Shrink Wrapped

January 24, 2012

It was simple math: Stewart Cink faced a 15-foot par putt that would potentially force a Monday playoff at the 2001 U.S. Open at Southern Hills. Even if Cink made it, playing partner Retief Goosen could roll in his 12-foot birdie try for the win. However, unlike Phil's Flop at Winged Foot or Van de Velde's Carn-oopsie, what came next was a two-car pileup. Cink missed the putt, but, in a hurry to get out ofGoosen's way, also missed the 18-inch comebacker. Then, the unflappable Goosen followed with a three-putt of his own, including another missed tap-in. The result: Cink's blown gimme cost him a spot in the playoff where Goosen defeated Mark Brooks. With the PGA Championship at Southern Hills this month, Cink hasn't tried to repress his momentous gaffe because, he says, "I don't try not to think about anything." But why did Cink do it? How did a trained professional with decades oftournament experience miss a putt that a toddler could convert? It's a question Cink, with his psychologist, still contemplates, and an answer he may never know.

The 2001 U.S. Open at Southern Hills must be a bittersweet memory.
It was pretty bitter. There wasn't a whole lot of sweetness to it.

How do you feel about returning for the PGA?
I don't believe that courses hold the same fate for people year after year. I played well, so I'm looking forward to going back, regardless of the last green. I'm sure there will be some moments where I'll relive some of the past; it's inevitable. I relive it all the time anyway. I'll be just a change of scenery.

Why do you relive it so often?
It's not like I can shove it away and act like it never happened. That wouldn't be very helpful.

How often do you think about it?
Obviously, that's a pretty big part of my career: I had a chance to win the U.S. Open and lost it. It's part of my therapy. It's not like I dwell on it all the time, but I really believe that things like that sort of injure you emotionally, cause you some harm on the inside. I don't think it's a good idea to lock those away in some box and pretend like it never happened, like some players do and like I used to do.

So you talk about it with Preston Waddington, your psychologist?
Sometimes, not all the time. Like I said, it's one of the six or seven moments in my career that have acute levels of emotional attachment.

It's not the most acute?
It's not, believe it or not. Golf treats you so rudely sometimes. One time I was leading the Colonial in the fourth round. I was playing with Davis (Love III) and I putted down from long range and went to tap in to get out of his way and missed. That had more impact on me because it was on the fifth hole. I just couldn't get over it. I was in the last group, leading by at least two or three shots, and I played bad the rest of the day and finished second. That was the day Phil (Mickelson) went low and posted a number in the clubhouse, and I was a mess. It happened before the Southern Hills one, which was more of a symptom of what was going on.

The yips, you mean?
Not really the yips. At times it was yippy. Colonial was more carelessness and embarrassment.

You've said that both misses, at the Colonial and at Southern Hills, occurred when you were trying to get out of somebody else's way.
That's true. At the U.S. Open there's no motivation for me to make that putt, because Retief has 10 feet for birdie and I'm putting for bogey. All that happens is if I make (the 18-inch putt) and he two-putts the tournament is over anyway. At the Colonial, embarrassment was the negative motivation for me. I started letting shots, scores, results, affect the way I was feeling, my sense of self. That's what me and Waddington — that's where our talks started.

Were you embarrassed to take up space under Goosen's spotlight?
No, I was embarrassed that I missed the tap-in. I missed the tap-in because I wasn't focusing on it. All I could think about was that (the previous putt) almost went in, he's got a birdie putt from close range, I just lost the U.S. Open, and then, bam, miss. Now I'd gather myself and go back through my routine. I mean it's a tap-in! But my mind, as you can imagine, was going fast and all over the place.

You were quoted as saying, 'If I had waited and Retief had gone on to three-putt and then I missed, I might have retired from golf. But that's not the way it happened. If the timing had been different, it would have hurt me like it hurt anybody. The way it was, it was quirky, which is why I didn't let it hurt me.' Do you still think that?
The only thing riding on the putt, the miss, was that I was embarrassed that I missed it. I didn't feel like I just lost my chance to be in a U.S. Open playoff because (I didn't know) Retief (was) about to three-putt.

