McCabe: Cink rallies to knock off Poulter

Stewart Cink, right, shakes hands with Ian Poulter after beating Poulter in 19 holes during the first round of the WGC Match Play Championship.

MARANA, Ariz. – For leadoff men at the Accenture Match Play Championship, the PGA Tour didn’t exactly get Maury Wills and Rickey Henderson.

Notable talents that they are, Ian Poulter and Stewart Cink while not looking quite like claiming horses trying to set the pace at the Kentucky Derby, weren’t exactly Alydar and Affirmed, either.

Then again, when it’s about 40 degrees, you’re chilled by a 30-minute frost delay, the ball isn’t carrying in cold mountain air, and hole locations are set in dastardly spots upon what can only be described as bizarre greens . . . well, let’s just say the Ritz Carlton Golf Club at Dove Mountain isn’t a pushover.

In fact, “you couldn’t play a stroke-play event here,” Martin Laird said, and when he was asked if that was because no one would want to show up, the Scotsman smiled. Ever a diplomat, he chose to leave it at this: “But it’s fine for match play.”

Which doesn’t mean it’s easy for match play, because that was proven in Wednesday’s first match. Battling frosty air and hole locations cut into difficult, sloping greens, Poulter and Cink were scratchy at times and slow throughout, which is why the rules officials entered the picture. After all, 2 hours to play eight holes is hardly the way to unfold a production that was to include a total of 32 matches and 64 players.

Yes, there was consideration for what had transpired at the par 3 sixth hole – with delightful humor, of course.

In essence, what was said to Cink and Poulter was this: Yes, boys, it is acknowledged that you just made a trip to In-N-Out for a double-double, but it would be greatly appreciated if you’d pick up the pace.

Neither Cink, nor Poulter, could do anything but smile, for the sixth had been uglier than ugly, horrendous mid-iron tee shots followed by impossible plugged bunker shots followed by poor pitch shots followed by a pedestrian putts. Oh, and the disgruntled words dished out by Poulter toward the noisy volunteers . . . well, heck, let’s take you through the entire hole.

All square at the time, Poulter was woefully short with an iron into the 175-yard hole and came to rest in a bunker. Refusing to accept the opening, Cink was so short with his tee shot that it hopped once into the bunker. Nasty lies faced each player, with a huge lip to negotiate, and Cink bladed his shot out and through the green. Still away, he played his third to 15 feet.

The door swung wide open, Poulter pretty much slammed it shut on himself by blasting his plugged shot across the green and down a swale. Though it didn’t appear to be a testing shot, Poulter played it poorly, hitting it fat and leaving it 15 feet short.

After which the Englishman’s caddie barked at volunteers who had been moving things around in a tower very near the green, which led Poulter to pitch in.

“How far have you got anyway?” Poulter said, a reference to the fact that the men are there to use Shotlink equipment and laser distances. “Was it good? Twenty-five yards?”

For the record, they had lasered Poulter’s shot at 62 feet 10 inches, but Poulter’s point was made. So, too, did it explain the “double-double” reference a hole later, because on that ugly sixth hole, the players had halved the holes with double-bogeys.

As we said, ugly.

Granted, by the time Cink had dispatched Poulter on the 19th hole, that sixth hole was a distant memory.

“Totally irrelevant in the whole scheme of things,” Poulter said.

Instead, what was fresh on the Englishman’s mind was this: After grinding to the turn at 1 up, he birdied both the 10th and 11th holes and was 2 up when he had opportunity after opportunity to close things out.

“I had my chances to shut him out and didn’t do it,” said Poulter, who never made a putt over 5 feet, but grinded to control the match most of the way. “I should have put my foot down a number of times on this golf course.”

Instead, “he didn’t miss a putt, and that’s what I did last year (when he won the championship.”

Certainly, Cink’s uncanny knack for rising to the occasion in this tournament (he is now 22-11 and hasn’t lost a first-round match since 2006) came to the forefront once again. Two down, Cink got it up-and-down from 30 yards to birdie the par 4 15th, then at the 17th went from fairway bunker to greenside bunker to 15 foot putt for par, a slippery one that he holed to square the match.

As if that weren’t enough, Cink at the 18th watched Poulter hit the green in regulation before he left his 113-yard wedge woefully short as it spun back off the green. But in the ultimate tribute to the glory of match play, Poulter missed an 18-footer for birdie while Cink pitched to 6 feet and drained it.

“Like a Jekyll and Hyde kind of round out there for me,” Cink said, and give the man an A for being spot on in his assessment.

Yes, the way he hung together to square the match at 17 then win on the 19th hole (the par 4 first) was impressive, but the tall and lanky Georgian knows he was perilously close to being ousted in the middle of the back nine.

“I didn’t have much on the front nine at all, then my putter woke up.”

His slip-ups going out were too frequent to believe – he drove into a desert ditch in front of the short, par 4 fourth; drove it wide right at the fifth, then hit his second shot into a plugged lie on the upslope of a bunker; and three-putted the seventh to go 1 down – but Cink remains calmer than the weather after a hurricane and gradually got himself back into it.

“I didn’t hit the ball that great,” said Cink, who was 2 over on the front, but made three birdies coming in and conceded that he embraced the landscape that entire back nine. “(But) I do enjoy the finality of every shot like the do-or-die feel. It brings out a new level of focus.”

Nothing showed Cink’s mettle like the way he played the extra hole, the par 4 first. Splitting the fairway, he hit a brilliant iron from 174 yards to 3 feet to close out the Englishman.

“In the past I have been down in matches and come back and won,” Cink said. “That just sort of gives you the belief that you’re never out of it, even if you are a couple down.”

The day before, the topic of going out first had been put forth to Poulter, who was asked if he considered a byproduct of that, meaning he could have one of the shortest title defenses in history. Yes, it had been something to laugh and kid about, but now, 24 hours later with his first first-round loss since 2006 official, Poulter found no humor in any of it.

Not did his emotions stop at being disappointed.

“I’m pissed, to tell the truth,” Poulter said. “(Cink) was out of position (often) and I was never out of a hole. But I didn’t do my job.”

No, but match play once again did its job.

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