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Mind Games

After a case of the yips and years of therapy, Stewart Cink is finally ready for his close-up

Let's begin by conceding that Stewart Cink's wife has no background in clinical psychology: She majored in molecular biology at Georgia Tech. Let's also admit that being a mother of two gives her no special insight into what it takes to make a three-foot putt while thousands of sweaty spectators breathe down your neck and millions more watch on television. ¶ She is, however, an expert on Stewart Cink. So when her husband, a world-class golfer, began putting scared a few years ago, she saw what was happening before he did. "It got to the point that every putt he had inside four feet, I was very nervous," Lisa says. "Three fourths of them were lipping out." Stewart, meanwhile, tended to stare at his hands a lot, certain that some digital misalignment or carpal-tunnel defect was throwing off his stroke.

Things came to a head in 2002, when Stewart yipped his way to a tie for ninth at the Memorial. "He kept trying to tell me it was physical," Lisa recalls. "He said, 'I have something going on with my hands.'"

The rest of the conversation went like this:

Lisa: "Is it happening on the putting green before your round?"

Stewart: "No."

Lisa: "Well then, honey, it's in your head."

That was not what Stewart Cink wanted to hear. Like most successful golfers, he treated his cranium as if it had a little screwed-down door in back labeled opening invalidates warranty. When something went wrong with his game, he turned to the conventional tools of his trade: a swing lesson ... a change of ball or clubs ... physical therapy. If a problem was clearly mental--say, a tendency to bail out on risky shots--he followed the widely accepted precepts of his sports psychologist, Bob Rotella: Focus on the target; visualize the shot; stay in the moment.

But if you've ever seen a topographical map of the human brain, you know it's not so neatly organized. Cink had plenty of memories of success stored in his temporal lobes, including his three All-America seasons at Georgia Tech, his player-of-the-year season of 1996 on what was then called the Nike tour, and his first two PGA Tour wins, the 1997 Canon Greater Hartford Open and the 2000 MCI Classic. In his limbic system, however, tucked under the hippocampus, lies the part of the brain that controls emotions, including fear. For Cink, this became a pocket of misery that began to assert itself at inopportune times. The symptoms--anxiety, nervousness, dread--were not visible to outsiders. (Like most tall men, Cink has the composed demeanor of one trying not to displace too much space.) There were times, though, when he expressed his unease through pulled putts and wayward drives, times when, as he says, "I folded. I basically melted."

The most notable of these meltdowns occurred in the final round of the 2001 U.S. Open at Southern Hills, when Cink carelessly missed an 18-inch bogey putt on the 72nd hole, costing him a spot in a Monday playoff with Mark Brooks and Retief Goosen. But there were many other events at which he failed to challenge or hold a lead because the course began to look like a Dali landscape of bleached skulls and broken trees. "I'd feel jittery on the 1st tee. Scared," Cink says. "If I had a three-foot putt on the 1st hole, I felt as if my whole round was riding on it."

Fearing "exposure," Cink began to tense up when the TV cameras were aimed his way. Galleries, too, made him self-conscious. "You feel as if you're the only person anybody's watching," he says. At the 2001 Buick Classic, a week after his Open debacle, he was walking up to the 18th green for an eagle attempt, and before he could tap it in a fan yelled, "Cink! Don't putt out!"

Says Cink, "That went through my heart and soul like a dagger."

Not that he should've needed some braying yahoo to tell him something was wrong. Cink had been 10th on the 2000 money list, but he slipped to 26th in 2001. A year later he was 73rd. It wasn't that he couldn't play; it was more a case of playing scared. "You can go for the center of every green and shoot 71," he says, "and nobody will walk up and say, 'What happened to you today?' I wrapped myself in a security blanket."

Except he never felt safe. "I was dreading tournament golf," he says. "I was a mess."

Then his wife dropped the Y-bomb on him. "Stewart," she said, "I don't mean to be harsh, but...." And Cink stood there with his mouth open, unable to believe that his own wife had just told him that he had the yips. "I got mad," he says. "I said, 'How can you say that? Don't you know how damaging that is to me?'"

He snorts. "The last thing I wanted to hear was the truth."

We all know how psychoanalysis works. The patient lies on a couch and says whatever comes into his head. The doctor sits in a chair and writes in a notebook.

Stewart Cink's weekly sessions with Preston Waddington, psychoanalyst, are different. Cink is usually seated in a chair in some hotel, the telephone pressed to his ear. The doctor is somewhere in Fort Lauderdale, where his practice is located. Cink knows his analyst only as a voice on the phone, although they were introduced at a golf outing some years ago. "I don't even remember what he looks like," Cink says. "It's like an Internet relationship."

