AUGUSTA – Imagine being viewed for years as among the best in your field, then suddenly losing it. The swing goes, the confidence wavers, the fearless aggression of youth disintegrates.
“I was fearless,” Stewart Cink said Thursday of his younger days. “But this game gives you some scar tissue.”
Imagine being a professional golfer, surpassing $30 million in a career earnings, even winning the British Open, a career apex — yet believing down deep that magical week at Turnberry in 2009 was actually some aberration. Maybe not lucky, but certainly not an accurate gauge of where you believed things were heading.
“The Open week was kind of one off-week when I played really awesome,” Cink said. “I knew that even the shots I hit well, I was getting away with something. I could hit 10 in a row beautifully but in my heart I knew there was one that could go anywhere. … I was spiraling downhill.”
Thursday was a good day for Stewart Cink. He didn’t spiral.
Even with the missed birdie putts and the 12th tee shot that rolled backward into Rae’s Creek for an early-afternoon swim, the opening round of the Masters was a step forward. He fired a 1-under-71 at Augusta National, leaving him only four shots off the lead. More important, he is a fair distance from the danger zone of a Friday drive back west on Interstate 20 and home to Duluth.
The former Georgia Tech star has missed the cut in his past two tournaments. His Tour finishes this year: 29th, 13th, withdraw, 67th, 36th, 70th, cut, cut. He had 56 top-10 finishes in the first nine years of his career, but has managed only four since (three in 2010, one last year, zippo this season).
His world ranking: No. 163. That’s right between Juvic Pagunsan and Marc Leishman. Aesthetically, it’s the geographic equivalent of being between Bismarck and Winnipeg.
But after more than two years of trying to re-make his swing and twice changing coaches, he saw progress Thursday. Save the tee shot on 12, he was strong everywhere except on the green. He hit 12 of 14 fairways. He reached 16 of 18 greens. He missed several makable birdie putts and rolled a 40-footer to the lip of the cup on 18 — totaling 32 putts — preventing a potential share of the lead.
Cink has long been one of the more likeable guys on the Tour, in part because of his honesty.
Asked if he had doubt that he could return to top form, he responded: “Of course there’s doubt.”
He said he trusts changes to his swing on the driving range, but added, “The range is emotionless. When you go out there and you’ve got a creek left and a pin placement up on the point, emotion starts to feel your soul. I haven’t learned to completely trust it yet. I need more rounds like this. … You can’t lie to your subconscious.”
On reclaiming his aggressiveness, he cracked, “I’d like to be totally fearless again. But that’s why we have sports psychologists.”
It has been a strange ride. Cink may have won the Open in 2009, but he felt his game start to slide in the last half of 2008. His swing, in the most simplistic terms, had become too inside-out. When he decided to break everything down and rebuild himself, several golf analysts were critical.
Cink: “There’s a reason they’re former players and not current players.”
He, like most players, battled a game of mud ball in the first round at Augusta National. Would the ball curve as much as expected with mud on it? Would it stick if it landed in slop, or skip away?
Golfers learn to read greens, but can they read mud?
“Yeah, at the school of bogeys,” Cink said.
He is joking again. That’s a good sign.
“I don’t know if you realize how much this game means to me and the other guys,” he said. “It’s almost life and death. Emotionally, this game treats us kind of rough of sometimes.”
He worked through some of the scar tissue Thursday. It’s a start.
By Jeff Schultz