Stewart Cink: His Work-in-Progress Swing Shot 64 in Vegas

Ever since Stewart Cink’s brilliant, honest interview at the Humana Challenge prompted me to write a post about him in January of 2013, “Stewart Cink: A Long Way From The British Open,” he’s been on my long-term watch list. (I highly recommend reading or re-reading this post because it provides detailed context and keen insight on how the winner of the 2009 Open Championship would eventually find himself at rock bottom and the process he began to dig himself back out.)

Today he captured my attention again by firing a first-round 64 at the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open to share the lead with Martin Laird who has been pleasantly surprising himself with his recent good play (T3 at last week’s Open at Silverado).

Cink got off to a “not so great start” with seven straight pars on the TPC Summerlin in Las Vegas where pars are nowhere near good enough: 

“Well, 64 is good for anybody, I think, but on the first day of the year, you don’t really ever know what’s going to come out, the first day of the season.  It’s been six weeks since I played, and you have to prepare yourself to be ready for both, a great start and a not so great start, and just be ready to keep going.”

“Today, I have to be honest, through seven holes I had seven pars and it didn’t look like anything special out there except a whole lot of grazed putts.  I just kind of was patient and waited for a good stretch, and a good stretch happened.”

A good stretch happened indeed. In the face of all those grazed putts, he birdied 8 and 9, made the turn and birdied 11, 12 and 13, going five for six. And then capped it with two more on 16 and 18. But he realizes that he can’t let up:

“Well, it’s probably easier for you to play here than it is some other venues knowing the scores are low because you can’t rest.  You don’t have the luxury to rest on a good round and go out there and protect it.  I just have to keep playing tomorrow.  Like I told my caddie joking around, if we just do that every day for the season, we’ll be okay, but it’s not going to happen.”

“Tomorrow just got to go be ready to repeat the process all over again and see what happens.”

But the round was just as impressive for knowing that he had to go low but was standing flatfooted on the 8th green with seven straight pars. That’s where you need to have patience. He did and sunk a 17-footer for his first birdie of the day:

“Even though you know it’s a low‑scoring event, you still have to remember that it’s a long week.  You’re going to have your share of looks at birdies, and you’ve got some par‑5s ahead of you, and yeah, I mean, I looked up on the board when I was on No.8 green, I hadn’t made a birdie yet, I was even par, and someone was already 6‑under.  That was a little disheartening, but you just have to remind yourself it’s not a downpour of birdies from the very beginning for the guy that ends up winning this tournament.”

He called his 2014 campaign a “close call year.” He made 21 of 25 cuts, but he only had 6 top-25s. But he also knew at that point that that was not who he was as a player:

“Yeah, last year was a close call year for me.  It could have been really good.  I played well the first opening couple rounds of a lot of tournaments and got myself in position and then didn’t have very many good weekends.  I especially had some rough patches that lasted four or five holes where I shot myself out of tournaments too many times.  You know, it’s something you have to try to work through.  Part of it’s just golf, but also, you kind of think that you’re responsible for part of that.”

He spent the off-season ramping it all back up again and didn’t really know how the chips were going to fall in his first tournament of the year:

“You can work on it all you want at home, with your coach, and on the range and playing with your friends, but then as soon as you get out here, it feels different.  It all feels different.  I did work quite a bit.  I took a couple weeks off.  I was off sick, and I took off the first two completely, really didn’t do anything, and then I had a big charity tournament a week ago from this past Monday, so once that got finished, I really started focusing on getting ready to go.”

“I had already sort of addressed a few changes, but I really started working hard on getting ready to play and correct some of those things.  It’s kind of like playing Whack‑a‑Mole golf.  You correct one thing, and something else flares up, and it’s just constantly you’re searching for where you’re going to put the next fire out.  Today was a day where there weren’t a lot of fires to put out, but today was today, so I’m just — I was pleased with it, but I don’t think that this is an indication of, wow, I’ve got it all figured out”

In last year’s post, he talked about how he and his coach, Mike Lipnick, tore what little was left of his British Open swing down to the basic fundamentals and started all over. And even that was a little brave because Lipnick was not some heralded swing guru, he was Cink’s home course club pro. He chose him because he knew that he wouldn’t sugarcoat reality and above all else, he needed honesty to get better.

But now they’ve moved on to the way most Tour coaches work with their players once they have the swing under control; looking at stats:

“Well, the same things that almost everybody that’s in the tournament was working on.  We looked at some statistics and kind of compare those to what your heart says about the way you played, and then you look at some video of your swing and your putting and you figure out if there’s some patterns that are going on that cause some of that, and then you address those patterns, and that’s basically how you work with a coach and that’s what I did for about four weeks at home.  Like I said, we’re putting out fires.”

And then he shared some information that would give some comfort to us mere mortals: Tour players are not robots even though it mostly looks that way. They’re hunting and pecking through swing thoughts and feels just like the rest of us:

“That’s the nature of golf.  Every shot feels a little bit different in a way, and a couple of bad results give you feedback, a couple good results give you feedback, and you’ve just got to mesh it all together and figure out what’s working the best.  We’re not robots.  We’re human beings, and everything is a little bit different every time.  It’s just the way golf is, and it’s part of what makes it such a great game.”

And he sort of reiterated that when he said that there were really only three or four players in the world who had their swing concepts clear and merely worked to reinforce those good things. Everybody else is still working on it, albeit, at a very high level:

“I don’t think you shore things up because that would indicate that you kind of feel like you’ve got it where you want it.  Maybe the top three or four players in the world would be shoring things up, but most everybody else is trying to look at where they’re weak and improve those areas.  To me that means changing.  That doesn’t mean shoring up.”

But they’re not making big changes, they’re merely nibbling at the edges. But because of their sensitivity, they feel like big changes. A nice problem to have for us mere mortals:

“Not fairly big, but to a player that — we play golf a lot.  Tour players, we play a lot of golf.  We’ve played our whole lives.  Any little minor change feels huge, and it takes some time to get implemented.”

So we will see just how much of that is ruminating in his head on Friday or whether he will come out looking like he’s still in the flow of Thursday. The question is can he find the flow before he starts thinking about it.

The good thing about Stewart Cink is that at least he’ll tell us later if he’s asked.

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