CROMWELL, Conn – A rejuvenated Stewart Cink has plenty to be thankful for these days, and the PGA Tour’s annual stop in Connecticut will always be one of them.
After an All-American career at the University of Georgia Tech, Cink made his PGA Tour pro debut in the 1995 Canon Sammy Davis Jr. Greater Hartford Open, now Travelers Championship, on a sponsors’ exemption and tied for 18th.
“I’ll be forever indebted to them for giving me that start,” Cink said Tuesday during a Zoom press conference. “They saw something in me coming out of college that they thought deserved a spot here, and I know there are a lot of players that didn’t get a spot. So that meant a lot to me. I’ve experienced so much really good stuff here, and my wife, Lisa, too. We just feel quite at home in the Cromwell/Hartford area.”
In his next visit to TPC River Highlands two years later, Cink added to his affinity for the surroundings when he notched his first PGA Tour victory by a stroke over Jeff Maggert, Tom Byrum and current Golf Channel analyst Brandel Chamblee. A major reason for the win was a shot off a severe downhill lie from the rough to the left of the 17th fairway on which he had to carry over the water for 130 yards.
“I remember debating, ‘Do I go for this, do I lay up, what do we do?’ ” recalled Cink, who has earned nearly $42 million since his GHO debut, including $3,364,202 this season. “I was at or tied for the lead and decided to go for it, thinking, ‘How many times are you going to get a chance to win a PGA Tour event?’ It was a dicey decision because I could have dumped it in the lake, but it was the right decision as it turned out.
“The way the PGA Tour rewards winning above all else, I think it was the right decision even if I hit it in the lake. I was trying to win the tournament, and you play the percentages until the last couple holes on Sunday, and you decide at that point when you need to take chances. That was a chance I needed to take. If it had come up short and gone into the water, I still would feel comfortable with that decision.
“That’s my greatest memory from this tournament ever, that one moment where I had to make a decision whether to go for it or not, and it paid off and got my first win and kind of set me on the right track in my career.”
Cink narrowly cleared the water, two-putted for a par, closed with another par and then huddled with Lisa and their newly born son Reagan for the final groups to finish. When Chamblee missed a 20-foot birdie putt on the 18th hole to tie and force a playoff, Cink had his memorable first victory that led to being named PGA Tour Rookie of the Year.
“I lot of things went right for me, and I ended up the last guy standing,” Cink said. “I remember giving my wife and our kids a big group hug, and Reagan was about three months old, so we squished his head between us to the point where I think he was almost injured. That’s a memory that we all laugh at nowadays, seeing Reagan’s little baby face getting smushed between mom and dad.”
Cink nearly became the tournament’s first repeat winner in 1998, but Olin Browne holed a 40-foot chip on the first playoff hole to beat him and Larry Mize. But Cink did become one of the event’s seven multiple winners in 2008 when he beat defending champion Hunter Mahan and Tommy Armour III by a stroke to capture the second Travelers Championship.
A year later, Cink notched the biggest victory of his career, defeating 59-year-old World Golf Hall of Fame member Tom Watson in a three-hole aggregate playoff to capture his only major championship in the British Open. In classic classy Cink style, he admitted he would have been rooting for Watson to become the oldest winner of a major championship if he wasn’t playing the legend.
Cink then went 11 years without a victory partly because he and his wife had to deal with cancer. In May 2016, Cink announced he was stepping away from competitive golf until circumstances improved for Lisa, who had been diagnosed with breast cancer. Cink tweeted the news to his 1.11 million Twitter followers, saying, “Since I was 15 years old, @lisacink has been my biggest supporter. It’s now time for me to return the favor.”
Cink said the “unfortunate news” was “a startling and unexpected revelation for everyone in our family.” He withdrew from the Wells Fargo Championship and did not compete on the PGA Tour for six weeks. Competitors in The Players Championship wore pink ribbons during the final round in honor of Lisa, and in his second start back, the FedEx St. Jude Classic, cancer patients from St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital drew pictures of get-well cars for Lisa, who was at TPC Southwind with Stewart.
But Lisa’s fight proved to be an inspiration to Cink as far as trying to perform better on the golf course and when he got another scare when diagnosed with a basal cell carcinoma two years later and had.. a sizable chunk of tissue removed from the right side of his nose.
