If Hal Sutton took his inside knowledge of Stewart Cink's form along to his bookmaker last week, he will have a difficult time finding the man now. At the close of play of the, so-called, 'World Championship of Golf' over the Firestone Course at Akron, Ohio, Stewart Cink was the clear cut champion. He was the champion in some style too, for he holed a 15-footer on the last green for a birdie to further emphasise his status.
This 'Invitational' event is a big-bucks tournament that Tiger Woods had largely made his own. The Tiger gave every indication that he had no intention of relinquishing it again - as he did last year to Darren Clarke - but his seven-under par total to take equal second place with the South African Rory Sabbatini, was some way short of being good enough. Cink was the leader from round one and he held the lead all the way to win with a four-shot margin.
Woods has won this event four out of the five times it has been played over the Firestone course and there were times this year when it looked as if he might do it again. Not too much should be made of the fact that he hit the tented village off the tee with an iron, or that he had some blocked shots at near right angles. When he does get into the groove, the results are stunning. Over the first 15 holes at Firestone he hit nine out of 11 fairways and was five under par. The fact that he dropped only two shots over the next 10 holes when he missed seven fairways is significant, as is the fact that he missed only one fairway over the back nine holes on the second day to get back to six-under. He was in second place, three shots behind Cink, who seemed unable to miss a fairway, far less a putt. When Woods gets his action off the tee right he will be back to his indomitable best again - let us hope that does not happen before Oakland Hills in September. Cink is simply a man on form and we can only hope that he goes off the boil.
Cink is tied with Woods as the best putter on the US Tour this year. He won this event with his putting and the fact that he gave himself the chance with birdie putts. It is clear that Hal Sutton has adjudged putting the deciding factor at Oakland Hills, hence Cink as his captain's pick in the US team. Cink may be an inspired pick by Sutton, but Cink may also have been inspired by Sutton's selection of him. Let us hope that it is the latter that was manifested at Firestone.
Sutton's second pick, however, cannot be rationalised in any way and must simply be accepted as crass sentimentality.
Sutton's inclusion of Jay Haas (pictured, above), a 50-year-old journeyman pro who has not won a tournament in 11 years, is bewildering and can only be put down to personal friendship and sentimentality. There must be a great many US team members pondering the sensibility of their captain. There must also be one or two not included who are left seething at Sutton's slight. Understandably, one such must be Scott Verplank who must have considered himself an automatic choice.
Verplank has a winners record in the Ryder Cup -- Haas has not. Indeed, it would not be unfair to say that he choked against Philip Walton in the 1995 playing at a crucial stage for the US team in the proceedings. Lee Westwood, on the other hand will not forget Verplank's opening three holes in the last playing when he was subjected to a birdie, birdie, eagle start by the American.
Sutton has talked at length over the past few weeks about his careful study of the stats. It must be assumed that he has some special insight into figures for Verplank lies second only to Woods in consecutive cuts made and is some way higher than Haas in the order of merit. He is 64 places higher than Haas in driving accuracy, 14 on putting and 16 in greens hit in regulation. Verplank has surely every reason to feel hard done by - as does Justin Leonard and several others. Does Sutton know something that everyone else does not?
European golf will be living in fear that sentimentality might be an endemic disease in Ryder Cup Captains. Colin Montgomerie may find a place in Langer's heart but he should not find a place in the European team. Sam Torrance is undoubtedly right, form is temporary and class is permanent, but Langer saw at first hand Faldo's embarrassment in 1985 when he was clearly off form before the event, and he should not subject Monty to that sort of humiliation.
After Akron, it would be hard for Langer to overlook Luke Donald as the captain's first pick. Langer's second pick, however, must be causing him some angst. Jacobson's current driving is exceptionally bad and Haeggman's game is poor in every department. It will come down to Parnevik and Cejka and, from what form was on show at Akron, Cejka will probably get the nod.
Oakland Hills may prove to be a memorable place for European golf for all the wrong reasons.
|| 23 - AUGUST 2004