LINKS LETTER, 2005

BACK FROM UGLY

By Jeff Hopper

Just two feet long.

It never seems like much. Not on the practice green, certainly. And not on the course either, not normally.

But when a putt like that is for all the marbles—as in the national championship, a five-year exemption, more than a million dollars—that changes everything.

And in 2001, on the 72nd green at Southern Hills Country Club in Tulsa, Oklahoma, it did change everything. Twice.

Stewart Cink and Retief Goosen, playing together, arrived at that final hole tied, one shot ahead of Mark Brooks, former winner of the PGA Championship, the sole major championship title held by the three leaders. At this stage, major provens like Tiger Woods, Ernie Els, and Nick Price had faded away.

The final outcome rested with the final group. Or so it appeared. Goosen’s second at the par-4 landed in the middle of the green, but Cink’s approach went over the back. His chip was easier than he made it appear, leaving it 12-feet short. When Goosen lagged to within two feet, Cink had one thing in mind: “Make this.”

He didn’t. The putt just missed on the high side and stopped two feet past the hole. Sure the tournament was now Goosen’s and not really focused, Cink missed again. Double bogey and a 277 finish, one shot behind Brooks in third.

Then Goosen did the unthinkable. The seed of Cink’s miss planted in his mind, the South African missed too. He had bogeyed, falling into a tie with Brooks. In an instant, Stewart Cink was the odd man out.

It didn’t at first occur to Cink that his tiny miss had caused him to miss. But it occurred to his audience, those around the green and those watching at home. To virtually every golf fan in the world that day, Stewart Cink, just 28 at the time, was heartbreak personified.

There’s no telling how Monday would have turned out with Cink in the mix—Goosen won his first U.S. Open by two shots over Brooks in the playoff—but in the press room, reporters couldn’t pierce the Cink armor. “In any case,” he told them, “this is golf. I can handle this.”

Cink’s armor is more penetrable these days, buoyed by his best year ever on Tour, coming off two wins and a Ryder Cup spot in 2004. But it isn’t just success that has changed Cink’s take on his career. It was that failure at Southern Hills, and his willingness in the months to follow to admit, finally, that not all was wonderful.

To find this out, you have to first get past the smiling, peaceful Stewart Cink. That’s the guy who’s easy to find. He’ll tell you he’s been laid back since at least college, when he was an All-American at Georgia Tech, in a career that lined up with the mercurial David Duval.

Duval’s star rose first, but it is Cink who is smiling now. In 2004, he was fifth on the PGA Tour final money list, and when the season ended, he found himself at No. 10 in the world, more than 40 places ahead of where he’d started the year.

He’s smiling, too, because of that Ryder Cup berth.

“At the start of the year, a lot of reporters and a lot of people were asking me, ‘Do you think you have a chance to make the team?’ ” he recalls. “I really thought I had to win two tournaments to make the team.”

In April, he won the first one, taking the MCI Heritage in a playoff against Ted Purdy, after coming from nine shots back on Sunday. It was Cink’s second win at Harbour Town, and the third of his career.But in the early summer, Cink still found himself outside the ten automatic spots, and his results were not helping him climb the ladder. After the British Open Championship, however, he surged.

“I had a string of top tens that moved me up and up and up and up,” he says.

Indeed. The stretch actually began at the John Deere Classic, where he was eighth. At the Open Championship, he was 14th. Then back in the States, he finished fifth at the Buick Open and tied for sixth at The International. If there’s anything that catches the attention of a Ryder Cup captain, it’s heat—and Cink was all but sizzling.

His finish at the PGA Championship didn’t earn him any Ryder Cup points, but it was still in the top 20, and on the Monday after the summer’s final major, U.S. captain Hal Sutton made Cink one of his two captain’s picks.

Cink was elated. He went to the NEC Invitational at Firestone Country Club in rare emotional form. It showed.

At Firestone, Cink bolted to the lead with a 63 on Thursday. Back-to-back 68s on Friday and Saturday had him six shots in front. He won by four over Rory Sabbatini and Tiger Woods, still the world’s No. 1 player at the time.

Cink says there’s no question what that victory meant.

“It definitely was my biggest win ever because, first and foremost, Tiger Woods being in the field, it means something when you win. That means a lot to me to have a win with him in the field and against all the other great players,” Cink says.

No, Woods wasn’t alone. “I don’t know who out of the top 50 wasn’t there, but I think everybody was,” Cink says. “It’s a great feeling. As good as the majors.”

Certainly the field was there. And the payoff: $1,200,000.But as good as a major? As good as victory at Southern Hills would have been?

To Cink’s forward-thinking credit, perhaps, Southern Hills almost never comes up. Except in one way.

On that Father’s Day afternoon in 2001, when Cink’s own children were just four and seven, he told reporters that he hadn’t really been thinking about that two-footer. After missing that first putt, he hadn’t paid the little one much mind.

