HARTFORD, Conn. – In my 50 years in journalism, I’ve rarely found any athlete in any sport to be more personable, accessible, cooperative and classy than Stewart Cink.
The two-time Canon Greater Hartford Open champion and somewhat reluctant winner of the 2009 British Open has endured plenty of disappointment on and off the course.
Cink and his equally upbeat wife Lisa, who has done extensive charitable work with the PGA Tour Wives Association, openly shared their story about when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2016. I was fortunate to get first-hand insight from the couple that enabled me to compose one of the most heartwarming stories of my career.
The two talked about how Lisa had Stage 4 breast cancer, underwent nine rounds of chemotherapy and then went to a maintenance phase of treatment that actually included her caddying for Stewart and their oldest son Connor in the Father-Son Challenge. During Lisa’s recovery, Stewart took off 19 PGA Tour events to help care for his wife and their two sons.
Cink had to somewhat curtail the ecstasy of winning his only major championship at Turnberry in Scotland after he overran British Open legend Tom Watson in a four-hole aggregate playoff as the equally classy World Golf Hall of Famer was trying to become the oldest winner of one of golf’s biggest events at 59. Watson had an 8-foot par putt to win on the final hole but missed badly, enabling Cink to step in and prevent arguably the most epic victory in sports history.
After notching the biggest victory of his career, Cink, in typically classy fashion, said, “If I wasn’t in the playoff, I would have been rooting for Tom, too. I always felt Tom deserved every bit of the accolades that he got from his performance that week. People ask me this all the time. I feel like I won the Open Championship that year. I don’t feel like I took it out of Tom’s hands or I disappointed the world. I don’t care what they all think about that, and I don’t think Tom would ever think that either. I don’t mind sharing the spotlight with him for that.
“This week, it is special because I got to share it with Reagan, but if I had to share it with another player or if there was another person in the spotlight this week that was part of the story, too, I wouldn’t care at all.”
Cink also hit two of the most memorable shots in the 68-year history of the PGA Tour’s annual stop in Connecticut. The first was a 9-iron out of the rough off a severe downslope to the left of the 17th fairway at TPC River Highlands in Cromwell that barely cleared a pond, led to a par 4 and enabled him to beat Tom Byrum, Brandel Chamblee and Jeff Maggert by a stroke in the 1997 GHO for his first PGA Tour victory on the way to being Rookie of the Year. Eleven years later and leading by one on the final hole, Cink sliced a 366-yard drive, the longest of the tournament’s final round, into the crowd on a hill to the right of the fairway but salvaged par for a personal-best, 18-under 262 for 72 holes and a one-stroke victory over defending champion Hunter Mahan and Tommy Armour III for his fifth PGA Tour title.
So I was delighted when Cink shot a second consecutive 7-under-par 65 Sunday for a 72-hole total of 21-under 267 and a two-stroke victory over Harry Higgs in the Safeway Open at the Silverado Resort’s North Course in Napa, Calif. Cink’s round was highlighted by a 20-foot chip-in for birdie 2 at the 11th hole that gave him the lead for the first time and enabled him to overtake Higgs, who closed with 68 after holing a 230-yard, 4-iron shot for a rare albatross 2 on his final hole, the par-5 ninth, for a career-low 62 on Friday.
“I had the most beautiful, perfect lie (on the 11th hole),” Cink said. “The chip basically became so simple that all I had to do was treat it like a putt and catch it on the clubface somewhere. It was a little bit of an omen. I just felt like that was a really big moment there that propelled me into a real like lockdown type of focus.
“This was a really special week after I made some changes with Ping. And I didn’t know if there’d be a more special moment than winning the British Open, but there might be a new one now.”
Cink’s seventh career win, his first since that memorable day at Turnberry, did indeed have special significance. And it wasn’t that he pocketed the first prize of $1,118,000 after earning only $490,620 in 14 starts last year. Or that he was dialed in after the visit to the Ping headquarters in Arizona two weeks ago produced some new clubs that he used while working with swing coach James Sieckmann on the mental side of his game.
It started when Lisa grabbed Stewart by the shirt front Sunday morning, emphatically pulled him close, firmly stared him down and said, “Do you know how good you are?” The slightly aggressive but loving move from a wife who knows plenty about fighting tough battles was an attempt to inject some confidence with a boot-in-the-butt moment that Stewart needed as he headed out to try to end the 11-year victory drought spanning 4,074 days. Lisa got the impetus for her words of encouragement after hubby said, “I’m really excited for today and I’m really scared.”
