MARANA, Ariz. – This is a tale of motor patterns, muscle memory and two vastly different outcomes, if not two sets of wildly divergent expectations.
When the frost finally burned off Dove Mountain, Stewart Cink set out into the unknown against an intimidating and known quantity. More than four hours later Tiger Woods stepped to the same tee with surprising optimism against an old enigma.
One is heading home after the shortest of PGA Tour workweeks, the other is Cink.
Both players are in the throes of a swing change, Woods’ transformation very much a work-in-progress following a pedestrian week in Dubai while Cink is just hoping to make progress.
For both the status quo remains unchanged.
Cink outdueled match-play magician and WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship defending champion Ian Poulter in 19 holes with an action that was a half beat off but a putter that rolled in putts from Pima to Picacho.
For the record, Woods fanned his drive at the first extra hole into the desert, needed two swings to reach the grass again and his 30-footer for bogey never threatened the hole.
For Woods it’s back to the Isleworth practice tee and more time with swing coach Sean Foley. On Tuesday – not long after Woods told the assembled scribes he “has a better understanding” of his new swing – Foley concurred with his newest charge but stressed the need for patience, if not more realistic expectations.
“I think he understands it so much more,” Foley said. “Can he do it every time? No. No one can.”
It was a bad omen for Woods when the winds began charging up Dove Mountain just as he was heading out for his first-round duel. Two weeks ago at the Dubai Desert Classic it was similar desert winds that doomed his chances.
“It blew 35 (mph) on the weekend in Dubai and he couldn’t keep it below the wind,” Foley said. “He had that stinger tee shot that is such a weapon in conditions like that, you can hit it 295 (yards) and low. He lost that.”
Foley said Woods is rediscovering the stinger, to say nothing of his confidence, but stressed that it’s a process not an instant product.
It’s also unknown waters. There was a time when a healthy zephyr and a late-to-the-dance Dane were of no concern to Woods. But those days, at least for now, are the stuff of legend.
There were times on Wednesday, particularly on the back nine, when Woods looked in control. He missed putts of 22 and 9 feet at the 16th and 17th holes, respectively, to square the match with Bjorn and roped his approach to 8 ½ feet at the last to force extra frames. A fist pump, a glare, but the old motor patterns played catch up on the 19th hole.
Those old habits are the hardest to break, just ask Cink who quickly conceded after his match that he’s probably a year away from being fully vested in his new action. But for Cink his opening-day victory over Poulter is the tonic that feeds change.
When Cink split with Butch Harmon and signed on with Pat O’Brien it was more than just a need for change it was a desire to fully fulfill his potential.
“At 37 this is the most important time in my career,” Cink said. “I don’t want to be an irrelevant player.”
Cink said his split with Harmon was more about geography than it was swing philosophy. “Me and Butch were together a long time and it came down to schedules. He is on the West Coast, I’m on the East Coast and I’m not willing to make that sacrifice for my family to always be on the go,” he said.
If Woods’ loss to Bjorn was a minor setback, Cink’s victory over Poulter was one giant leap forward. Under pressure his retooled swing held up, at least when it mattered the most like on the 19th hole when he carved a 6-iron to 4 feet for a winning birdie.
“It’s actually a big win for me and my confidence,” Cink said. “I don’t know if there is a better match play player in this field than Ian.”
Whether it was a blow to Woods’ confidence or just another building block remains to be seen, but if he was looking for a silver lining in the storm that is now his competitive life he needed to look no further than Cink’s stunner. It’s all about the small steps, Cink knows it, Foley knows it and Woods seems to be learning that inescapable truth one round at a time.