HONOLULU — Two dozen PGA Tour rookies start their season Thursday at the Sony Open.
In some respects, Stewart Cink feels like one of them.
"This is a fresh start," he said Wednesday, walking down the 15th fairway at Waialae Country Club during the best part of the day as the warm sun started to drop toward the Pacific horizon.
Cink is 38 and about to embark on his 15th season. He is still saluted as the guy who spoiled an epic moment in sports by taking down Tom Watson at Turnberry to win the 2009 British Open. His home life has never been better. His oldest son, Connor, is a senior in high school who was recently made captain of his high school hockey team in Atlanta. Reagan will turn 15 on Sunday at the Masters.
His golf game? That's another story.
Cink moved up to No. 9 in the world when he won at Turnberry. He starts this year at No. 147.
"I don't feel like I belong there," Cink said, conceding that he stopped paying attention after he slipped out of the top 100. "It's very disappointing, but I've played about that kind of golf. I'll never be one to argue about the ranking. I think the ranking tells you how you're playing. You can't hide from them."
It seems as though Cink has been in hiding.
He had sinus surgery in November and the medication he was on kept him awake at night. He wound up watching the Presidents Cup, another reminder of how far he had fallen. Cink had played on the previous seven U.S. teams in the Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup. He had to sit this one out.
He played in 23 consecutive World Golf Championships until last year at Doral. He starts this year not eligible for any of them. He still gets into the majors based on his win at the Open.
"I feel like I belong in World Golf Championships, playing late on Sunday. That's where I've been my whole career," he said. "It's a little bit embarrassing. It's a pride thing, almost shameful. Like it or not, golf — when you've done it as long as I've done it — becomes part of you. If you've got bad golf, that means something is bad inside of you. It hurts. When you play well for a long time, it's frustrating."
This is not a British Open hangover.
On paper, it would look as though Cink spent a year celebrating his major championship, then never got back on track. In fact, he says he had been playing badly and had an extraordinary week at the right time one week in July on the Ayrshire coast of Scotland.
He traces the problem to his attempt at hitting a draw. Over the last five years, the path of his swing became more pronounced from the inside, to the point where he had to rely more on his timing. The result was a two-way miss, the worst feeling for any golfer on the tee, and an inadequate short game made it feel even worse.
Cink went from missing the Tour Championship in 2010 to missing the last two playoff events a year ago, finishing 98th in the standings. He was No. 101 on the money list, finishing outside the top 100 for the first time in his career.
Even so, his optimism level is right up there with the rookies.
Cink began working last summer with Chris O'Donnell, who also teaches Matt Kuchar, trying to get the club more square at impact. When he had himself videotaped in 3-D, he said his swing was coming from the inside at 7 degrees.
"This year is a test," he said. "I want to see how I can respond to these changes."
The biggest change might be his desire. Cink asked himself some serious questions during the offseason, one of them being what he wants to accomplish the rest of his career. He even questioned his own will, wondering if it might be better to simply ride out that five-year exemption he received from the British Open and just walk away.
He's not ready for that, not at his age.
"It's easy to lose drive and focus when you're having a bad stretch," he said. "Everything in my life, other than golf, has grown up. My kids have grown up. My relationship with (wife) Lisa has grown up. It's easy to want to focus on other stuff when you're struggling, and I battled through that a little bit."
And he found a role model in Steve Stricker, who won last week at Kapalua for his eighth PGA Tour win in the last three years, the most of any player.
Stricker was in his mid-30s when his game started to go south. He was terrified off the tee, not sure where the ball was going. He lost his PGA Tour card. But through dedication and hard work, he pulled himself out the slump and now is arguably the best American player.
"That's how I'd like to be," Cink said.
It all starts Thursday in the first full-field event of the season, where Mark Wilson is the defending champion and Stricker is the star based on his performance last week on Maui.
Two dozen rookies get started, 11 of whom have never competed in a PGA Tour event. Optimism is never higher than it is on the shores of Waikiki Beach at the start of a new season. And yes, that includes Cink.
"I don't call him Stewart," caddie Frank Williams said. "I call him 'comeback player of the year.'"
Cink isn't ready to go that far, at least not yet. He has four tournaments — Honolulu, San Diego, Phoenix and L.A. — to see if he can get his world ranking high enough go to the Match Play Championship at the end of February. This is a Ryder Cup year, and the last time Cink was not part of the U.S. team was at Brookline in 1999.
"Now it's time to come out here and work," he said. "And I'm really looking forward to seeing how I do."