Stewart Cink: A Long Way From the British Open

Stewart Cink was the guy who beat the revered Tom Watson in the 2009 British Open. Had Watson won, he would have been the oldest player to win a major at 59 years old. Taking out Watson in the four-hole playoff was like beating Huck Finn. As the AP reported at the time:

Watson stood on the 18th tee one last time, trailing the playoff by four shots, blinking away tears. He wasn’t alone in his sadness. Thousands of fans who filled the grandstands for the first time all week sat in stunned silence.

Rarely does a major championship end like this one — to polite applause from a gallery of long faces.

And no one could say that Cink didn’t earn it. He made a 12-foot birdie on 18 to tie Watson when he was unable to get up and down from over the back of the green. From the AP again: 

Cink, who was never atop the leaderboard all week until Watson missed the winning putt, was flawless in the playoff. He opened with two pars, finished with two birdies and won by six, the largest margin in this format.

But still, he had beaten Huck Finn, the players’ player, the champions’ champion, the gentlemen’s gentleman, the model of decorum and sportsmanship. Oh, what they will say about this man when he is gone; the superlatives will never end.

Cink won $1.2 million for the victory and ended up with $2.8 on the year. One of the best things about winning a major these days is that not only do you earn the prestige of such a victory, you earn the 5-year exemption that goes with it.

2010 was a bit of a letdown with just $1.6 million, but absent the Open, about what he would have done in 2009.

2011 was when the alarm bells should have sounded, and perhaps they did, but he had a 5-year exemption and no worries. He only won $909,000.

2012 made it clear that the house was on fire. Winning only $477,000. He missed 7 of 22 cuts and withdrew once. He had 4 top 25s, but made only one six-figure check.

He began to take action to turn things around:

I started working with the coach at my home course in Sugarloaf named Mike Lipnick.  And he and I just kind of went back to fundamentals at the end of last year, and I asked him one day, to take a look at my swing and tell me what he thought was different from five years ago, and also tell me what my strengths and weaknesses were.

We worked for about 30 minutes and he looked at me and said, “To be honest with you, I don’t see a lot of strengths here.”  So that was a little bit of a wake‑up call for me because I still felt like I had some strengths, at least.

But he said, “I don’t really see it.  You’re not really doing a whole lot of good stuff right now.  You’re not helping yourself out.”

What you need in circumstances like that is someone who will tell you the truth and not just tiptoe around what he really thinks:

What I took from that was that he was prepared to be pretty honest with me and he wasn’t going to sugarcoat just because I’m an experienced veteran Tour player and he was a teacher at a local club.

And so the festivities began. But the good news was that it wasn’t about rebuilding a swing, it was about enabling something that was already there:

So we just started working on some fundamental stuff and getting back to more basic stuff that I came out on Tour with and a little more setup-oriented type of changes where I’m unlocking my potential to swing the club the right way at the setup and not by trying to make some [compensating] motion with my upper body or arms or anything.

And here’s something that gives us some insight into how a Tour veteran thinks; he’s not looking for perfection because he knows it doesn’t exist:

It’s a process that I’m still in sort of the very beginning stages of.  But out here, I think that you’re playing, even though one round and one shot are sometimes very important, you’re still trying to play the percentages, where out of a thousand shots, you want the highest number of those to be good.  And that’s what I’m after.

I’m after that overriding quality, not necessarily go out there tomorrow and shoot a 26 from the first tee box.  So this is just part of the steps that I need to take to get comfortable being in contention and trusting myself and trusting my swing and what I’m doing with Mike.

The reason that we got to hear all of this is that after three rounds at the Humana Challenge, Cink is T2 and five strokes back of two-time Tour winner, Scott Stallings. That got him into the media room where he was asked if he expected this to all turn around this fast:

Well, I was playing really well in the off-season.  I was really in control and I felt like I was doing some good stuff.  But then Sony, I missed the cut and I was really frustrated by that, because I felt like I was going to go out to Sony and play well, and I really didn’t play well at all.

That’s one of the reasons that so many Tour players play the week before an important tournament (although Cink didn’t have that option with Sony being the first full-field tournament of the year). When your swing isn’t on cruise control, you want that extra sense of confidence that what you’re doing will hold up under pressure. There is no pressure in the off-season.

So coming here this week, I was a little frustrated.  And the first two days of practice really weren’t that great either, and to be honest, I didn’t expect this.

But I just kind of committed myself to just going one shot at a time and staying completely committed to being in the present and it’s been ‑‑ I’ve hit a lot of really nice shots this week and the biggest thing, though, is my putter has been pretty warm this week.

And then somebody asked the best question of the session: How do you go from being the British Open Champion to the hapless condition of his game?

Well, I just think that golf is not a static entity and you can change a little bit to go from a Major winner, even though 2009, when I won the Major, that year overall was not a very good year for me.  The one major win was obviously great, but the rest of the year stunk.

And so I had already started to sort of decline a little bit in my performances and I had stopped trusting what I was doing.  The ball was really telling me that I shouldn’t really be very trustful of what I was doing because it wasn’t going where I wanted it to go.

So when you’re out here playing against the best players top to bottom every week, it doesn’t take much of a fall to end up where I ended up the last couple years and so I’m trying to dig myself back to the top.

But still, how could something like this happen to someone good enough to win a major? Was it so gradual that it was hard to notice?

Yes.  Exactly.  It happens very gradually and you don’t notice it until, like going back to what we said a minute ago about the thousand shots, every set of a thousand shots, a new pattern starts to sort of evolve.  You don’t notice that while it’s happening.  But when you go back and analyze, son of a gun, I missed a lot of fairways left and right.

The best players out here are missing fairways one way or the other more often.  Eliminating one side of the course.  And it’s hard to play with shots that are going both ways.  And that’s kind of where I was.  I was having trouble off the tee and my short game wasn’t very reliable.  That’s areas where you just really have to be on out here to be competitive.

The swing doesn’t feel any differently. You still feel like you’re swinging it like you always did, it’s just that something has crept into the swing that causes more surprises than the occasional aberrations. The balls suddenly don’t behave as you expect them to.

The problem is that there aren’t big, obvious causes. If there were it would be simple. The process begins by ensuring that the enabling fundamentals are in place:

Remember I’m just in the start of this.  So my adjustments have been pretty small, setup mainly.  The setup is unlocking what my swing should naturally do.  And there’s going to be days like I had at Sony where they aren’t good and there’s going to be days where the last couple that have been pretty good.

But for the most part, it’s just been a small setup change where I have to keep my balance right and try to rotate instead of moving laterally.

What a gift Stewart Cink has given us with his candor in this interview. To discover that a Tour player of Cink’s stature has managed to catch himself sliding in his golf swing rather than turning. A Tour player sliding?

If he does that, there just might be hope for the rest of us too.

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