They sometimes talk about fear--what it is, where it comes from, how it can grip a golfer in midswing and transform him from warrior to wimp. "The sports psychologist will tell you to totally focus on the target," Cink says, "and if you do, there's no room for other thoughts. If you shut everything out, stay in the moment and follow directions, you'll be invincible. You'll never stand on the tee and be afraid."

The voice on the phone replies that fear is not so easily beaten: It's like walking past the graveyard at midnight, pretending it's not there, but the pee is running down your leg. You can't fool your subconscious.

Cink's first session with Waddington took place on the Monday before the 2002 Masters. "He asked me about my childhood, my parents," Cink says. "My answers sounded kind of sissy, but I thought if I wasn't totally honest with him, he couldn't help me." While sports psychologists prescribe mantras and preshot routines to help golfers overcome their fears, the clinical psychologist says, in effect, Bring 'em on! "Dr. Waddington has helped me take those fears and, rather than squeezing them out, understand where they come from."

Wherever they came from, Cink's fears took a long time to manifest themselves. Born in 1973 in Huntsville, Ala., he was by all accounts a well-rounded, well-adjusted, middle-class boy. His family moved to Florence, Ala., in 1979, and it was on the practice range at Florence Country Club that Stewart learned to play, mimicking the swings of his father, Rob, and mother, Anne, both low handicappers. He soon developed into one of the country's top junior golfers--an accomplishment, his wife says, that never caused him to put on airs.

"All the girls liked him," says Lisa, who met Stewart when they were classmates at Florence High. "He was really funny, outgoing, easy to be around and very, very smart--he was in all the advanced classes. But he never took himself very seriously." Asked how Cink could be both an aw-shucks schoolboy and an intimidating golfer who had college coaches knocking on his door, Lisa ponders. "His parents were very, very grounded, for one thing. They were proud of him, but they never instilled that pompous attitude. And the country club he played at was not extravagant." She laughs. "The more I read about other golfers, the more I wonder how he turned out to be so humble."

Modest though he might have been, the young Cink certainly didn't lack for confidence. While earning a management degree at Georgia Tech, he married Lisa, fathered his first son (Connor, now 10), won recognition as the 1995 college golfer of the year and then--just to turn heads--beat Tiger Woods 3 and 2 in an exhibition match. In his first pro start, the 1995 Greater Hartford Open, Cink finished 18th. In '96 he won three times on the Nike (now Nationwide) tour and was 16th in his first U.S. Open. Those successes set up his rookie-of-the-year season on the Tour, which included a come-from-behind win at Hartford and a 13th at the U.S. Open.

"I was accustomed to feeling that I was better than the other guys, that I had a mental edge," Cink says. But gradually--and this is where that nest of neuroses called the psyche comes into play--Cink's perception of himself began to change. He watched Woods mow through tournament fields as if they were fields of wheat. He saw Phil Mickelson fire and flop his way to three or four wins a year. He watched David Duval--how ironic!--rack up 13 wins and a major over a stretch of time in which Cink won only twice.

"I was comparing myself to other players too much," Cink says. "When I got to 50th in the World Ranking, I told myself, Players ranked this high don't miss fairways. They don't hit balls out-of-bounds. They don't miss three-foot putts."

Sometimes he'd see himself on Golf Central. A tall man with a graceful swing. No swagger, but confident-looking. Cink would stare at the screen as if he were watching a stranger. Where was the despair? Where was the fear? "I felt as if I was yipping putts," Cink says, "but on TV it looked silky smooth." Maybe, Waddington suggested, he needed to stop thinking of himself as "a golfer" and start thinking of himself as "a person that's out there hitting golf shots."

"A golf shot simply doesn't mean that much," says Tour pro Ben Crane, another Waddington patient. "When I look at Stewart, I see a man who has a great relationship with God, who loves his family and is a role model. Guys like him give the Tour a good name."

Waddington once put the question directly to Cink: "A two-foot putt--is that something to dread and fear?"

Answer: Not if you have a life. Cink helps his kids with their homework, drives them to school in the morning, takes them to hockey practice. He unpacks boxes at Spoiled Sport, a women's athletic wear shop that Lisa started with two friends. A neophyte skier, he wears out the blue slopes at Beaver Creek and Steamboat Springs in Colorado. "I call him the Ski Nazi," Lisa says. "When he gets into something, it's a total obsession."

On the course Cink tries to be "the person hitting golf shots." He is less target-bound than he used to be--because, as he puts it, "when you're target-oriented it's real easy to start anticipating results, to worry about where the ball is going. I try to concentrate on the swing, not on trying to control the ball to infinity."

