Cink trying to dig himself back to the top

Stewart Cink watches his tee shot on the seventh during the third round of the Humana Challenge golf tournament on the Palmer Private course at PGA West in La Quinta, Calif. Saturday, Jan. 19, 2013.

Stewart Cink watches his tee shot on the seventh during the third round of the Humana Challenge golf tournament on the Palmer Private course at PGA West in La Quinta, Calif. Saturday, Jan. 19, 2013.

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LA QUINTA, Calif. – After slumping 2009 British Open champion Stewart Cink worked with instructor Mike Lipnick for 30 minutes late last year, he asked for an assessment of his strengths and weaknesses. The feedback could be described as tough love.

“To be honest with you,” said Lipnick, director of instruction at TPC Sugarloaf in Duluth, Ga., “I don’t see a lot of strengths here. You’re not really doing a whole lot of good stuff right now.”

The candor didn’t make Cink run; it made him stay. He was impressed by the honesty and the lack of sugarcoating.

“A wakeup call for me because I still felt I had some strengths,” Cink said.

From there, the two started working together on fundamentals, mostly on an improved setup that Cink says unlocks his potential to swing the club the right way.

“It’s a process that I’m still in sort of the very beginning stages of,” the six-time PGA Tour winner said Saturday at the Humana Challenge.

So far, so good.

The before-and-after pictures are compelling.

Cink, 39, has had no top-10 finishes since May 2011 (Wells Fargo Championship) and only one since June 2010. A consistent performer for years who has played in five Ryder Cups, he dropped to 149th in PGA Tour earnings in 2012. Inaccuracy off the tee was the main culprit, for he ranked 184th in total driving. But his problems went deeper, for he ranked 182nd in the all-around statistical category.

“I missed a lot of fairways left and right,” Cink said. “It’s hard to play with shots that are going both ways. I was having trouble off the tee, and my short game wasn’t very reliable.”

At the moment, though, it appears his form is rising, early stages of tweaking or not. With one round left in the Humana, Cink finds himself tied for second place, five strokes behind Scott Stallings, after rounds of 66-67-66.

Perhaps the best news for Cink is that his Saturday 66 was easy. He called it unspectacular. You figure someone is playing better when that happens.

Chasing Stallings, a two-time winner, won’t be easy, for the Palmer Private Course doesn’t allow for many high numbers. So Cink is mindful he is more of an underdog Sunday than his beloved Atlanta Falcons are in the NFC Championship Game against the San Francisco 49ers, a four-point favorite.

“I’m probably a 14-point underdog tomorrow with a five-shot deficit,” said Cink, who has excelled this week thanks to having hit 81.5 percent of greens in regulation. “They have Matt Ryan. I don’t have another person to be my quarterback tomorrow. I have to be my own quarterback and receiver.”

And he has to forget about the last couple of years. He has experience on his side but also some scar tissue that actually began to build in 2009, when he won the Open Championship.

“The one major win was obviously great, but the rest of the year stunk,” Cink said. “I had already started to sort of decline a little bit and I had stopped trusting what I was doing. When you’re out here playing against the best players top to bottom every week, it doesn’t take much of a fall to end up where I ended up the last couple years.

“So I’m trying to dig myself back to the top.”

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