“She had some great words,” said Stewart, whose previous top-five finish was a tie for second in the 2018 Travelers Championship. “She said, “You know what? You’re loved no matter what you do. No one expects anything out of you. I know you can do it and you know you can do it … you’re with your son … so just go out there and have a great time.”
And that was only the start of the “family affair.” Stewart’s 23-year-old son Reagan was his fill-in caddie, and his other son, Connor, who won the 2013 Father-Son Challenge with dad, was celebrating his 27th birthday. Reagan had also been recently engaged, so life couldn’t be much better.
That was hardly the case for much of the time since the surreal day at Turnberry as Cink had had only 15 Top-10 finishes, though that was a pittance compared to what he and Lisa went through the past few years. In 2016, she was diagnosed with cancer and made it to remission. Then Stewart, a man of strong faith, had his own cancer scare, needing to have cancerous cells cut out of his nose in 2018.
Though the chip-in at No. 11 was important, it was a moment with Lisa off the 14th green after he had just missed a 16-foot birdie bid to extend his lead that was just as critical. Instead of being annoyed, he was content.
“I definitely had a lot of emotions out there,” Cink said. “I just was overcome at a few times with a feeling of gratitude and just feeling like how fortunate I am to be in the position that I’m in. We call it when the bullets are flying out there. The last four or five holes of a PGA Tour event, your name’s on top of the leaderboard, but think about it, I’ve got my son caddying for me, my wife is in almost five‑year remission now and she’s walking out there just on the side of the ropes, and at 47 I’m able to compete at the highest level and now not just compete, but win.
“I walked over to the side of the ropes after 14 and I grabbed Lisa by the arm and I just told her how grateful I was at that moment. I always try really hard to keep my heart in the right place when I’m competing, that’s just one of my main goals. I want to win, but I don’t want winning to be something that I have to do to like fulfill myself.”
Cink admitted he had come to terms with possibly never winning again during his long drought, and the calmness at that moment was a huge factor. As he heard a roar behind him that came as Higgs made a long-range birdie on the 14th hole, Cink responded with a 20-foot birdie of his own on No. 15 and then made a 10-foot birdie putt at the 16th that proved to be the difference.
“I came to terms with the possibility that it might not happen, I did, but it’s not something I was settled or content with,” Cink said. “I still compete to try to win and I work hard on my game and I just try to squeeze every little bit of juice I can out of my golf game, out of that lemon. In that regard, I’m no different than a 20‑ or 25‑year‑old kid out here who’s still got like his entire career ahead of him. I’m still working like crazy to try to be the best golfer I can be, but there was probably a time where I felt like maybe age might have caught up with me and maybe I might have had my last win out here, but I wasn’t ready to concede that. I just knew that if I got back into position again, that if the time’s right, I can hang in there.”
But it certainly didn’t come easy. Higgs turned a good bounce off some trees and a cart path into an eagle 3 on the 16th hole to pull within two strokes. And he made sure to walk all the way up to the green at No. 17 as Cink left his 6-foot putt short for only his second bogey of the week that cut his lead to only one. Cink dodged a bullet when Higgs missed from 8 feet soon after and another by hitting the fairway off the 18th tee and hitting his 7-wood through to the back of the par-5 18th hole with style to allow a relatively simple up and down to make a decisive birdie.
“If you go out there thinking you’re not going to lose it, then you’re wrong and you’re going to be shocked, so I was prepared to lose it,” Cink said. “I mean, for crying out loud, I left a five‑foot putt short on the 17th hole that I needed to make. That’s not like what a champion does, but a champion does get back up off the mat when he gets knocked down, and I got knocked down a little bit there and I went and played the 18th hole the best I’ve played it in my whole life.”
While Lisa had the golden words before the round, Reagan had the worthy tongue during it. This was only Reagan’s fourth time on the bag, but as he and dad left the second green, he said, “Dad, your tangibles are really, really good right now. Your club, your ball, your tangibles, like your ball’s doing what it’s supposed to do, you’re putting, your ball’s starting online. Let’s just take care of the intangibles today.”
Stewart was impressed and got relaxed.
