HONOLULU (AP)—Two dozen PGA Tour rookies start their season Thursday atthe Sony Open.
In some respects, Stewart Cink feels like one of them.
“This is a fresh start,” he said Wednesday, walking down the 15th fairwayat Waialae Country Club during the best part of the day as the warm sun startedto drop toward the Pacific horizon.
Cink is 38 and about to embark on his 15th season. He is still saluted asthe guy who spoiled an epic moment in sports by taking down Tom Watson atTurnberry to win the 2009 British Open. His home life has never been better. Hisoldest son, Connor, is a senior in high school who was recently made captain ofhis high school hockey team in Atlanta. Reagan will turn 15 on Sunday at theMasters.
His golf game? That’s another story.
Cink moved up to No. 9 in the world when he won at Turnberry. He starts thisyear at No. 147.
“I don’t feel like I belong there,” Cink said, conceding that he stoppedpaying attention after he slipped out of the top 100. “It’s very disappointing,but I’ve played about that kind of golf. I’ll never be one to argue about theranking. I think the ranking tells you how you’re playing. You can’t hide fromthem.”
It seems as though Cink has been in hiding.
He had sinus surgery in November and the medication he was on kept him awakeat night. He wound up watching the Presidents Cup, another reminder of how farhe had fallen. Cink had played on the previous seven U.S. teams in the Ryder Cupand Presidents Cup. He had to sit this one out.
He played in 23 consecutive World Golf Championships until last year atDoral. He starts this year not eligible for any of them. He still gets into themajors based on his win at the Open.
“I feel like I belong in World Golf Championships, playing late on Sunday.That’s where I’ve been my whole career,” he said. “It’s a little bitembarrassing. It’s a pride thing, almost shameful. Like it or not, golf—whenyou’ve done it as long as I’ve done it—becomes part of you. If you’ve got badgolf, that means something is bad inside of you. It hurts. When you play wellfor a long time, it’s frustrating.”
This is not a British Open hangover.
On paper, it would look as though Cink spent a year celebrating his majorchampionship, then never got back on track. In fact, he says he had been playingbadly and had an extraordinary week at the right time one week in July on theAyrshire coast of Scotland.
He traces the problem to his attempt at hitting a draw. Over the last fiveyears, the path of his swing became more pronounced from the inside, to thepoint where he had to rely more on his timing. The result was a two-way miss,the worst feeling for any golfer on the tee, and an inadequate short game madeit feel even worse.
Cink went from missing the Tour Championship in 2010 to missing the last twoplayoff events a year ago, finishing 98th in the standings. He was No. 101 onthe money list, finishing outside the top 100 for the first time in his career.
Even so, his optimism level is right up there with the rookies.
Cink began working last summer with Chris O’Donnell, who also teaches MattKuchar , trying to get the club more square at impact. When he had himselfvideotaped in 3-D, he said his swing was coming from the inside at 7 degrees.
“This year is a test,” he said. “I want to see how I can respond to thesechanges.”
The biggest change might be his desire. Cink asked himself some seriousquestions during the offseason, one of them being what he wants to accomplishthe rest of his career. He even questioned his own will, wondering if it mightbe better to simply ride out that five-year exemption he received from theBritish Open and just walk away.
He’s not ready for that, not at his age.
“It’s easy to lose drive and focus when you’re having a bad stretch,” hesaid. “Everything in my life, other than golf, has grown up. My kids have grownup. My relationship with (wife) Lisa has grown up. It’s easy to want to focus onother stuff when you’re struggling, and I battled through that a little bit.”
And he found a role model in Steve Stricker , who won last week at Kapaluafor his eighth PGA Tour win in the last three years, the most of any player.
Stricker was in his mid-30s when his game started to go south. He wasterrified off the tee, not sure where the ball was going. He lost his PGA Tourcard. But through dedication and hard work, he pulled himself out the slump andnow is arguably the best American player.
“That’s how I’d like to be,” Cink said.
It all starts Thursday in the first full-field event of the season, whereMark Wilson is the defending champion and Stricker is the star based on hisperformance last week on Maui.
Two dozen rookies get started, 11 of whom have never competed in a PGA Tourevent. Optimism is never higher than it is on the shores of Waikiki Beach at thestart of a new season. And yes, that includes Cink.
“I don’t call him Stewart,” caddie Frank Williams said. “I call him`comeback player of the year.”’
Cink isn’t ready to go that far, at least not yet. He has four tournaments—Honolulu, San Diego, Phoenix and L.A.—to see if he can get his world rankinghigh enough go to the Match Play Championship at the end of February. This is aRyder Cup year, and the last time Cink was not part of the U.S. team was atBrookline in 1999.
“Now it’s time to come out here and work,” he said. “And I’m reallylooking forward to seeing how I do.”