Change was in the wind during the 2000 British Open at the Old Course. As he faced the classic closing stretch of holes at St. Andrews, Stewart Cink was all too aware of the significance of the chilly northeast breeze that for centuries has raked the ancient linksland. He would battle a fierce left-to-right wind on all of them, but his repertoire didn't include a draw — a shot that curves right to left — to counter that wind.
Cink was blown away. "Every shot was right edge of the green, right edge of the fairway, or worse," he recalls. "That's where I told myself, I need to develop a shot for this situation. I wanted to get better."
He was 27 then, not far removed from a stellar college career at Georgia Tech. He had been the Nationwide tour player of the year, the PGA Tour rookie of the year and had won his second Tour title a few months earlier at Harbour Town Golf Links. It was natural and logical to aspire to more.
Fast-forward, then, to last week's RBC Heritage back at Cink's favorite links, Harbour Town, amid the beach-life serenity that is Hilton Head Island. Cink's résumé boasts six victories, including the unforgettable 2009 British Open at Turnberry, where he beat Tom Watson in a playoff. His repertoire is, indeed, bigger. A draw, a hook, a fade — he has all the shots now. The problem, as the golf punch line goes, is that he isn't sure which shot is coming.
Cink has slid from ninth on the PGA Tour money list in 2008, to 17th, then 52nd, then 101st and finally 120th this year. Less than three years after the victory of his life, Cink is trying to reclaim his swing and his career. Golf is a game littered with cautionary tales based on this seldom-spoken truth: Any swing change can save — or end — a career. Cink mastered the draw he needed at St. Andrews, but in the process of making the change he believed would turn him into a better and more well-rounded player, he slowly misplaced the essence of his original swing. A medium-length driver and accurate iron player when he came on Tour in 1997, Cink finished in the top 16 in five of his first six appearances at the U.S. Open, failing to make the playoff at Southern Hills in '01 when he missed from 18 inches at the 72nd hole. After adding the draw, he was longer but less accurate, and he hasn't been a factor in the Open since.
"If you take away the British Open, the last three years have been the worst of my career, in order," Cink says. Turnberry was a great week, he adds, but he believes he caught lightning in a bottle.
Now a month shy of his 39th birthday, he's in search of something more permanent. So he has a new coach, a new swing thought and a new determination. Progress has been slow going, much like tournament traffic around the Sea Pines traffic circle.
For a snapshot, let's back up to the third round of this month's Masters. After a nice draw around the corner at the par-5 13th hole, Cink went for the green with a three-iron. He pulled the shot deep into the azaleas, so deep that he played a provisional. The next swing produced an even worse pull. "I followed myself into the azaleas," Cink says, mustering a weak chuckle.
He found both balls — about two feet apart. "Good cart golf," Cink says jokingly, but consistency like that is truly frightening. He made a 7 and signed for an 81. His final-round 69 underscored the start-and-stop nature of his reconstruction project. Last week at Harbour Town, there were mostly stops. Cink shot 43 on his second nine during an opening 79, had 77 the next day and missed the cut by 11 shots.
Butch Harmon, Cink's coach for eight years, is gone. Longtime friends, they parted amicably in late 2010. Last June, Cink started working with Chris O'Connell, a player-turned-caddie-turned-instructor who helped another Georgia Tech alum, Matt Kuchar, revamp his swing and play his way back to relevance.
"Stewart thought it was a weakness that he couldn't hit a draw," says O'Connell. "Well, I don't think Jack Nicklaus ever drew the ball. Nor did Lee Trevino. Too often we get caught up in the ball flight we can't hit. We think the grass is greener over there. It's usually not."
There is a unique fear in golf. It's the fear of a sudden loss of skill. Unlike a baseball player's swing, the golf swing is ephemeral and the fear of losing it is all too evident. Consider the litany of golfers who suddenly fell from their pedestals — major winners such as Ralph Guldahl, Johnny Miller, Seve Ballesteros, Sandy Lyle, Ian Baker-Finch and David Duval. And don't forget that fellow in Jupiter, Fla., who says he needs more reps.
Even Vijay Singh, in a rare moment of elocution, admitted before the 2004 U.S. Open that he practiced so much because he feared losing his swing: "I don't want to wake up one day and say, 'How am I supposed to play this game?' There are a lot of guys who have done that and never come out of it."
Cink doesn't intend to be one of them. He plans to follow Singh and Steve Stricker, both of whom saved their best golf for their 40s. "I have at least six more good years to play," Cink says, "and I want to do something instead of just disappear."
At their first session, O'Connell noticed that Cink had an exaggerated inside-out path — golfspeak for swinging inside the target line on the backswing, then outside the line on the last half of the forward move. It's the way to hit a draw, except Cink had taken things too far. "Stewart was swinging in-to-out, which a lot of people think is the Holy Grail," O'Connell says. "The problem with in-to-out is you push or hook too much. Most guys on Tour, if they're not n-to-in, are in-to-out."
The first thing O'Connell did was get Cink to release his right arm during the follow-through and hit some hooks. Cink immediately sensed more clubhead speed. Fearful of the hook he had developed, Cink had been dragging his arms through impact. Next, O'Connell told Cink to swing around his body instead of swinging his arms toward rightfield, as he had been doing, or even toward the target line. "That sounds crazy to somebody who's hooking," O'Connell says. "They think they're going to hit it head high and dead left."
The next day Cink shot 62 at Druid Hills, a notable track in Atlanta. O'Connell, who spent three years caddying on Tour for Peter Jacobsen, learned much of his craft from respected teacher Jim Hardy. "I didn't really believe in golf instruction until I met him," O'Connell says. "When I used to take lessons, I always felt as if it would be six months before I'd be able to play well because I had seven or eight things to work on. Jim Hardy believes the very next ball should be hit better as long as he could pinpoint the problem and get the player to understand it and do it."
O'Connell also has some counterintuitive thoughts, such as: "The two segments of the population who get overtaught are PGA Tour players and juniors. They need fewer lessons, not more. Some kid might be the next Bubba Watson if you just leave him alone."
In addition to Cink and Kuchar, O'Connell works with tour pros J.J. Killeen, Scott Piercy and Matt Weibring. "When we got together, we clicked right away," Kuchar says. "I liked that he wasn't, Work on this and come see me in a week. He was like, Your next shot should be better. That's how it worked for me."
The affable Cink is following the same path. Despite what the results may show, his swing is improved. In fact, Cink believes his short game, a longtime weak spot, and his off-and-on putting are holding him back now. He has faith, like he did when he opened an account on Twitter. One of his sons told him that he'd get a few serious golf fans to follow him, maybe 500 people. "I said, 'Shoot, that's awesome. That's 500 people I didn't know were my fans,' " Cink says.
At last count, Cink had 1.17 million followers. His wry observations, good-natured humor, behind-the-scenes reports and unflagging reader interactions made him golf's first Twitter phenomenon. As he signed autographs after missing the cut at Harbour Town, one fan held out a familiar photograph of Cink in his lime-green shirt holding the claret jug. "That never gets old," Cink said.
He was about to make the 4 1/2-hour drive home to Atlanta. "Just me and my thoughts," Cink said, but his attitude was unwavering. "I never thought it was going to be a snap," he added. "It's encouraging at times and discouraging at times, like right now. I knew it would be. But I know I'm on the right path."
As he signed one last program behind the 18th green, two boats on Calibogue Sound revved up and sped toward the late afternoon sun. Their wakes churned white and made a series of waves that spread quickly. In less than a minute, the waters smoothed over and rippled gently in the breeze. By then, Cink was gone.