June 19, 2008

Bare In Mind

Weak closer Stewart Cink, aided by an unusual swing thought, ends a four-year victory drought at the Travelers Championship

Employing a new Sunday strategy, Cink shot a 67 to top a crowded leader board.

Employing a new Sunday strategy, Cink shot a 67 to top a crowded leader board.

Stewart Cink ran naked across the green at the Travelers Championship.

Well, sort of.

Before you go to YouTube in search of video footage, know that Cink's definition of this kind of activity strays from the norm. For him, it means stepping out of his comfort zone. Being aggressive when his tendency is to be tentative in the big spot. Not thinking about the consequences. Just going for it.

"I've been unwilling to do that," said Cink. "[But] I decided I am going to run across the green naked. I'm not going to leave anything in the bag. I'm just going to go for it. If I finish third or fourth every time I have the lead going into the last round, then at least I've given it a shot. But today it worked out in my favor."

That it did. The fully (and colorfully) clothed Cink fired a final-round 67 to edge Hunter Mahan and Tommy Armour III by one shot.

Cink's caution-to-the-wind attitude came courtesy of his wife, Lisa, after a skull session necessitated by Cink's kicking away the PODS Championship in March when he played the final six holes three over par to hand the title to Sean O'Hair. At his press conference after that tournament, Cink said, "I'm a little shell-shocked and a little bit angry. I'm extremely frustrated after this. What happened to me—what I allowed to happen to me—is going to make me a better player in the future. But I've got some soul-searching to do."

The soul-searching started right away. Speaking to his wife, Cink relayed his disappointment not only for having won just once in nine tries when holding or sharing the 54-hole lead, but also in his lack of aggressiveness in those situations. Said Cink after the PODS, "That's not a coincidence. It's like I'm a little bit tentative."

Lisa Cink was anything but. Not one to pull punches (in 2002 Lisa told Stewart his putting problems stemmed from the yips—an assessment that did not go over well at first), she gave her husband a single line that brought with it an important message.

"You have to be willing to run naked across the green."

The words struck Cink not only due to their meaning, but because of the messenger who delivered it. Lisa and Stewart Cink have been together since Stewart was 14, and they recently celebrated their 15th wedding anniversary. Theirs is a partnership in every sense of the word.

"I really admire her ability to stand outside the game of golf and get inside the heads of players, including mine, and just come up with the right thing to say," said Cink. "The way she can simplify things. When she talks about stuff, I listen. She's an extra pair of eyes that can see in and see what's so obvious that I never see at all."

The one thing Cink had no trouble seeing Sunday was a crowded leader board where at one point early in the round 17 players were within three shots of him. Making that even more nerve-racking was that the scores at TPC River Highlands more closely resembled those you might find at a par-3 course. Rounds of 66-64-65 gave Cink just a two-stroke cushion over Heath Slocum heading into Sunday, with a quartet of players three behind. On a course where going low only mattered if you went really low (the stroke average for the week was 69.115 as the course coughed up 21 rounds of 64 or lower), playing to protect the lead wasn't an option. Then there was that holding-a-lead baggage. Cink may have been owed one, but since when has the game ever paid its debts in full? There was only one thing Cink could do.

Get naked.

Off at 9:30 a.m. due to predicted storms that eventually caused a 61-minute delay at 12:57 p.m., Cink looked as if he might make it one-for-10 as his tee-to-green game worked fine in the 15- to 20-mile-per-hour winds, but his putting did not. A weak birdie attempt on No. 1 was followed by a 30-footer that ran by the hole. Cink made the comebacker but missed another makable birdie putt at the third before three-putting the fourth for bogey, a lost stroke that had five players within a single shot of him. Two of those players, Vijay Singh and Mahan, caught Cink at 14 under with birdies at the sixth and seventh, respectively. It wasn't exactly Breakfast at Wimbledon, but it was good stuff for the decent-sized gallery that had gotten up early.

A few holes later, the three-way tie was Cink, Mahan and the 48-year-old Armour at 15 under. Seeing the free-spirited Armour near the top at a venue where birdies were plentiful was not a shocker—his two tour wins came when he shot 17 under at Phoenix in 1990 and a record-setting 26-under 254 at the 2003 Valero Texas Open. In Hartford he was at it again, carding 14 birdies in the middle two rounds and another three on the front nine Sunday.

Cink grabbed the lead again by running in a 22-footer for birdie at the ninth, but then a strange thing happened—the birdies stopped coming. For about an hour as the leaders began the back nine, no one could convert as Mahan (seven pars), Armour (three pars) and Cink (three pars) did nothing more than hold serve.

Mahan was particularly frustrated. Seeking to become just the second man to defend the Hartford title (Phil Mickelson did it in 2001-02), Mahan had 81 yards into the par-5 13th when he tried to hit a low runner on his approach. Instead he hit, in his words, a "shank-ri-la" that went wide right, leading to an unsatisfying par. Mahan then flared his tee shot on the drivable par-4 15th into a fairway bunker and made par on a hole ranked 335th in difficulty out of 336 par 4s played on tour so far this year. A pair of birdies on 17 and 18 came too late, although the latter was reminiscent of the shot that sealed the deal last year, a 9-iron from 151 yards to three feet.

"At that point I was just trying to finish the tournament well," said Mahan, who has finished quite well (second, first and second) the last three years at River Highlands. "I wasn't really thinking about winning or anything." That was definitely not the case with Cink, who was well aware he was playing on a short leash. "When I saw the boards today, there were always a lot of players within one shot," he said. "I knew to expect a battle. It wasn't going to be easy."

It wasn't. Although Mahan struggled, Armour, who had never finished better than T-25 in 17 Hartford starts and may want to think about using some of the $528,000 he received for finishing second to update his website (it currently lists "news" from 2004), got the birdie parade started again on 13 and missed an eight-footer that would have given him the outright lead on 14. Slocum got in the act, too. One shot back of Cink most of the day, Slocum and Cink matched birdies on four holes, the last being at No. 15. Slocum, who picked a poor time to make his first bogey since the seventh hole Saturday when he made 4 on the par-3 16th, eventually finished two back in fourth place.

"Stewart played great. I mean, he did what he had to do," said Slocum. "The up-and-down on 15 was huge for him. I just wanted a chance. That's what I said yesterday, I just wanted a chance. I had that chance today, but I just didn't get it done."

The same couldn't be said for Cink, but that's not to say he didn't make it exciting. After driving the ball fabulously all week (hitting more than 82 percent of the fairways while averaging 299.1 yards off the tee), Cink came to 18 needing a par to win. His drive there, however, a 366-yard blast that caromed off a cart path into the right rough, made things interesting until he gouged his ball onto the fringe and two-putted for his first win since the 2004 WGC-NEC Invitational and his second victory in Hartford, the first coming in 1997 when he was 24, his first full year on the PGA Tour. Afterward, Cink was philosophical about the trying times over the past four years.

"Eddie Merrins, 'The Little Pro,' once told me, 'Don't get your goals and rewards confused," said Cink, who now leads the tour in top-10 finishes in 2008. "So I adjusted my goals. I have goals for every shot, to stay the most intense I can. If I do that and satisfy that goal, the reward takes care of itself. Today was a perfect example of that, and I ended up with the reward."

If he continues to run across the green naked, there should be more to come.