PALM HARBOR — It was a time for lies. Well-intended and merciful lies.
From the fan who high-fived Stewart Cink after a birdie putt on No. 17 and suggested a victory might still be waiting on the next green. From the radio reporter who allowed afterward that bad breaks could have been the cause of the day's misery. From the public-address announcer who raved about the way Sean O'Hair grabbed victory, and gracefully ignored the part about Cink entertaining defeat.
So it was left to the man himself to admit what everyone else was too polite to say. Standing outside the scoring trailer after blowing a four-shot lead on the final day of the PODS Championship, Cink greeted his parents with a hug and two simple words acknowledging what had really happened.
"Sorry, mama," Cink said with a sad smile.
He is a rich man. Don't forget that as you consider his latest heartbreak. He pocketed nearly $300,000 Sunday and has made more than $20-million in a 14-year career. He is well-liked and universally respected, and will go home this week to a wife and two loving children.
If only Stewart Cink could
figure out how to hold on to a lead.
He did it again Sunday. Cink, 34, let another victory slip away from him. If you've been paying attention, you know it has happened before. Too often to be considered mere happenstance.
This makes nine times that Cink has been in the lead after 54 holes, and eight times that he has failed to finish the job.
"What happened to me, or what I allowed to happen out there, is going to make me a better player, I hope, in the future," Cink said. "I've definitely got some soul- searching to do, and I definitely have to learn a few lessons."
There are times when it can be written off as fate. As cruel circumstance. Twice before this season, Cink has found himself in contention on Sunday but, unfortunately, so was Tiger Woods.
This time, there were no excuses. No graceful explanations. Cink began the day with a two-stroke lead and expanded it to four after knocking in birdies on the first two holes.
His playing partners, meanwhile, were fading quickly. Geoff Ogilvy bogeyed the first hole, and Brandt Snedeker bogeyed two of the first three. None of the players chasing him had spent much time lifting trophies in recent seasons. This was Cink's tournament to win. Or lose.
"I felt like I had my arms wrapped around this one," he said.
The lead started to fade at No. 8 and was gone by No. 13. There was no single shot that doomed him. No defining moment of regret. He hit a tee shot behind a tree at No. 14 and another into the water at No. 16 but, by then, you could feel the day was slipping away.
He had opportunities before that to slam the door, but putts went a little wide or a little short. He had chances to crush the spirit of those chasing him, but he never took advantage.
"It looked like he wasn't quite as relaxed as he was starting out," his father, Rob, said. "I thought I saw him make some quick swings, I thought I saw him jerk the putter a little bit. But that's just daddy talking, that doesn't mean a hell of a lot. It can be hard to watch. We're hurting, but we're hurting for him."
There are a dozen players on the PGA Tour just like Cink. Players whose names are familiar, whose accomplishments are applauded. The difference is Cink is regrettably becoming known for something more. For something a little less inspiring.
He is no longer a guy who is consistently around the top 25 money leaders. Now, he is the guy who seems to fall apart when the stakes are the highest.
To his credit, Cink is not running from that characterization.
"It's no coincidence. I just haven't played very good (final) rounds," Cink said. "It's like I'm a little bit tentative. I got tentative on my putts a couple of times. You don't have room to be that way when you've got the best players in the world lined up behind and ready to pounce on my mistakes."
There may not be a more lonely walk in sports than the trek up the fairway on No. 18 for a golfer who knows he has given something away. His gallery has thinned, and his hope has evaporated. About all that remains are the television cameras recording each sorrowful step.
Yet, for all his stumbles, there is a nobility to the way Cink finishes. A certain dignity that is unmistakable. He doesn't seek excuses. He doesn't hide from accusations.
This reputation is his alone, and he will deal with it until it no longer applies.
If there is any justice in this game, it won't be much longer.
John Romano can be reached at [email protected]