PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — When you’ve survived a daring escape from communist rule as a 9-year-old, the treacherous 17th hole at the Players Championship is child’s play.
Alex Cejka, 38, fled the Czech Republic when it was still behind the Iron Curtain and now makes a home in Las Vegas, where capitalism reigns. The story of his defection is told whenever he emerges on the leaderboard as it did when Cejka shot 5-under 67 Friday to gain the lead after two rounds of the Players Championship.
Cejka’s story is worth retelling.
In 1980, Cejka and his father “went on holiday,” a harrowing journey that included driving a car, riding a train, jumping a fence and swimming across the Rhine River. When they reached the other side, his father hugged him and said, “We did it.”
They went from Yugoslavia to Italy and Switzerland before settling in Germany.
“For me it was vacation, so for me it was a smooth ride,” Cejka recalled.
So have the first 36 holes at TPC Sawgrass. Cejka leads at 11-under-par. Not bad considering he’s still recovering from September neck surgery to fuse the C5 and C6 vertebrae. It’s an injury he suffered lifting his baggage “like Arnold Schwarzenegger” from the luggage rack before last year’s British Open. A metal plate and a cadaver’s bone were inserted in his neck, a six-inch scar just below his Adam’s apple marking the point of entry. He came back too soon after only two months of rest, and required an epidural injection of cortisone last week when he experienced numbness in his right side.
So far, there haven’t been any side effects to his game or his sense of humor. When asked if he’d loosened any of the screws or anything on the plate, he cracked: “They give me a screwdriver. I can just adjust it between the holes.”
Cejka played early in the morning as a twosome with Kevin Na, who is a frequent playing partner back home in Las Vegas.
“We were making fun of each other,” Na said. “It’s like, ‘Man, the hole is too big.’ It’s like, ‘Come on, you made it? Another putt? Are you kidding me?’ ”
Putting has been the part of Cejka’s game that he said has held him back. He has never won on the PGA Tour, but he has been in contention at majors before. He shared the lead heading into the final round of the 2001 Britsh Open before slipping to a tie for 13th, and finished fourth in the 2003 PGA Championship. Cejka has four wins on the European Tour, but none since 2002. He credited his improved putting to switching to a Rife Two Bar belly putter at the Honda Classic. Cejka pointed at his caddie after canning a clutch 18-foot par putt on the final hole.
“The game is there,” he said.
It’s a game Cejka first learned hitting balls in the Czech Republic, one of the few countries in Eastern Europe where golf wasn’t banned after World War II. He got his first set of clubs and lessons in Frankfurt. In 1985, Cejka skipped school to watch his idol, Germany’s Bernhard Langer, the reigning Masters champion, play in the German Open in Frankfurt.
“He was my inspiration,” Cejka said. “We had like two, three tournaments in Germany on the European Tour and I watched them all.”
Cejka remembered attending a pro-am at Frankfurt Niederrad in a rainstorm and approaching Langer for the first time on the ninth tee. When Langer took off his rain jacket, Cejka offered to hold it.
“He just looked at me and threw it in the water on the tee,” Cejka said. “For a young kid, this is your hero you want to touch something.”
With two more solid rounds, Cejka may touch the Players trophy. And both of his arms may be numb with joy.