Cink Leads NEC Invitational by Two Shots

Friday, August 20th 2004, 9:49 am
By: News On 6

AKRON, Ohio (AP) _ Stewart Cink went from the last American picked for the Ryder Cup team to the first name on the leaderboard at the NEC Invitational, completing a 7-under 63 on Friday for a two-shot lead over Zach Johnson.

Cink played eight holes on soggy Firestone South to complete his bogey-free round, finishing with a 7-iron into 5 feet for birdie to match his lowest score of the season.

``I'm playing with a lot of confidence,'' Cink said.

Tiger Woods, battling to keep his No. 1 ranking, didn't finish quite that well. Leading the tournament briefly at 5 under, he made back-to-back bogeys to end Thursday on a sour note, and he was even more perturbed that darkness kept him from finishing his round.

Woods was among 60 players who had to return at 7:30 a.m., but he had to play just one hole. And it wasn't a good one.

``Not in the firs,'' he pleaded with his tee shot on No. 18, which landed behind a fir tree. After a knockdown shot that never got higher than 5 feet during its 140-yard journey to the edge of the green, Woods chipped to 4 feet and missed the par putt, slinging his putter at the bag.

He finished the first round with seven birdies, five bogeys, six pars and four thrown clubs, which gave him a 68 on his card and in a tie for fifth with seven other players.

PGA champion Vijay Singh, who only needs to finish higher than Woods to replace him at No. 1, was among only 16 players who finished the first round Thursday, when rain delayed the start by five hours and forced tournament officials to send threesomes _ instead of the traditional twosomes at Firestone _ off both tees.

Singh bogeyed two of the first three holes, and ended with a double bogey for a 73.

Ernie Els, who also can rise to No. 1 this week, walked off the course Friday morning in no mood to talk. He returned at 1 under with eight holes to play, but two double bogeys sent him to a 71.

Johnson made two birdies inside 10 feet to reach 5 under, then holed a 15-foot putt on the ninth hole to save par and give him a 65.

Barry Lane and Bob Tway each had 67.

Joining Woods in the large group at 68 were Davis Love III, Jim Furyk, Sergio Garcia and Chris DiMarco, who is coming off a playoff loss at Whistling Straits that at least put him on the Ryder Cup team.

Cink didn't feel like he had the first-round lead. He played 10 holes on Thursday, eight Friday morning, then had about three hours to kill before his second round began.

``I'm not even sure what day it is,'' he said.

Judging by his scorecard, it looked like he was rounding into form with the Ryder Cup only a month away, or perhaps proving to everyone that he deserved to be a captain's pick.

Nope. He's just playing the same good golf he was before.

Cink got captain Hal Sutton's attention with a fifth-place finish at the Buick Open, a tie for sixth at the International and a tie for 17th at the PGA Championship.

``I'm obviously glad I've been picked, and it's nice to start out in this tournament right after that,'' Cink said in the gloaming Thursday. ``But it really is more of an indication of the way I've been playing for the last couple months.''

It was hard to tell what made Woods more upset _ ending his day by missing 8-foot par putts on the 16th and 17th holes, or not getting to the 18th tee before the siren sounded. When play is suspended by darkness _ not threatening weather _ players have the option of finishing the hole.

``They didn't start on time,'' Woods said, referring to the one-hour delay in the afternoon. ``They started seven minutes late, or we would have been done with the 17th and on 18 right now. That's just part of playing the tour in summertime. You're going to get some bad weather.''

His round looked familiar, too.

``I'm just (throwing) away too many shots out there,'' he said.

Thunder came from the gathering dark clouds Thursday afternoon, and more rumbling came from the vicinity of Woods' group. His temper flared on the opening hole when he badly pulled a 30-inch par putt, and despite three straight birdies from inside 4 feet to get to 2 under and a share of the very early lead, he lost it again.

First came a tee shot he pulled into the left bunker _ the pin was to the right _ and a fat shot out of the bunker that cause him to sling his sand wedge some 20 feet at his golf bag; then came a wedge out of the first cut that sailed to the right, followed by another tossed club.

Still, a chip-in from 80 feet short of the green gave him a tie for the lead at the turn, and then he looked like the Woods of old on one of his favorite tracks.

He made three birdies in a four-hole span ending on the 15th to get to 5-under, but his round unraveled the rest of the way with three straight bogeys for a 68 _ not the worst score, but it felt that way.

Woods has played this course so well _ winning three straight times (1999-2001) and never finishing lower than a tie for fifth _ that it was his highest first-round score in seven trips to Firestone.