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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 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.