Like any recovering yipaholic, Cink has had his ups and downs. His Ryder Cup record is 2-4-1, and he freely admits that he was "scared to play" before the 2002 matches in England. (That voice on the phone never promised miracles.) But his play improved dramatically in 2003, starting with a final-round 66 that gave him a tie for sixth at the Chrysler Classic in Tucson. Second-place checks at the Bay Hill Classic and the Funai Classic boosted him to 35th on the money list and gave him reason to hope that his ordeal was over.

Then came the relapse. It happened at the 2004 Buick Invitational in La Jolla, Calif. Cink and John Daly made up the last twosome on Sunday, the former PGA and British Open champion leading by a stroke. "Oh, boy," Cink says. "Daly gets up on the 2nd hole and hits it about 50 yards left into the trees. I say to myself, If John hits it like that, I've won the tournament. I mean, I practically wrote my victory speech while John was walking off to the left." Cink shakes his head ruefully. "I was the one who crumbled that day."

No lie. Hitting tee balls wild enough to frighten the hang gliders hovering off the cliffs of Torrey Pines, Cink stumbled home with a 76 and tied for 10th, about 750,000 unhatched chickens short of the total he had envisioned. Daly, playing almost as wretchedly as Cink, shot a 75 but hung on to win in a sudden-death playoff with Luke Donald and Chris Riley.

Cink and Waddington no longer use the word choke to describe a tournament meltdown. "With me and Doc," Cink says with a smile, "it's now known as a John Daly."

Will the fear ever completely go away? Will he ever stand over a shot with the meditative calm of a Buddhist monk?

Cink pondered those questions after a round at this year's Bob Hope Chrysler Classic. "That won't happen," he finally says, staring out of the big clubhouse windows at a Coachella Valley sunset, "because every shot offers both the opportunity of success and the possibility of failure. That's something we all have to deal with."

Even Tiger? ... Vijay? ... Ernie? Cink nods. "I guarantee you, every player out there today was nervous or afraid during their round." Hedging a bit, he concedes that the top players seem to have the rare gift of not giving a damn what people think of them. "It's a self-esteem thing. They know a golf shot is what it is. They accept their results. They don't let the bad shots affect them."

Neither Cink's prayers nor his therapy sessions have taken him to that exalted level, but he has definitely made his peers sit up and take notice. Only weeks after his Torrey Pines flameout, Cink won the MCI Heritage in dramatic fashion, coming from nine strokes back on Sunday to beat Ted Purdy on the fifth hole of a playoff. In August he opened with a career-low 63 and led wire to wire during a four-stroke victory at the NEC Invitational. By year's end Cink was $4.5 million richer, fifth on the money list, ranked 10th in the world and--get this--the Tour leader in putting average.

He won't say he owes it all to therapy--switching to a belly putter obviously helped, and he has a pretty capable swing shrink in Butch Harmon--but Cink no longer walks the fairways as if he thinks they might be mined. "Now when I'm over a two-foot putt, I'm prepared to make it or miss it," Cinks says, "and if I miss, I know it's not because I'm not a good enough golfer to play on the PGA Tour. It's because two-footers are sometimes missed."

So it's spring again, and above the chirping of the robins you can hear the oddsmakers giving Stewart Cink a 50-to-1 chance of winning the Masters. Lisa Cink, meanwhile, kicks herself for not recognizing sooner what her husband needed.

"I didn't help," she says. "I was always encouraging him, trying to build him up. 'That Joe Blow, you're so much better than him!' But I was comparing him to other players, and that's what Stewart was already doing to himself. That was part of his problem."

She laughs. "Now if I can just get him not to leave his suitcase in the middle of the floor."

"Honey, what's with the yips?"

--LISA CINK, June 2001

Like most golfers, HE TREATED HIS CRANIUM as if it had a little screwed-down door labeled OPENING INVALIDATES WARRANTY.

At times, HE EXPRESSED HIS UNEASE through pulled putts and wayward drives, times when, as he says, "I folded. I basically melted."

"You can go for the CENTER OF EVERY GREEN and shoot 71," Cink says, "and nobody will walk up and ask, 'What happened to you today?'"



Eyeing the Tiger

Cink (inset) has set his sights on the game's best since his three-putt on the 72nd hole at Southern Hills.



[see caption above]



Goal Oriented

Lisa, Connor (left) and Reagan come before golf for Cink.



Wrap Up

Cink celebrated a return to form at the '04 NEC, which he led wire to wire.



Full Swing

Cink was a captain's pick for the '04 Ryder Cup, where he compiled a 1-2-1 record.