Cink sinks 'em at NEC

Posted: Monday, August 23, 2004

AKRON, Ohio The last man picked for the Ryder Cup team, then first at Firestone from start to finish.

No wonder Stewart Cink says his confidence is at an all-time high.

Six days after U.S. captain Hal Sutton added him to the team, Cink completed the best performance of his career by turning the final round of the NEC Invitational into a showcase of poise and putting. He never let anyone within two shots of the lead to become the first wire-to-wire winner on the PGA Tour this year.

''This is huge,'' Cink said after a 15-foot birdie on the 18th for an even-par 70 and a four-shot victory over Tiger Woods and Rory Sabbatini. ''It means so much to win in this style ... and never really make it close.''

He had been 0-6 when he had a lead going into the final round, a statistic that wore on him even with a five-shot cushion during the final round on a tough Firestone South course.

''I know I can be a front-runner just like anyone else,'' he said. ''And I can polish it off.''

Cink finished at 11-under 269 and earned $1.2 million for his first World Golf Championship title.

Sutton was flying to New York, where he will ring the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange on Monday, but he was hardly surprised.

''I know he's been playing great. I've been watching him for three months, watching him get better,'' Sutton said. ''This doesn't make me feel any better. I feel just as strongly about him as when I picked him.''

Woods, the best front-runner in golf, was merely a bystander, just like everyone else. He bogeyed the first hole by chipping through the green and into a bunker, and never got closer than five shots. Woods finished with a 69.

He kept alive his streak of never finishing worse than fifth at Firestone in seven appearance, and he will keep another amazing going 263 consecutive weeks at No. 1 in the world.

Vijay Singh and Ernie Els had a chance to surpass him this week, but both had letdowns after a grueling week at the PGA Championship. Singh, who won in a playoff at Whistling Straits, shot 70 in the final round and tied for 32nd. Els never broke par all week, closed with a 72 and tied for 65th. He won't play again until the American Express Championship the last week of September in Ireland.

''I wish I would have won the tournament,'' Woods said. ''The No. 1 ranking takes care of itself with wins. I was trying to win a tournament, and I just wasn't able to do it.''

Sabbatini was the only player to give Cink a scare, making a 20-foot birdie on the 14th hole to get to 8 under, just two shots behind. But the diminutive South African bogeyed two of the next three holes to fall back, and Cink was solid over the last eight holes.

Sabbatini shot 68, his best finish in a World Golf Championship, but knew he was a long shot.

''He's been playing solid, hitting the ball solid and he's had the putter working for him,'' Sabbatini said. ''If you get those characteristics going for you on this course, it's going to be tough to challenge him, let alone catch him. I went out there to do what I could, and that was what I could throw out there.''

Those characteristics are why Sutton made Cink the last of his two captain's picks (Jay Haas was the other). Cink finished 14th in the Ryder Cup standings, but was chosen over Steve Flesch (No. 11) and Jerry Kelly (No. 13). Also left off the team was Scott Verplank and British Open champion Todd Hamilton.

Knowing he already had been picked last Sunday, Cink watched television shows that tried to guess whom Sutton would pick. His name only came up once.

No one can doubt Sutton's decision now.

''If there were any questions I hope there weren't many maybe this will answer some of them,'' Cink said. ''But the true answers come at the Ryder Cup.''

Cink saw this coming, having finished no worse than 17th in his last six events. So did Sutton, who said earlier this month that players grinding to make the Ryder Cup team often play their best once the burden is lifted.

Scott Verplank, a captain's pick three years ago, won the Canadian Open shortly after making the Ryder Cup team.

And now Cink.

''Maybe it's not a coincidence,'' Cink said. ''The pressure of trying to qualify for the Ryder Cup team, that's a heavy burden. And maybe there's something to the fact that ... I was picked. I feel better about being picked than in 2001 when I was 10th. Because Hal Sutton wanted me to be on the team.''

Cink won the MCI Heritage earlier this year and was starting to play his best golf with the Ryder Cup approaching. Sutton also liked the fact Cink ranked No. 1 in putting on the PGA Tour.

All of that was on display at Firestone, where Cink had full command of his game for four rounds, two rain delays and a different cast of contenders over the weekend.

''He wasn't going to come back to us,'' Woods said.

Greens began to dry out under a second straight day of sunshine, and it didn't take long to figure out that this would be a day for Cink to hang on. He was steady as can be, and turned the final round into a snoozer.

After a whirlwind week, that was just fine with him.

Matthew shot a 4-under 68 for a 10-under 278 total for her second career LPGA title, and first since 2001.

Han, who beat Wendy Ward in a 3-hole playoff in 2003, pulled her 5-foot putt left of the hole. She led by as many as three shots and closed with a 72.

Lorena Ochoa had the day's low round (67), leaving her alone in third place at 279. Patricia Meunier-Lebouc (68) and Nancy Scranton (70) finished three shots back.

Amateur Michelle Wie shot 69 to tie for sixth place at 6 under. Joining Wie were U.S. Open champion Meg Mallon (70), Marilyn Lovander (72) and 2002 Wendy's winner Mi Hyun Kim (72).

Moore birdied Nos. 15, 17 and 18 to win his fourth prestigious amateur event of the year. The UNLV senior also won the NCAA Division I, Western Amateur and U.S. Amateur Public Links.

He becomes the fifth golfer to win two USGA championships in the same year, joining Bob Jones and Chick Evans (U.S. Amateur, U.S. Open), Jay Sigel (U.S. Amateur, U.S. Mid-Amateur) and Pearl Sinn (U.S. Women's Amateur Public Links, U.S. Women's Amateur).

List, a 19-year old sophomore at Vanderbilt, was 2-up after making a 3-foot birdie putt at the par-3 13th.

Moore made his move on the 15th, making birdie while List, of Ringgold, Ga., bogeyed the 16th and 17th. Moore closed out the match with a 10-foot birdie putt at 17 and a 6-footer at 18.

Champions Tour

CONOVER, N.C. (AP) Doug Tewell rolled in a 12-foot birdie putt on the last hole to win the Greater Hickory Classic title with a tournament low 8-under 64.

Tewell played three bogey-free rounds and finished at 14-under 202 for the 54-hole event, one shot ahead of second-round leader Bruce Fleisher, who had a 68.

Morris Hatalsky birdied the final two holes to finish third with a closing 66. Jerry Pate shot 68 for fourth place.

It marked Tewell's eighth Champions Tour victory. He needed only 22 putts in the final round.


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