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Sinking feeling is gone

Finishing 3rd in last year's Masters helps Cink's outlook

Sunday, April 05, 2009

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A little midseason R&R -- rest and rededication -- might have resolved the case of the missing Cink.

Stewart Cink said he developed bad habits at the British Open that contributed to a poor finish to the 2008 PGA Tour season. (Chris Thelen/Staff)

A year ago at this point, Stewart Cink was just about the hottest golfer in the world not named Tiger Woods. You could hardly find Woods on a Sunday pairing sheet without seeing Cink's name right next to his.

Cink lost in the final pairing with Woods at the Buick Invitational and the finals at the WGC-Accenture Match Play.

"And one of those, I played with him twice," Cink said of the 36-hole championship match.

So it was no surprise, considering his form, that Cink was paired with Woods again in the next-to-last group on Sunday at Augusta National Golf Club.

"So that door was opened last year for me," said Cink, who matched Woods' 72 in the final round and finished in a career-best tie for third.

Woods was missing after his victory in June at the U.S. Open until this year's match play event in February because of reconstructive knee surgery. Cink's game disappeared after his victory last June in Hartford.

"If I could do what I did last year for the first half of the year, I would be pretty happy putting myself into contention a lot," Cink said. "But I was totally dissatisfied with the second half of the year."

Cink sank right after winning the Travelers Championship the week after tying for 14th at the U.S. Open.

He took two weeks' vacation, then missed the cut at the British Open. He missed the cut again at the PGA, and his best finish the remainder of the year was a tie for 24th in the 30-man Tour Championship field.

"I felt like the British Open was sort of a turning point for me, where I developed some bad habits over there and I brought those habits back," he said.

Cink also neglected seeing his swing coach, Butch Harmon, and kept drifting further out of sorts. When those same issues showed up at the start of 2009, Cink had had enough of expecting bad things to happen at crucial moments. After missing the cut in Phoenix, he skipped two events he normally plays to take three weeks off.

"I was really sour, and that's putting it mildly, the way I felt," Cink said. "I said there's no way I'm teeing it up again for a few weeks thinking this way, because you just get to where you expected bad things to happen. I realized that I needed some work."

In addition to a couple of ski trips to clear the mind, he went to Texas to put in some work with Harmon. They keyed in on the short game, including hitting his putts with more authority.

That work paid dividends at the WGC-Accenture Match Play, where he lost to eventual winner Geoff Ogilvy in the semifinals and finished third.

"Match play offers up a lot of crucial moments where you have putts that you have to make to keep the match going or to tie holes," he said. "And you have shots where you really need to hit the green or need to hit the fairway and put some pressure on your opponent. A lot of those little moments, those work away on you inside, in the mind and in the heart. When you pull those off at the right time, it just loads you up with confidence. It doesn't take a whole lot for the tables to turn in your favor, and all of a sudden you feel a flood of confidence."

Cink now brings that confidence back to Augusta, where his third-place finish last year provides another boost to his Masters outlook.

"I think it opened up a door in some respects to me, because I really never had a very high finish there," Cink said.

"Not that I was really close to winning the tournament last year, but still, only a couple of guys beat me. I hung around, and I think looking back, I said, 'Well, I can play with the best here.' This is a course that's never been really up my alley as far as finishes, but I think I can play."

Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or scott.michaux@augustachronicle.com.

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