Hilton Head provides the perfect cure for the Masters Hangover
On Monday, April 14, the day after he and Tiger Woods failed to win the Masters, Stewart Cink took it easy at his house in suburban Atlanta.
In the morning he watched a tape of the final round, fast-forwarding through others' shots while hoping to analyze how his swing held up under the pressure. One problem.
"They didn't show me hitting a shot after the 4th hole," says Cink, who was both amused and disappointed. "They showed me putting but no shots."
That afternoon Cink did a bunch of phone-in radio interviews, falling asleep during one of them.
"Yeah, I actually dozed off," he says. "I blamed it on my cellphone going out."
Playing at Augusta National, the game's most glamorous and stressful stage, saps a player's energy the way kryptonite drains Superman. If you're in contention on the weekend (Cink finished third), and you're paired with Tiger in the final round (as Cink was), when the first major championship of the season is over, you'll probably crash like a college kid after an all-nighter.
But there's a cure for Masters Hangover, and it's not "take two green jackets and call me in the morning." It's the Verizon Heritage, at Harbour Town Golf Links on South Carolina's Hilton Head Island (a.k.a. the Head), the most relaxing stop on the PGA Tour.
The Head is where wounds heal, spring hits its sweet stride, and pros decompress and rejuvenate.
Cink sensed that Masters week had taken a toll as he drove back home from Augusta with his wife, Lisa, after the final round.
"I noticed I was having a hard time putting thoughts into words," he says. "I probably shouldn't have been behind the wheel. I was so drained, although I didn't really realize it at that moment."
The Cinks arrived home at 12:30 a.m. and got to bed around 2. "You'd think I would've slept all day [Monday], but I wanted to see the coverage," says Cink, who watched the replay while the kids were at school and Lisa, a part-time teacher, was at work.
Cink had his second wind by dinnertime, and he took Lisa and their children, Connor, 14, and Reagan, 11, to their favorite Mexican restaurant. He even watched a movie Best Laid Plans, starring Reese Witherspoon before he "zonked out."
The next day, Tuesday, Cink hitched a ride to the Head on a friend's plane. "But I was a wreck," Cink says. Going straight from the airport to Harbour Town, Cink took part in a Nike outing on the practice range, hitting shots and talking, and then signed autographs for an hour.
"It was like trying to keep my eyelids propped open with toothpicks," he says.
Cink tried to practice a little later but had "nothing" in the tank. He was a wreck on Wednesday, pro-am day, too.
"I was flat," he says. "I leaned on my caddie quite a bit simply to keep me moving."
The feeling was similar to the sensations the week after a Ryder Cup or a Presidents Cup, but "much more acute," Cink says.
By Thursday, however, he was in recovery mode and back playing the kind of golf that has already lifted him from 25th to 14th in the World Ranking this year. Cink opened with a four-under 67 and followed with a 68, putting him in the hunt until defending champ Boo Weekley went Boolistic, backing up a second-round 65 with a 64 on Saturday to separate himself from the field. Cink tied for seventh, seven shots back.
Curiously, all four of Cink's career wins have come the week after a major two at Hilton Head (2000, '04), the others at Firestone following the '04 PGA Championship and in Hartford after the '97 British Open.
"I think it's the relaxation factor the compression up there at Augusta and the decompression [at Harbour Town]," he says. "I'm trying to figure out a way to fool myself and start grinding really hard the week before the majors."
Justin Leonard, who didn't contend in Augusta but shared the first-round lead at Harbour Town before eventually finishing 17th, equated the Masters to final exams and the Heritage to spring break.
"You come here and go on bike rides and do fun stuff with the kids," Leonard says. "Golf is almost secondary. It's easy to get in the mind-set of leaving last week's baggage behind."
Steve Flesch, the last of Trevor Immelman's pursuers to fall during the Masters, can relate. Two shots behind Immelman on the tee at the par-3 12th on Sunday, Flesch hit what he thought was a perfect eight-iron, but the capricious, swirling wind at Amen Corner swatted his ball down into Rae's Creek. The resulting 5 knocked Flesch out of the hunt, but he has no regrets.
"My mentality was, I'm almost 41, I've played in only four Masters, I'm not the longest hitter in the world and this course isn't going to get any easier for me," Flesch says. "This might be the best chance I'll ever have. I got caught by a gust on 12, tried to be aggressive coming in and made a couple bogeys because of that. That's golf. To be honest, I didn't care if I finished third or fifth or eighth I had a chance to win and gave it my best shot."
Three more bogeys on the back nine dropped Flesch into a tie for fifth, his best finish in a major. His second-round 67 was the low round of the tournament.
The day after he failed to win the Masters, Flesch drove to the Head and had dinner with his pals from Cleveland Golf, and the next morning his Masters Hangover was joined by the real thing.
"We tied one on and had a great time," he says.
On Tuesday, Flesch slept in until 11, then hit a few balls and briefly chipped and putted. On Wednesday he played in the pro-am but felt lethargic. Flesch scraped it around in 70 on Thursday.
"I felt like a noodle out there," he says. "Usually I'm never physically exhausted, but after walking Augusta National for eight days, I was worn out. If I was mentally worn out, too, I would've shot an 80 from where I was hitting it."
On a positive note Flesch immediately discovered that his normally low profile had been raised considerably due to his play at Augusta.
"It's amazing what a worldwide telecast can do when you're on for three days," he says. "People unloading their cars at the hotel said, 'Hey, nice going,' and I couldn't believe how many people recognized me on Monday night. They all said, 'Great Masters. I'm sure you didn't finish the way you wanted.' They didn't have to add the last part, but they meant it as a compliment."
On Friday, Flesch, a lefthander, fought through an alarming case of the rights with his irons, normally the strength of his game. He made a series of unlikely par saves, including one at the 13th hole after his hooked nine-iron shot caromed off greenside planking and nearly went into a hazard near the 14th tee. He pulled off an unbelievable pitch shot to eight feet and made the putt. He hooked a six-iron into the water at 14, and at 17 he hooked a five-iron up against the bleachers he would've hit the six, but that club had experienced a fatal accident at the 14th tee.
"I told my caddie after I made par on 18, 'Thank God we ran out of holes before we ran out of balls,'" said Flesch, who salvaged a 71.
The problem, he realized, was a different kind of Masters hangover. He had changed his irons before the Masters, installing heavier shafts too heavy and too stiff, forcing him to throw his hands through the shot.
"Honestly, I didn't hit my irons that good in Augusta," he says. "I chipped and putted my butt off and drove it like crazy. I was fine with the eight- and nine-iron and wedges, but from seven-iron on down I was hooking it."
At the Head he switched back to his regular shafts on Saturday, regained his touch and made four birdies on the front nine during a 70. Mystery solved, Flesch added another 70 on Sunday and finished 29th.
Although he never contended at Harbour Town, Flesch left Hilton Head feeling pretty chipper. April had already been a vintage month. His nine-year-old son, Griffin, caddied for him during the Masters Par-3 contest. (Griffin saw Dad hit one in the drink at the 8th hole, retee and hole out for par.) Flesch had made a serious run at a green jacket. (The top 16 are invited back.) And all of a sudden he was famous. (On Golf Channel a few years ago, he challenged several fans and Michelle Wie to pick out his picture in the Tour media guide. No one could.)
Harbour Town's signature red-and-white lighthouse loomed behind Flesch as he chatted near the 18th green. Boats bobbed lazily on Calibogue Sound, and the flags on yachts in the adjacent marina snapped in the spring breeze. The Masters was over. The healing had begun.