“That is like great advice like for someone who’s caddied three times in the PGA Tour and hasn’t played in a golf tournament since high school,” Cink said. “But he made a good point: my driver was doing what it’s supposed to do, my fairway woods, my irons, my wedges, my putter, everything was really doing what it was supposed to do and it was up to me to take care of the rest.
“Reagan’s a great kind to be around, he knows his way around like he’s a PGA Tour pro himself. He did a great job of keeping me positive and keeping me loose out there. We just had a really great time all week. I can’t overstate how important he was out there. He’s not just a ceremonial caddie. He understands golf to the very, very highest level. It was really a great experience.”
So after starting the new wraparound 2020-21 season marred by the COVID-19 pandemic with only conditional status, Cink is now fully exempt on the PGA Tour through the 2022-23 season, when he will celebrate his 50th birthday and become eligible for the PGA Tour Champions. Cink also earned a spot in the 2021 Players Championship, the Sentry Tournament of Champions in Maui, the PGA Championship and the Masters in Augusta, Ga., not far from where he played at Georgia Tech and his teammates included former No. 1 David Duval.
The trip to Hawaii will cancel a family ski trip, but Lisa wasn’t complaining.
“This is the culmination of so many things,” she said. “It’s so special to have Reagan and Stewart do this together. I’ve watched him work so hard for so many years without the results, so for those to show up now is just an amazing blessing.”
When Stewart and Reagan, a constant sounding board to dad throughout the round, exited the 18th green and the win was officially secured after Higgs failed to hole out a wedge shot for eagle, Lisa grabbed her husband’s shirt again. She also grabbed Reagan’s shirt and pulled them in for a well-deserved big hug after Stewart had tied his best score to par in a four-round PGA Tour event after the 2002 Buick Challenge and 2013 American Express. Fittingly, Cink’s charitable work focuses on initiatives that help kids through the grieving process.
There’s not supposed to be any cheering in the press box, but I’m sure I’m not the only person who admired and applauded Cink’s reward for such hard-fought perseverance that produced his 100th career Top-10 finish. It included one Tom Watson, who tweeted, “Big congratulations to @stewartcink! Enjoy seeing you back in the winner’s circle once again with a much-deserved win at the @Safeway Open. Special way to kick off the new @pgatour season!”
Two-time major champion Zach Johnson, recent winner of the Payne Stewart Award for charity, character and sportsmanship that Cink received in 2017, added, “My heart is full. My longtime buddy @stewartcink has always been a champion, especially off the course. And now he’s a champion again on the course!!! Not surprised. Faith, family, friends, bbq … Stew is the best! @Transamerica.”
Again, more class personified!!!!!!
Two recent Travelers Championship winners likely were also applauding. Chez Reavie, the 2019 Travelers champion, made four consecutive birdies on Nos. 10-13 in a back-nine 29 that produced a closing 66 and a tie for third with 2014 Travelers champion Kevin Streelman (66), Brian Stuard (70) and Doc Redman, who birdied the last six holes for a career-low 62 that tied the course record shot by Higgs on Friday. The 62 bested his previous low of 63 in the fourth round of the Travelers Championship and the third round of the Wyndham Championship this year.
At 47, Cink became the oldest winner on the PGA Tour since Phil Mickelson, the only back-to-back champion in Travelers Championship history (2001-02), captured the 2019 AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am at 48. Mickelson hit only 12 of 56 fairways in shooting 70 for 278 and a tie for 44th place. He had 48 consecutive holes without a bogey (fourth hole in first round to sixth hole Sunday), which was one shy of his career record in the ShotLink era in the 2004 Open Championship.
But Cink’s performance at least temporarily silenced his doubts.
“I’ve played some good over the years, but it’s been a while since I really played well over four rounds,” the affable veteran said. “When it came time for me to kind of wrestle the bull to the ground, we were able to keep our composure, me and Reagan both – at least it looked like it on the outside – and get the job done.”
And they got it done about three week after Reagan, a recent Georgia Tech grad who moved back home with his parents after getting engaged to save money, old his dad that he’d like to caddie for him sometime.
“I said, ‘How about Safeway?’ ” Stewart recalled.
Turned out to be one of the best decisions of his life, so mucho congratulations, Stewart, Lisa and Reagan. You all certainly deserve it.