HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. – Stewart Cink welcomes the calm sea breezes and easy island atmosphere of the Verizon Heritage, the “anti-Augusta.”
Gone for Cink are the glasstop greens, cagey fades and daunting carries of the Masters. Gone, too, at Harbour Town Golf Links is much of the hoopla over Tiger Woods.
“It’s like the anti-Augusta,” Cink said.
One look at the field shows that. Woods and Masters champion Phil Mickelson took the week off. Second and third place finishers Lee Westwood and Anthony Kim are also on break.
In fact, just six of last week’s top 23 at Augusta National – K.J. Choi, Ricky Barnes, Jerry Kelly, Trevor Immelman, Heath Slocum and Scott Verplank – plan to tee it up Thursday at Harbour Town Golf Links.
Cink, who won the Verizon Heritage in 2000 and 2004, acknowledged Woods’ return after five, scandal-plagued months was topic No. 1 for Masters’ competitors. Cink figured anxious crowds pressing to watch Woods might lead to distractions on the course.
Instead, Cink said the tournament was about what it always is: Augusta’s difficulty.
“I was expecting a raucous environment because everyone was going to be shuffling around,” he said. But “it didn’t feel any different to me. The crowds were very respectful and it seemed like the Masters as usual.”
That’s not always a good thing for Cink, who missed the cut at Augusta for the second straight year. The reigning British Open champ has had just two top 10 finishes in 13 appearances at the year’s first major.
Cink thinks that’s why he excels at Harbour Town. He’s earned more than $1.8 million – third all-time – since he took his Verizon Heritage debut 10 years ago.
“When you gear up and play a major like Augusta or any of the big tournaments, it makes it a bit more relaxing and easier the next week because your game is already prepared,” he said.
Matt Kuchar’s not so certain. Locked into the marquee group with Woods the Masters’ first two rounds, Kuchar felt drained by Augusta’s end. The fatigue continued on Wednesday’s pro-am when the smiling Kuchar said his main goal was an afternoon nap.
Playing with Woods “was not as crazy as I thought,” Kuchar said.
The biggest drawback, Kuchar said, was family members in town for his first Masters’ appearance in eight years were caught in Woods’ gallery.
“It was cool to be a part of. Maybe there were some extra highs,” Kuchar said. “After some extra highs come a few lows probably.”
Defending Verizon Heritage winner Brian Gay was also pleased to have Augusta National behind him. Gay struggled at his first Masters, shooting 74-77 to miss the cut.
“I think there’s a lot to learn there, a lot of experience and course knowledge, guys playing there year after year,” he said. “So that was a challenge.”
Gay has few such concerns about Harbour Town where he put on a dominating performance in 2009, winning by 10 strokes over Briny Baird and Luke Donald in what was the tour’s biggest margin of victory on tour in three years.
“Guys say stuff to me, ‘How did you do that? Won by ten, that’s unbelievable,”’ Gay said. “It’s cool to hear that stuff.”
About the only thing missing from last week’s Masters’ circus was the game’s clown prince, Boo Weekley. After playing at Augusta National the previous two years as Harbour Town’s champion, Weekley didn’t qualify for the major after dealing with a torn labrum in his left shoulder midway through last season.
Weekley hasn’t finished better than 24th in nine events this year.
“If your game is off or not, you still want to be there,” Weekley said. “It only takes one swing or one putt, and all of a sudden, it’s like, ‘Click,’ like a light bulb.”
Weekley hopes that light switch turns on at the Verizon Heritage, where he’s shot par or better in 11 of his 12 career rounds.
“I’ve got a little itch,” Weekley said. “I’m ready to get out there and get back.”
Cink understands that, too, eager for pressure-free golf.
The majors combine the game’s most challenging courses, it’s best competitors and a heightened mental regimen unseen most weeks on tour.
At Harbour Town, “the intensity just seems to melt away and enables you to really relax and be at your best,” Cink said. “That’s the way I see it.”