Alex Cejka has overcome Communism and injuries on his way to Players lead

Saturday May 9th, 2009
Alex Cejka made six birdies and one bogey on Friday.
Fred Vuich/SI

The midway leader of the Players Championship swam across the Rhine River at age 9 after fleeing Communism in the former Czechoslovakia. As an immigrant in Germany at age 15, he followed his golfing idol for 18 holes in a steady rain, dreaming that one day he might find the same kind of work.

Just last week, at age 38, he took an epidural injection in his right arm to relieve the pain from a pinched nerve and numbness in his fingers.

It has been an interesting life for Alex Cejka, who lacks the star power of Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson but who is dusting both at the Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass.

Cejka, after a round of 67, leads the championship by two shots over England's Ian Poulter, seven shots over Woods, and 11 over Mickelson, who made the cut on the number at even-par 144.

Even better, Cejka's back story might be the most amazing at the TPC Sawgrass.

"For me, it was just a little trip," Cejka said Friday, reflecting on the circumstances of leaving Czechoslovakia with his father. "I was too young to understand what was going on. For me, it was a vacation, a smooth ride. Probably my dad was nervous as hell just leaving everything behind, taking the son and a little backpack through three or four countries into the West."

They traveled by any means necessary — "by foot, by train, by bike, everything," Cejka said — and eventually settled in Frankfurt. Cejka's father was an engineer and part-time piano player during the 1980s, at about the same time Bernhard Langer was becoming a golfing legend in Germany.

"It was the Langer boom," Cejka said. "He'd just won the Masters. He came to play the German Open in Frankfurt every year back then, and of course, I watched him. He was the only German guy who was on tour, the only German guy who won tournaments, the only German guy who won a major. That was the inspiration. I watched him whenever I could."

Cejka would eventually become a solid international player, taking 11 titles around the world but never finishing higher than second on the PGA Tour. This week he has looked comfortable playing against the deepest field in golf, shooting 32 on his front nine Friday and making two more birdies against a bogey on the back. He has built his lead despite dealing with numerous physical ailments.

He missed three months last season after neck surgery, which included inserting a titanium plate and a cadaver bone to stabilize the area.

"After the surgery, everything was fine until I woke up one day and it was just numb and it was just inflamed, irritated," he said. "That was kind of a shock for me."

In addition to last week's epidural injection, Cejka has had to ice his neck twice a day and skip the long practice sessions customary on the PGA Tour.

"It's tough to just hit one bucket and relax, but that's what I have to do the next couple of weeks," Cejka said.

If Cejka leaves extra practice balls on the range, he might want to send them over to Woods and Mickelson. The duo that jousted during the final round of the Masters continues to cede the spotlight to other competitors. Woods, at least, broke 70 thanks to three straight birdies in the middle of his round and a scrambling par on the difficult 18th after he drove behind a tree, hit a low punch to 10 feet, and took two putts.

He predicted that the pin placements on Saturday would be punched for scoring.

"You can probably shoot a good one if you play well," Woods said.

For the second straight day, Mickelson couldn't get any magic going on the course he conquered just two years ago. He had several birdie looks that slid past the hole. (He has needed 61 putts through two rounds). On the par-3 eighth hole — his 17th of the day — he missed a 4-footer for par, which forced him to make birdie on the par-5 ninth or miss the cut.

From the fairway, Mickelson reached the 575-yard hole in two shots, and two-putted for birdie. He was safe for the weekend, if well out of contention. "I knew I had to make 4 to have a chance," he said.

For now, the stage is Cejka's, even if there are some big names lurking behind. Masters champ Angel Cabrera is four shots back, and so are David Toms and Henrik Stenson. But Cejka has been through more harrowing events than four rounds on Pete Dye's taxing golf course. A childhood escape, an immigrant experience, and, ultimately, a career in golf. Maybe, at the end of Sunday, there will be a crystal trophy, too.

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