But afterward it hurt.
Afterward it did. Because I thought, you know, if I just tap that in … but that's stretching it even more because I really don't think Retiefwould have three-putted if he knew he had to two-putt. Well, he did have to two-putt for Mark Brooks. I don't know. In my heart I believe that if I'd made that putt Retief would have twoputted and we wouldn't even be talking about this. That's why the main feeling was embarrassment.

You use the word 'embarrassment' a lot. Would you rather the Tour be played behind closed doors?
There was a time when I felt that way. I felt like more people were focused on watching me than there really are. If there are 10,000 people around the 18th green, half of them are probably watching you, and half of them have gone to get a hot dog or are waiting for the next group to come through and don't care. They're out there with their boyfriend or husband or whatever. There was a time, though, when I was putting too much pressure on myself. I was trying to live up to what people in the grandstands and in front of the TV were expecting me to do. That stuff is pretty unhealthy for a golfer. The game is hard enough as it is without worrying about that stuff.

It's hard to disappear when you're 6'4.
I don't want to disappear. I want to be in the spotlight. That's why I play. I've been going to Waddington for six years and when I first went to him I said, "Look, I don't even want to go to the golf course. I'm a nervous wreck before I play. I just don't want to go anymore. I don't want to feel this way. Golf's been my life since I was a little kid and I love it, but this feeling, I want it gone. I want to understand it."

You've said you only met Waddington once, and that you don't remember what he looks like. Is he still an unseen voice on the phone, like Charlie from Charlie's Angels?
Not anymore. I just saw him in Florida. The funny thing is, in my mind I had a face attached to his name, and so when I called him that face would always pop into my mind. And when I got there, it was the wrong face. I said, "You're lucky. The guy I used to attach to your voice was a lot uglier than you are." I don't know where that face came from. I said, "I didn't expect you to look like this." He said the same thing about me, that I didn't have as much hair as he thought, because he always sees me on TV with my hat on.

Are you still talking once a week?
Yeah, pretty much every Wednesday.

Did you start to suspect you had the yips at Southern Hills, or were you totally in denial until your wife, Lisa, made you confront it after the 2002 Memorial?
I guess it was a form of denial. I didn't want to admit that I needed help, but I knew something was going on because I was just afraid I was going to miss and I didn't understand why. I had never been afraid before and it started way before 2001. If I go way back in my memory I can only recall being afraid during my early days on Tour.

What was the low point of your battle with the putter?
The 2002 Ryder Cup. I qualified for my first Ryder Cup in 2001 but it was moved back because of 9/11, so I had a year to think about playing on golf's grandest stage and the fact that I was on a downward trend. Unfortunately, for one of the best experiences of my career, I went with a let's-just-get-this-over-with attitude.

How did you get over not wanting to be there?
I actually putted fairly well at that Ryder Cup. I think I went 1-2. I sat out two matches and played two and lost the singles. Nothing really happened over there but I felt like, OK, once I get past this I'm doing something drastic, and it turned out to be the belly putter.

And you're quite good with it. Did you know that at the moment you're fifth on Tour on putts inside 10 feet?
I'm not surprised because now I relish the putter. I'm not the same person I used to be and it's not because of the belly putter. It's because of my attitude. It's because of working with Preston Waddington and understanding all that fear and dread and where it came from. The way to deal with it is to get inside it and figure out why. It helps me to stay a lot calmer on the golf course, and calmness and putting go together.

You've banked more than $19 million in your career, with four wins but no majors. You got to eighth in the World Ranking after the 2005 FBR Open but you're now 18th. At 34, have you overachieved or underachieved?
Under. I've been near the lead going into the final round a lot and just haven't had that great round enough times. When Tiger comes in around the lead on Saturday and then puts together that 7- or 8-under round on Sunday, that's what I've been lacking. I've shot 72 more than I've shot 67.

