkins, Curtis Strange, Seve Ballesteros, Nick Faldo, those were some mean cusses who would spit on you as they walked over you.

Lee Trevino, Ray Floyd, Gary Player.

Same way.

Jack Nicklaus was a true sportsman, but he loved the kill.

Maybe it's unfair to Cink to compare some of the greatest winners of all time with his most recent underachievement on a Sunday with the lead, but somebody has to do it.

There is not a finer man in all of golf, but Cink is too soft. Even in the Tiger Woods Era, four career wins and more than $22 million in earnings doesn't add up. He's a beautiful golfer who hits towering shots that Wadkins could only dream of, who possesses length that Strange would never consider, but winning is about getting the ball in the hole under pressure and Stewie is still looking to find that cold-bloodedness he has in match play and apply it late Sunday in a 72-hole stroke-play event.

That killer instinct is in there somewhere. Remember at the WGC-Accenture Match Play, Cink took out three of Europe's best players (Miguel Angel Jiménez, Padraig Harrington and Colin Montgomerie), plus the U.S. Open champion Angel Cabrera and a hot Justin Leonard (with a front nine 29) before running into Woods in the final. He also beat Sergio Garcia in singles in the 2006 Ryder Cup.

As Woods explained at the Accenture, in his father's former profession, when you lost, you died: The problem is, you don't become a Green Beret overnight. Cink is wired differently, but he always has gotten up, dusted himself off, and put himself back in position again. There's no reason to expect it will be any different next time.

This leads us back to Els, who went from being the Big Easy to a self-admitted Big Grumpy—never telling anybody that at home, his son, Ben, suffered from autism. Ernie came to Florida two weeks ago with a new attitude, apologized for his past behavior and almost instantaneously, the black cloud lifted. He won in the United States for the first time in more than three years. Golf World's cover said it best: At Last! The whole world was happy for Ernie.

This week, Ernie pulled an Ernie. The same guy who said he wasn't going to play the Match Play—before entering the Accenture at the 11th hour—withdrew from the Arnold Palmer Invitational, an event he won and has supported for 15 straight years.

It was a tough call for Els to make, an even tougher call to make to tournament host Arnold Palmer, but at the end of the day, Ernie believes he is making the right decision. He made a competitive choice based on what his mind and his body felt as it related to preparing for the Masters. It was a selfish move but selfish moves have to be made in order to achieve greatness.

Tiger and Phil make such decisions all the time, and if Els is in prime form at Augusta National, and he wins the jacket, then King Arnold will be the first one to greet Big Ernie in the Champions locker room.

When it comes to the Masters, Ernie Els is tired of the hurt.