PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Crazy, those times when you can be struck with the cold reality of your situation. For instance, walking up the 18th fairway at Augusta National.
That’s where Stewart Cink was a few weeks ago when it occurred to him that he no longer had the security blanket of being qualified for the Masters. He got five free passes thanks to his 2009 Open Championship victory, but the last one was used for this year’s tournament. So as he strolled up the fairway on his 72nd hole, it dawned on Cink that he had to go out and seize the opportunity.
“I was thinking I might have a chance to finish in the top 12 (which merits an exemption for the next year). I knew I was close,” Cink said.
Close, indeed. He was 1 over and as it turns out, needed to get to level par to finish in the top 12. That meant Cink needed a birdie at 18. But to put the drama in perspective, it was a fleeting thought, not something that consumed the 40-year-old.
“I was just trying to finish high in the Masters,” said Cink, who would make par at Augusta’s 18th and tie for 14th. “I didn’t feel like Sunday at the Masters was a qualifying tournament for the next Masters.”
Still, Cink conceded that he’s in the predicament of having to earn his way back into the Masters because of a lengthy stretch of indifferent play. Therein sits the storyline: How do quality, world-class competitors find themselves in such a quandary, their world ranking having fallen, their winless stretch having expanded, their spots in the majors no longer a given?
Cink isn’t alone, either. Geoff Ogilvy is another who knows the fine line of professional golf, of living on the edge. Take just making the cut, for instance. “I used to not think about it,” he said. “(But) if I’m having a poorish Thursday, I’m thinking about (the cut) on Thursday. I never did that.
“Strange. It does it to you, though, golf.”
Cink, 40, and Ogilvy, 36, are in the field for this week’s Players Championship, both trying to maintain the “trending” pattern they have shown of late. Both share similar career paths in recent years, too.
Cink’s last victory was the 2009 Open Championship, so his winless stretch is at 109 PGA Tour tournaments. Once No. 5 in the world, he is 155th. Ogilvy, the 2006 U.S. Open winner and owner of three WGC titles, last won at the 2010 Hyundai Tournament of Champions, so his drought is at 92 tournaments. Once No. 3 in the world, he is 152nd.
Sounds awful, eh, being 152nd and 155th?
“We’re talking about a world with a lot of billions of people in it,” Cink said. “(But) No. 200 sounds pretty bad when you’ve been in the top 10.”
Ask 100 players how they to start slide in the world rankings and struggle with their games and you’re likely to get 100 different theories.
Speaking for himself, Cink suggests that he got too cozy.
“The long exemption you get when you win a major probably is the worst thing that happens to you when you win,” he said. “Players – and I count myself in this group – probably get a little bit complacent.”
Taking it a step further, Cink offered that when he is comfortable, he doesn’t react as well to turbulence. Next thing you know, very good players forget that they’re very good and how they got to be very good.
“You lose confidence when you play poorly, and it runs on for a while. Then your confidence starts to suffer. That’s simple. Getting (confidence) back is not simple. You’ve got to just find the confidence. It doesn’t just come from anywhere.”
For him, the fairway-splitting drive and the crisp approach to a demanding par-4 18th hole at the end of his second round at the Wells Fargo Championship is a small thing, perhaps, “but things like that, you file away in the memory bank; you try to do your best and get rid of the bad ones.”
It never ceases to amaze Ogilvy how the shortest shot in golf can produce the longest rewards.
“If you’ve made a few putts, you just play golf lighter,” he said. “I just play happier. What (putting) does to your head changes everything.”
Ogilvy has missed each of the past two Masters and is not yet qualified for the Open Championship. The Accenture Match Play Championship, which he has won twice, and the Cadillac Championship, which he won once, were WGCs not on his schedule this year. The Aussie conceded he has had to come up with a plan to work around those voids.
“I’ve had to re-learn how to play more. The (Wells Fargo) was my third week of four in a row – and I haven’t played four in a row very much.”
Cink hasn’t played a WGC since the Bridgestone in 2011, and he faces the prospect of having to earn his way back into the Masters. In a strange way, he welcomes the challenge.
“I feel like my motivation is to go out there and achieve that again, achieve the feeling of winning a major, of winning any tournament, because the feeling of playing great is so satisfying,” Cink said. And, as is Ogilvy, Cink is surrounded by a new landscape when it comes to his schedule.
That’s OK, too, because he’s thinking that complacency wasn’t good for him.
“You’re not out playing back-against-the-wall golf, where you’re just clawing and mashing and shredding for every little shot. (Long exemptions) seem to numb you to all of that, and you need to be alive to that, to be able to perform out here.”