“After what Lisa has been going through, this is nothing,” Cink said at the time. “Nobody wants to hear the word carcinoma. That’s cancer. But it wasn’t the worst kind. No melanoma. We took care of it.”
All of those trials and tribulations now seem in the distant past, especially since Reagan, now 23, began caddying for dad full-time at the start of the 2020-21 season in October. So how did it go? They won the Safeway Open, and Stewart became one of only three players to win twice since the season began when he captured the RBC Classic in April, joining 2020 U.S. Open champion Bryson DeChambeau, ranked fifth in the world, and No. 7 Patrick Cantlay.
Cink traces his rejuvenated game to improved fitness and a setup change at the start of the season that has enabled him to gain 20 yards off the tee and Reagan being his caddie, a job through the FedExCup playoffs in August, with time off to get married next month, before Stewart is back in “the caddie market.”
“Having Reagan on my bag has been just a blast,” Cink said. “To say having two wins with him is like the cherry on the top doesn’t do it justice. It’s been really, really fun, and we’ve made a lot of memories. It’s been a big part of my success because Reagan has grown up playing golf and knows golf like I do. His skill level in golf is not quite as high, but the way he thinks about the game and the way he understands the shots and the lies, it’s like Tour players think about it.
“So having Reagan caddie has been like operationally excellent because he’s very good and could caddie for anybody in the world right now. And just the relationship that we have has allowed me to be totally myself on the golf course. That’s something that is very important and intangible when you’re out there competing just because your decision making and all that is very important.
“Having Reagan is like a ‘mini me’ out there. We make decisions almost the same way. When we don’t agree, we always can find a place of common ground. Sometimes that’s me, sometimes it’s him. There is just a really good comfort level out there. Both of us have figured out a good way to approach the rounds, so it’s been a big part of my success this year. I’ve had a great year really for a 48-year-old, and Reagan has been a big part of it.”
After Reagan leaving caddying to concentrate on being a husband, Stewart hopes to qualify sixth Ryder Cup on Sept. 24-26 at Whistling Straits in Kohler, Wisc. He also has played on four Presidents Cup teams and in two World Cup and teamed with Fairfield native and 2006 GHO champion J.J. Henry to win the 2007 CVS Charity Classic at the Country Club of Rhode Island in Barrington.
“The Ryder Cup is definitely like a reward instead of a goal,” Cink said. “I feel like the way to get on the Ryder Cup team is to do all the little things I had to do to compete well every day on every shot. And so I don’t feel like when I tee up my first tee ball here on 1 or 10 I’m going to be hitting that shot in order to make the Ryder Cup team. That’s a reward that’s so far out there removed from each individual stroke that I have to play here and every decision I have to make that I just try to make my goals more closely tied to stuff that is controllable and feasible like make the right decisions every day, keep my mistakes limited, be ready to hit every shot, things like that. I can’t control what other players do, and that has so much to do with whether you like the Ryder Cup team.”
Cink is 28th in the Ryder Cup standings, with the top six getting automatic spots on the team and captain Steve Stricker making six selections. Cink will begin his quest to win for a third time on one of his favorite courses playing with DeChambeau and No. 8 Patrick Reed in one of the featured pairings in the first two rounds Thursday and Friday.
“What I like about the tournament is the continuity that Travelers has brought,” Cink said. “With (Travelers executive vice president and CEO) Andy (Bessette) and (tournament director) Nathan (Grube), they’re two faces you know right away when you see them on the range, that they are for the Travelers Championship and have put everything into it. They listen to suggestions, and there’s not a lot you can suggest on how to run a better golf tournament than they do here. But when you do have something that you see is maybe a concern or something that could be improved, they do it. They don’t just say, ‘Okay, we’ll look into it.’ It gets done. It’s really amazing and shows their commitment to this event and to the charities they support. It’s fabulous just to be a part of it.
“I know there are few tournaments on the PGA Tour that when players talk amongst each other that we don’t refer to by the city, that we refer to it by the sponsor. Travelers is one, and John Deere is the one. It certainly used to be Hartford, the GHO, and now it’s Travelers. That’s just an organic change. I’ve noticed that change in the last (14) years since Travelers has been here, and it’s so great to see that they’ve committed all the way through 2030. That’s just amazing.”
Is it any wonder that Connecticut is a mighty special place for Stewart and the rest of the clan?