Who knows why a tee shot goes 10 yards left of ideal? And why does the cursed pellet then maddeningly stick on the below-your-feet side of a hill in a sand trap? When fate so conspires, is it a rule that it must happen on a hole 602 yards long? These questions might have come to John Cook's mind yesterday, except he was busy saving his skin.

John Cooke is a star rising. He is 23, tall and thin, a blond so handsome it isn't fair. Jack Nicklaus, five years ago, told Cook he ought to go to Ohio State. No dummy, Cook did. Now he lives next door to Nicklaus' golf course in Columbus. This season, his second on tour, Cook already has won a tournament, the Crosby at Pebble Beach. He will win lots more.

But right now, despicable fate has plopped his ball on a sidehill lie in a sand trap alongside the ninth fairway at Congressional Country Club. After a first-day 65 that made him a coleader, Cook is two over par for his first 17 holes of the second round. This ninth hole is an interstate hihgway of a hole: 602 yards long, the green a speck in the distance. From this devilish trap, Cook needs a par.

He doesn't need par to win, or to make the cut, or to do anything real fancy, like her his Di Fini shirt on television.

He needs par for serenity's sake. On the second day of a tournament, the first-day leader just wants to stay out of harm's way. But now, with three bogeys in the previous eight holes, Cook can hurt himself seriously by making double-bogey from the impossible lie in the sand 330 yards from the hole.

A par would leave him at three under for the tournament, still in the thick of things. A nasty 7, altogether possible from such a wicked position in a trap in the left rough, would put him at one under. Worse, it would put him in a foul mood for the next day. And when your fourth-day stroke average is 73 -- a full two shots higher than the third-day average, ranking 107th instead of 39th -- you need all the early round smiling you can get.

Had this been the last hole of the last round, the knowing customers in the gallery would have regarded Cook's predicament as a test of his skill and grace under pressure. A par made in the second round, however, counts no less than a par in the fourth found. And here is Cook botching it badly, barely getting the ball out of the trap with a three-iron second shot that hits the lip.

He should have used a four- or five-iron, he said later, for the greater loft. With the ball below his feet that way, Cooke scraped the three-iron against the sand first in an effort to be perfect. The ball wound up barley 50 yards ahead, stuck out of sight in the thick rough now, 270 yards from the hole. Now a double-bogey 7 was very possible.

Are we making too much of this? Nope. Life on the PGA tour is life on the razor's edge. Ray Floyd has the best scoring average on tour at an even 70; the 124th man, Jim Thorpe, averages a silly three strokes more -- and Floyd has won $238,203 to Thorpe's $7,145.

Cook needs a par here.

Since the Crosby in January, he hasn't finished higher than 14th. He didn't get under 73 in one 10-round stretch. He missed four straight cuts. The six rounds before the Kemper Open at Congressional, Cook didn't break 72. The PGA statistics show what is wrong: one of the tour's fine iron players, Cook ranks only 55th in hitting greens in regulation. His batting average is .661, not the .680 necessary to be in the top 20.

So rarified is the atmosphere at the highest levels of golf, the difference between a mediocre .661 and a superlative .680 is less than one green a round.

Yes, a par on the last hole is important to John Cook. Discretion the better part of a pro's bankroll, Cook safely chops an eight-iron out of the rough. He is still 120 yards from the green, the distance between consisting of a ravine deep enough to bury Cleveland.

Cook's game is built on wonderful iron play. As a kid good enough to win the California, Ohio and U.S. amateur championships, Cook worked with a long, looping backswing that nearly wrapped the club around his neck. That swing would never hold up under the daily grind of the pro tour, and so Cook overhauled it. Unlike Ben Crenshaw, who yet suffers from overswinging, Cook has created a swing beautiful in its paradox: it is both long and short -- long because Cook hs a great shoulder turn, and short because he keeps the club the safe side of horizontal at the top.

Now he faced 120 yards over a ravine, with monstrous traps guarding the green, and he needs to get the ball close enough to make a putt for a par.

On this day, that means he has to get the ball really close. His putting has been alright, but no better. He hasn't made anything longer than six feet, but he has rolled everything right to the edge. This is a workmanlike day, a day when he hit his irons so crisply he had the ball hole high every time. He drove well, missing only four of 14 fairways.

With 120 yards left, Cook has this thought: "Most times I would have taken six and try to get out of there." That means he would have settled for a bogey as the lesser of evils on the 602-yard monster.

Then, this thought: "I was confident I could get up-and-down with the wedge. I played the wedge like I was trying to make birdie."

The wedge shot comes down eight feet from the hole, and Cook makes the putt for a par.

"Sloppy," Cook says of the day. He played well, not sensationally. Three 15-foot putts on successive holes stopped on the edge. "Every week the winner has a round like this," Cook says, smiling now that he has escaped harm. Making par from the sand on the last hole, Cook said, "will get me in a better frame of mind for the weekend."

With his 65-72 -- 137, Cook is three strokes behind the leader, Danny Edwards.