AT&T National: Many golfers taste success, but maintaining it can often be a struggle

Katherine Frey/THE WASHINGTON POST - Stewart Cink is one of many golfers who have tasted great success, but as time passes, it can be a struggle living up to the expectations.

At any tournament over the past four years, Stewart Cink could walk to the first tee, take a couple of practice swings and listen to the starter announce his name and perhaps add an honorific: British Open champion. Lucas Glover is right there with him because that same summer, the summer of 2009, he won the U.S. Open. Any PGA Tour event that needs to add appeal to its field can put their names on the list: winners of major championships. The accomplishment will never change.

But what happens when, four years later, the accomplishment slips further into the past and the present brings nothing that replicates that success? Cink and Glover both practiced Tuesday at Congressional Country Club, and both will tee it up in the AT&T National when it begins Thursday. Cink will do so as the 184th-ranked player in the world, without a top-three finish since he stirringly beat Tom Watson in a playoff at Turnberry. Glover will do so ranked 209th, hoping to make the cut and play on the weekend for the first time in five tournaments.

“I think expectations change a little bit,” Cink said Tuesday. “It’s natural. And expectations are a killer in golf.”

Whether they’re internal or external, realistic or preposterous, they are undeniable, and they can play a part in determining career paths. There are 11 players in the AT&T National field who have won majors before. Only two — Vijay Singh and Angel Cabrera — have managed to do it more than once.

So what Glover and Cink deal with in showing up to work on a week-to-week basis isn’t unique. Ben Curtis won the 2003 British Open and arrives at Congressional with no top-20 finishes since January, having missed eight cuts in 14 events. Trevor Immelman won the Masters in 2008, battled injuries in subsequent years and plays the AT&T National having slipped to 269th in the world rankings.

Y.E. Yang closed the summer of 2009 — the summer in which Glover and Cink broke through — by staving off Tiger Woods to win his own PGA Championship. Yang will begin the AT&T National as the 232nd-ranked player in the world, having missed seven straight cuts in the United States.

“They get so much attention,” said Julie Elion, a Washington-based mental coach who works with several PGA Tour players, including some who have won majors. “It’s just a lot to deal with — mentally. And then the fear of failure is just so ingrained in them. The expectations go that much higher.”

So they must deal with it all. Four years removed from their greatest success, with no idea whether they’ll ever return, Cink, now 40, and Glover, 33, keep trying to draw from those four days when everything somehow worked.

“Even now, struggling,” Glover said, “it’s nice to wake up every morning and say, ‘You know what? I won that golf tournament. I executed at the highest level possible.’ It’s hard to remember sometimes.”

It is hard to remember because as much as players are defined by their successes, they are identified by their failures. As Cink methodically went through a two-hour practice session Tuesday, a fan leaning against a fence at Congressional pointed and said, “Stewart Cink. British Open champ. What’s he done since?”

The truth is, not much. The results are all there to read, and golfers know fans assign worth to the numbers. How to convince people the numbers aren’t your identity?

“It’s hard because it means a lot to you,” Cink said. “Your 72s and your 74s and your 76s, they mean a lot. It’s your career. We live in a world and an age that’s achievement-oriented, and every round you play, every shot you hit, every birdie, every bogey, every three-putt, every little plateau or valley you fall into on any given day is a part of your achievement list. You can run as fast as you want to the other way, away from it, but you can never really escape it.”

When Glover beat, among others, Phil Mickelson and David Duval on a difficult final day at Bethpage, he gave himself credit for overcoming a double bogey on the first hole of his first round. At that time, there was a 200-yard walk between the first green and the second tee, enough space for Glover to tell himself, “You know what? Everybody’s going to make bogeys this week.” It helped shape that week, and he thinks of it still.

But such a mental cleansing is harder to do with a missed cut, when there’s no golf to play, no check to cash, no closure.

“It goes back and forth,” Glover said. “You can say, ‘That was three in a row, I got the next week off, let’s go home, take a couple days off.’ But that’s not always the right thing to do.”

Last week outside Hartford, Glover, by his own admission, “played terrible,” missed the cut and had the weekend off. He has a 5-week-old daughter, Lucille — “Cille” for short — and he desperately wanted to return home. “The last thing I wanted to do was stay up there to practice,” he said. “But I needed to.”

Cink, similarly, was cut after Saturday’s third round and returned home to Georgia, only to show up Tuesday to work in Bethesda. He and Glover aren’t especially tight, but they are more than friendly. They won majors a month apart, defining moments in their careers. Since then, they have struggled, side-by-side, in silence.

“We both have probably some things we could talk about, but I think we both have too much pride to open up to the other one about it,” Cink said. “It’d be like admitting something.”

What both Cink and Glover will admit: Being out of the mix on the leader board isn’t easy. “I’ve probably been a little hard on myself,” Cink said.

It is the natural temptation. In February, Glover found himself in the locker room at Riviera Country Club outside Los Angeles, where he shot 77-71 to miss the cut. Packing up at a locker next to him was Padraig Harrington, the winner of two British Opens and a PGA Championship. Harrington turned to Glover and said that this had to be the worst feeling, “hearing your locker slam on Friday.”

But before he left, Harrington reminded Glover of one thing: He’s done well before.

“I went, ‘You know what?’” Glover said. “We forget that too easily.”

AT&T National note: Tiger Woods, whose foundation runs the event, withdrew last week because of a strained left elbow, but he will be on hand Wednesday for a news conference and to participate in opening ceremonies, and tournament officials said he would return Sunday to present the trophy to the winner.

 
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