Is not winning more a symptom of not wanting to be in the spotlight early in your career?
It's (being) a little protective of my position, being defensive, not wanting to make a mistake. The one thing I have to be better at is grabbing a hold of myself and saying, "This is not right, this is not how to play." Once you get in the mode of trying not to fall back, that's when you fall back.

Annihilating Sergio Garcia in the last Ryder Cup has to be among your career highlights.
That meant more because it was the Ryder Cup. That was probably my best round under pressure in a long time just because of the bombs I made.

How did it feel to beat Garcia, who's relished beating up on you guys for years and made no secret about it?
Let's just say there were 11 other guys on our team in addition to me who wanted to play him. I was the second match, and Lehman was emphatic with the first four or five guys, "Guys, whatever you do, you just have to go out and win your matches," because we were so far behind. I went out there and responded to that. I was thinking all day, "Just get that point, get that point, and maybe the team can get sparked by my beating Sergio." (Laughs.) It didn't quite work out that way. He had played good all week, and it's not like he played bad against me. I just had a lot of birdies.

What does it feel like to play for your country?
Playing for the U.S., I feel like I'm playing for the captain and the other players as well as for my country. I enjoy the way that makes you focus. It makes you want to hunker down more. That's something I talked about with Waddington. I said, "I want to play every week on Tour like I do at the Ryder Cup," and he said, "Why don't you?" That's how he works. He gets you to answer your own questions. The reason is that it's hard to find that intensity all the time.

Isn't it a pain in the butt to play in the Ryder Cup and the Presidents Cup every year?
It's a privilege that I would never trade. It's the best week out of 52.

Why? You don't make any money.
We make money 51 weeks a year. It's great. I'm glad playing golf pays the money it does thanks to Tiger and (Tim) Finchem and the Tour. But we play golf to compete. Hitting it in the water on 18 yesterday (at the CA Championship) made me sick to my stomach. I fought hard all day long. It's not like I was tearing the course up but I hit a ball in the water and I had to struggle to make bogey. You think that tore me up because it might cost me 20 grand at the end of the week? No, it's because I want to finish as high as I can.

Forgive us for saying this, but you've always looked old for your age. Were you one of those guys who was more mature in a lot of ways than his college peers?
You have to remember that I was married in college and my first son was born when I was 20, so I really couldn't afford to be the typical 21-year-old kid going out and having his first beer. I had a lot of responsibility. Getting married that early did change my lifestyle. I learned how to focus. I didn't have the luxury of playing for years and years on the mini tours and coming out here when I was 36.

Where do you rank yourself as a golfer?
Years ago I felt like I was in the next tier down (from Tiger Woods), and I think I put Jim Furyk in that tier with me, but he's elevated. Jim Furyk has done the kind of elevation of his career that I hoped I'd be able to do, and I haven't made it. I haven't made that jump. So I've got a ways to go still to be in that category. I think Jim is in the Vijay, Phil, Ernie, Adam Scott category, the second tier.

Are you just a moneymaker, not a champion?
No, I think I'm extremely competitive — more than just an ATM. I have areas I need to work on that are holding me back from being in that next group. My short game hasn't been as good as I'd like it.

Do you practice enough?
Yeah, I'll take one day and work just around the green, and I'll take another and work on my swing. Maybe I need to practice more on the course. Waddington and me are still going strong and I'm still learning.

Mentally, what are you working on now?
It's a notion called archaic grandiosity that has an effect on (athletes such as) pitchers and golfers, who don't have to react to a moving ball. It's kind of that feeling I have that everyone in the crowd is staring at me and going, "If you don't make this birdie, you're definitely nothing but a loser." That's archaic grandiosity. You take what's in your mind and put it out there into other people's minds.

When in fact what they're really thinking is …
"The line for the bus is going to be long once this round is over."