Some variation of the question is asked of the winner every week in tournament golf – what were you feeling as you won it? The emotions always tend to run a familiar gamut – joy, relief, shock, fear, fulfillment, pride, peace, etc.
Stewart Cink felt a wide range of emotions when he ended an 11-year drought with his victory a few weeks ago in the Safeway Championship in California. It was one emotion in particular, however, that stood out. You could see it all over his face as he played and as he talked about a result he wasn’t sure he would ever experience again.
Of course, every tour winner is grateful for all the things that must accumulate to reach that pinnacle of success in golf. They’ll often thank their “team” for its support if not go full NASCAR like Bryson DeChambeau and rotely rattle off every sponsor.
Cink’s gratitude was much deeper and more genuine – a thankfulness that washed over him in profound ways. Few ever illustrate it and explain it quite as well as Cink did that afternoon in the smokey Napa Valley, with his 24-year-old son Reagan caddying for him and his breast cancer-surviving wife, Lisa, watching. The gratitude sank in long before his clinching birdie putt disappeared on the last hole.
“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,” Cink said.
“I had enough awareness to understand the position I was in and what it all meant to me, but also the clarity I guess today was gifted to me somehow that I was able to also focus when I needed to.”
Few golfers are more driven by gratitude than Cink. It is almost the default mode of one of the more gracious professionals on tour.
That appreciation moved Cink to do something a golfer is never supposed to do while the game is in progress – let his guard down and let his focus wander. After a birdie putt on the 14th green slid by, Cink walked to his wife at the ropes as he headed to the next tee. He stopped, whispered in her ear and gave her a kiss before continuing.
“I just felt like a lot of gratitude in my heart after that hole and thinking about at my age and being in this position, having Reagan on the bag,” he said. “I just went over to her, I just leaned in and I told her we’ve got a lot to be thankful for, think about the gratitude right now. Just kind of overcame me there for a second.”
Why not? Lisa has battled and beaten cancer. They’ve raised two sons into productive young men. Reagan recently graduated from their alma mater, Georgia Tech, got engaged and moved back in with his parents to save a little cash until the wedding while he transitions into his full-time job at Delta Airlines. He picked up a little extra change serving as a comforting presence at his father’s side.
“When you’re 47, you have a lot more experience and a lot more things happened in your life that you can use to put golf into perspective,” Cink said. “It’s certainly been the case for us. And I don’t think anybody escapes stuff like that. It was just a really great week. I’m glad Lisa was able to be here, and Reagan on the bag was just awesome.”
At his stage in life, with a major title to his name, a seventh PGA Tour victory wasn’t career-changing for Cink. More like career sustaining, providing a smooth exemption bridge through to his eligibility for the PGA Tour Champions.
“This is key timing for me to get a win; it will keep me in fields for the rest of my career until I turn 50 and then I can move to another tour maybe. We’ll see,” he said.
But while Cink didn’t need another victory to burnish his legacy in the game, this one may mean more than his maiden win 23 years ago at the 1997 Greater Hartford Open or his indelible playoff defeat of Tom Watson in the 2009 Open Championship at Turnberry.
Even for someone who climbed as high as No. 5 in the world and represented the United States nine times in international team competition (five in the Ryder Cup and four in the Presidents Cup), winning in golf never gets easier.
“Heck, no, it didn’t feel just like riding a bike. It never has,” he said. “It’s my seventh win and not one of them has felt the same. The only one I felt really calm and really collected and never really lost my composure was the biggest one I ever won and that was the Open Championship. But today I was losing my stuff everywhere.”
When he woke up that Sunday morning confronted with an opportunity that had eluded him for 4,074 days, Cink was visited by an old familiar feeling – nerves. He told Lisa he was scared, and she gave him the pep talk he needed.
“You know how good you are? You’re loved no matter what you do,” she told him. “No one expects anything out of you. I know you can do it and you know you can do it, but the world doesn’t expect anything out of you today. So just go out there and have a great time. You’re with your son, it’s going to be beautiful weather aside from a little smoke.”
“My goal would be that I want to be prepared to play and compete and have fun and stay in the present and be grateful to be there every day. Go out there with a great attitude and see what happens.” – Stewart Cink
Winning again reopens old doors to places like Kapalua and Augusta. A year ago, Cink found himself in the Masters field for the first time in five years thanks to a surprising fourth-place finish at the 2018 PGA Championship. Gratitude again was his prevailing sentiment in an 18th chance to compete at Augusta National – as it will be for his 19th start next April.
“My goal would be that I want to be prepared to play and compete and have fun and stay in the present and be grateful to be there every day,” he said. “Go out there with a great attitude and see what happens.”
A fire flashed when his desire to be grateful was misinterpreted as contentment.
“I didn’t say I was trying to soak it in; I said I want to be grateful,” he said. “I’m not going in there as like a ceremonial final lap around the Masters. No. I want to play in 20 more Masters. I’m going in there to compete and play well because it’s a major championship. Now, you do kind of soak it in while you’re there, but that’s not the purpose of me being there.”
The reason Cink still competes hasn’t changed. Neither has the gratitude in the fact that he still can.
Top photo: Chris Hyde, Getty Images
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