HONOLULU – Ask him where he sits in the world rankings and Stewart Cink will shrug.
“I stopped looking when my world ranking had three digits in it,” he said.
Tell him it’s No. 147 and Cink will not go into a diatribe about how skewed the computer results are.
“I’m right where I ought to be. I’ve played poorly. Even 2009, if you take away the British Open, I didn’t play very well,” Cink said. “So ’09, ’10, ’11 haven’t been very good years for me, and that’s all that counts in the world ranking.”
After that stirring playoff win over Tom Watson at Turnberry in the summer of 2009, Cink vaulted to No. 9 in the world. But beyond that, he’s been a fixture at major championships and World Golf Championships for years, his standing on the PGA Tour money list ranking inside the top 50 for 12 of 13 seasons.
Then in 2010, he slumped to 52nd.
And in 2011, he wound up 101st.
Cruel, cold numbers, but while Cink may not like them, he’s willing to confront the truth and accept why they are what they are.
“I got into some bad habits in the game the last couple of years that hurt me that I’m trying to work out of.”
Having switched instructors from Butch Harmon to Pat O’Brien last year, Cink now works with instructor Chris O’Connell. The goal is to get his driving squared away, because Cink in the past few seasons has performed poorly off the tee and he’s trying to “detox myself” from a loopy swing that has become too inside out. Cutting to the bottom line, at impact Cink said his clubface has been 5-6 degrees open, where the desire is to be at zero and the average PGA Tour player is at 0-2.
“It’s hard to trust (my swing) when there’s trouble left,” Cink said. “But I’m looking for feedback. I want to re-train my motor patterns.”
As further indication that Cink’s game has slipped, consider the 2004-2010 time period when he piled up 42 top 10s, an average of six per season. In 2011, he had just one top 10. Even worse, Cink missed the cut eight times. Again, cold reality. Though he doesn’t need any more reminders about where he is, there is the upcoming Accenture Match Play Championship (Feb. 22-26), a tournament that has been very good to him, but presently isn’t on his schedule. (Only the top 64 in the world rankings get invited.)
Once a runner-up, once a third-place finisher and a combined 22-12 in the competition, Cink cringes at thoughts of a trip that may not be made to Dove Mountain outside of Tucson, Ariz.
“It hurts not to play the Match Play this year. If I don’t get in the Match Play, I’ll miss it, for sure,” Cink said. “I’ll have to pick up another.”
To climb out of the abyss, Cink not only is turning to O’Connell, who also is Matt Kuchar’s swing coach, but to Steve Stricker. More accurately, he is using Stricker as his model, his inspiration, his compass.
“He is the guy I look to. When he was in his mid-30s, late-30s and struggling and kind of lost, and I think he had a choice to make – whether he wanted to keep going or just fade away – and that’s the same choice I’ve had to make at 38.”
Certainly, the similarities are eerie, and you can appreciate why Cink embraces the Stricker story. Soon to be 45, Stricker is not just in brilliant form and a few days removed from his 12th career victory, but he is arguably America’s best player. Hard to believe, though, when he turned 39 in February of 2006, Stricker had had three consecutive years in which he had finished 162nd, 151st and 189th, respectively, on the money list.
But having re-tooled his swing and adjusted his mental approach, Stricker in 2006 made the cut in 15 of 17 tournaments, finished top 10 seven times, and landed at 34th on the money list. It’s gotten better every year since, with nine wins and a lofty world ranking that clearly should be a story that a player such as Cink, who will turn 39 on May 21, should embrace.
“I want to pattern myself after what Steve has done,” Cink said. “From where he was six or seven years ago to now, he gives a lot of people hope to say, ‘Hey, why not?’ “
You could find a long line of role models who’d be worse than Stricker, but it’s more than his colleague’s results that inspire Cink. Mostly, it’s Stricker’s attitude that appeals to him.
“I can just fade away and play the last part of my exemption for the British Open and retire,” Cink said. “But I don’t want to do that, because I feel like I have a lot left in the tank, and now that I’ve identified a lot of these problems in my swing, hopefully I’ll get back on the right track.”