Cejka faces big challenge at TPC
PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Now a gut check for the Czech. The Players leader, Alex Cejka, plays with Tiger Woods in the final group Sunday. That imposing shadow has made plenty of others shrink and disappear.
Cejka walked off Saturday with a Players record five-stroke lead over Woods and five others. And he walked off with a familiar plan.
“Japanese food, a shower and watch some sitcoms,” the 38-year-old said of his preparation. “The usual.”
Oh, and his Sunday wardrobe has been decided.
“I’m going to wear a red shirt myself,” he said, smiling, alluding to Woods’ usual Sunday uniform. “Hopefully it works for me, too.”
Cejka is less certain about how to deal with a five-shot lead with you-know-who at his side. Asked to identify the mental challenges of such, he was at a loss.
“I’ve never had a five-shot lead, so I don’t know,” Cejka said. “It depends how I feel when I get to the range. It depends on how I sleep. But it’s nice to have a cushion like this.”
Cejka is one of golf’s best stories, for at age 8 he swam the Rhine River in the dark of night with his father and escaped the communist rule of his native Czechoslovakia. He settled into a new life in Germany and learned golf well enough to win 11 professional tournaments internationally, though never on the PGA Tour.
So there’s yet another David-Goliath scenario, nothing new during the Woods era. Cejka hasn’t won anywhere since 2002. He has never been better than 54th on the money list in six previous Tour seasons. His two runner-up finishes came in 2003-04. On top of that, he retooled his swing a couple of years ago, going Stack and Tilt.
For three days, though, he has played like a champion. That has especially been the case off the tee. He’s tied for first in driving accuracy. Not one of the game’s best putters, he’s also T-20 in greens in regulation.
But the final round of an important tournament, in this case the so-called fifth major, can present a different kind of pressure. We see that often. We saw it when Woods chased down Sean O’Hair’s five-stroke lead the final day of the Arnold Palmer Invitational. We saw it when Kenny Perry blew a two-shot lead with two holes left at the Masters. And we’ve seen it plenty when Woods is breathing down someone’s neck.
Cejka has played with Woods twice before, in an exhibition and at the 1996 British Open, when Woods was an amateur. Cejka beat Woods that day in England, but he knows Sunday presents different obstacles.
‘There’ll be more spectators and more pressure than if I was playing with Kevin Na,” he said. “It’ll be tough. It’ll be a big challenge for me. I’ve got to play well to win.”
Cejka carved out a 72 Saturday on a day most of the field retreated. TPC Sawgrass played firmer and faster as the day wore on and many flagsticks were tucked. The conditions were tough enough that Woods’ 70 vaulted him from T-22 to T-2. When Woods finished a couple of hours before Cejka and other leaders, he was T-6. But then the rapid rewind continued.
“I was trying to hang in there like a pit bull,” Cejka said.
Cejka is nothing if not an aggressive player and, with a rugged countenance, he looks the part. He says he played golf in his early 20s with no fear, hitting driver on every hole. And he says he has gotten back to those aggressive ways, only without the temper of his youth.
If there’s good news for Cejka, besides that five-stroke cushion, it’s that Woods isn’t playing his best golf. He’s surviving with smoke and mirrors. He missed eight putts inside of 15 feet in the first round. He hasn’t driven the ball that well. But there is one thing that he seems to be doing better than anyone else: Escaping. His recovery shots, particularly with pitch shots, have been remarkable.
“Just grinding it out,” Woods said.
Someone suggested that he’s playing with a stubborn determination.
“That’s the way I always play,” he said. “That’s the way you’re supposed to play.”
He and other chasers will need that and more to bounce the Czech.