Babineau: Cink, Mediate among vets 'finding it'

Stewart Cink watches his tee shot on the ninth hole during the first round of the Wells Fargo Championship.

Stewart Cink watches his tee shot on the ninth hole during the first round of the Wells Fargo Championship.

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1:44:01 AM ET. 04/18/2014




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CHARLOTTE, N.C. - There’s no shortage of storylines here at the Wells Fargo Championship, one of the Tour’s mini-majors in regular-tournament clothing. Can Phil and Rory jump back into the mix after a few weeks off? Will we see Bay Hill Tiger or Augusta Tiger? Will Rickie Fowler finally break through and win?

Well beyond those in the brightest lights, out in the distance as if shrouded by a thick morning fog, a handful of veterans toil week to week, working just as hard as the stars next to them but seeing very little in the way of results. They’re out here trying to find the smallest spark that might get them on a path into the more successful ways of their pasts.

And a game they have loved suddenly has become not very easy.

Take Stewart Cink. The man who stopped Tom Watson at the 2009 Open Championship to win at Turnberry has plummeted to 175th in the Official World Golf Ranking. Basically, these days, in the midst of a swing change under his third swing coach in 14 months, he’s not that much different than you and me in this sense: He’s not very sure where his golf ball is going.

That’s why his 7-under 65 on Thursday at Quail Hollow was a bit of a surprise, and provided him a deep breath of fresh air, if only a brief one. Cink has battled swing issues dating to the latter half of 2008 – that’s right, before his Open triumph. He'll be 39 this month, and he’s working as hard as ever to build a swing that he can trust.

“It’s taken a long time to get me right, and I’m nowhere near right,” said Cink, a Georgia Tech grad who is one of the Tour’s more introspective thinkers. His only top-10 finish of the past two seasons came here at Quail Hollow a year ago. “I’m not totally comfortable and bulletproof and all. I’m really happy with today, but there’s still a lot of work to do.”

Rocco Mediate knows the feeling. He’ll be 50 in December, and he has a job waiting for him on the Champions Tour in 2013 if he wants it. But he’d rather compete against the best of the best on the PGA Tour, and that means he needs to play much better if he’s going to earn a card. He has earned a paltry $99,897 in 11 starts in 2012, but believes he was on to something Thursday at Quail Hollow. Basically, he abandoned all technical swing thoughts and swung at the ball harder than he has in years.

“I played more like I did when I was younger, and really went after it,” Mediate said. After changing his shoes and walking gingerly toward his waiting car, he joked, “My body keeps asking me, 'What the hell did you do to me today?' ”

Mediate says his short game is good, and his putting might be as good as it’s ever been – he’s back to using a 35-inch Scotty Cameron and is wielding it well – but he’s got to get better from tee to green if he’s going to play any significant golf on the weekend any time soon. He shot 65 at Zurich last Friday which boosted his confidence, even if his weekend wasn’t so good. When he rolled in a lengthy putt for eagle at TPC Louisiana to cap his 65, it elicited a nice roar, and the reaction resonated. He’d like to get used to hearing more of it.

“I really want to keep my job this year,” he said. “I’ve lost 30 pounds – again – and I’ve kept it off, and everything is coming around. I know I can do it. I mean, I’ve done it. I’ve just got to get it out of me somehow, and I’m starting to get a little more confident. Some people may question it, but I still think there are some courses on this Tour where I can still win.”

Is Quail Hollow one of them?

“I’m not sure,” he said. “We’ll see.”

Arjun Atwal is another man enduring a Season From Hell. He's played the Asian Tour, the European Tour, the Nationwide Tour, the PGA Tour … and never before has he come out of the gates and had such a dismal start. Wells Fargo is his 12th Tour start of the season, and he’s played on the weekend this year exactly once.

Like Cink, Atwal, who is 39, has been tinkering with his swing. Physically, his body could not keep up with the pace of his old swing, and he was hitting some vicious hooks that were leading him into big numbers. Under new coach Mark Blackburn, Atwal has gone to fading the ball off the tee, giving up a little distance but gaining much more control. He’s had trouble taking his swing changes from the practice tee to the course, but he enjoyed what he saw Thursday in an opening 68.

“This is my worst start as a professional, ever, on any tour . . . it’s just been really bad,” he said. “And obviously, it’s been tough at home as well. My wife has been on me to get up and go, and it’s been hard to practice, because you’re not seeing any results. Today, it was nice to finally see some red numbers.”

For a day, Cink knew the feeling. His low score was attributed more to good putting than his ballstriking (“I still hit some drives that were just gross,” he said), but hey, it was something. Even the world’s biggest mansions start with a single block in the foundation. Two weeks ago at Hilton Head, where he is a two-time champion, Cink stumbled to rounds of 79-77. On top of that, he felt he was far too emotionally charged by his poor shots and his scores.

“I’m probably pushing these changes faster than they probably should be pushed,” Cink said, “and not really being very fair to myself.”

In layman’s terms, Cink is trying to improve the path of his swing. Before, he was swinging too in-to-out, and coming into the ball with an open clubface. Sometimes he might "flip" his hands and hook the ball; other times he’d hit hard blocks to the right. Even when he hit good tee shots, he says that in his heart, he really didn’t know why they came off well.

“My goal coming into this week, after two weeks off and some circumspect, was to go out there, take it shot by shot, and let it happen or let it not happen,” he said. “But I didn’t want to force it either way. Be patient and keep the emotions out of the round. It’s hard to do that totally, but for the most part today, I was successful.”

It might not have been perfect, but it was a step. And now, more than any trophy, that’s what a few of these proud veteran players are seeking.

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