And that may have been true. But Cink admits now that short putts caused him great fear. He was, simply put, afraid to miss.

“It happened at Colonial a few weeks before that,” Cink recalls. “Just a few little short putts. The more I missed, the more I was afraid of missing.”

That year, Cink was 85th on the Tour in putts per green. The next season he was 112th. The “phase,” as he calls it, was a long one—and it finally drove him to get help.

Cink turned to Florida therapist Preston Waddington. Waddington is not a sports psychologist, as many players on tour employ. But he helped Cink trade his stress and fear for a bit of perspective.

“I had to sort of take a step back before I could take two steps forward,” says the now-relieved Cink. “I had to understand, Why am I fearing these putts? I asked myself that, and the answer is, really, there is no answer. There’s no reason to be afraid of missing putts.

“So I try to go out there and understand that whether the ball goes in the hole or not, it’s not the end of the world. It doesn’t affect the way I feel about myself. It doesn’t affect the way other players feel about me.”Bringing other players into the equation has been a big help.

“The way I see other players when they miss putts, it’s almost like a double standard,” he explains. “I see them and I forgive them for doing it, but a few years ago, during my troubled times, I wasn’t forgiving myself for the same thing they were doing.

“The result? “A lot fewer misses” is how Cink puts it. The official PGA stats say it like this: fifth on Tour in 2003, first in 2004. That’s fifth and first in the two seasons immediately following finishing 112th.

Stewart Cink’s quest to resolve his putting woes is something of a microcosm of his career, where he has lately found it best to trade certainty for mystery and take some of the pressure off.

He doesn’t set goals anymore.

“I’ve learned a lot about the way my mind works in the last couple years,” he says. “I find that setting goals for me sets a lot of expectations that if I fail to meet them, my mind doesn’t handle that very well.”

Cink has stopped trying to figure it all out, looking instead for contentment in what comes his way. That may be why he turns to the Bible’s Psalm 73 with interest.

In the Psalm, King David, the warrior poet, laments the success of the wicked. He can’t figure out why God would reward them despite their ill choices and self-serving lives. It’s a poem full of whys and what-ifs, as Cink’s own life journey once was.

But Cink sees hope in David’s eventual understanding that the tables would one day be reversed, that God’s greatest blessings would come for him and the rest of God’s people.

“I used to be one of those guys out there having fun, in sinfulness, living for myself in the world,” Cink explains. “I was one of those guys. I was doing well. I was playing well. But when I think about it, the way David flipped 180 degrees in the Psalm, I also flipped 180 degrees. Now I’m here.”

That here began in college, when Cink was sitting with some of his Georgia Tech teammates and a young minister named Mark Parry, who worked with a group called College Golf Fellowship. In the middle of “a typical conversation for college kids,” as Cink describes it, Parry dropped a big question: “If you die today, are you going to heaven?”

“I was shocked,” Cink remembers. “I said yes, but I didn’t really know the answer.”

Nor could he shake the question.

“I had to get the answer,” he says. “I had to know more.”

Cink was 20 when Parry asked the question, and a bit ahead of his teammates, in that he was married and had a son already. And Cink found a lot of his answer right there at home. His wife Lisa had chosen to follow Christ as a child. And she lived for Christ right in front of Stewart.

When Cink himself finally chose to follow Christ five years ago, his perspective changed greatly.

“I tell you what,” he says, “there have been times in the game of golf when I’ve been unhappy with the way I performed. But all I have to do is think about how trivial and insignificant it is to have a 75 one day when I think about what Jesus gave up for me. That puts it into perspective so quickly. If I didn’t have that, if I’d never been asked the question, or if my wife had never kept it in front of me, today I may never have been able to put that kind of disappointment away.”It’s an outlook no golf fan can easily believe: C’est la vie, Southern Hills. Hello, Firestone!

But now you know, it’s not the first time Stewart Cink has put old and ugly behind him for something new and fine. Likely, it won’t be the last.

ANSWERS

How do you prepare for a tournament?
I try to make notes on the way my mental activity worked on the previous week. Maybe I hit a shot when I knew I wasn’t ready, I wasn’t totally clicked into a target, maybe a couple of places here and there each round. If you make a mistake like that maybe four times a round—which is on the low end for the average Tour player—and that ends up costing you a shot half the time, you’re talking about eight shots difference during a tournament right there, so that’s the difference between shooting 10-under and 2-under. That’s massive. So I’m trying to eliminate those mental errors.

Is the difference between winning and losing coming up with the big shot at the right time?

That’s part of it, but really the big shot is sort of a result of what it really takes to win. What it really takes to win is a couple of things—you have to totally believe in your ability and you have to be able to keep your composure under stressful situations.You led the Tour in putting this year.

What are you thinking about on the green?
I think the best way to putt is with a blank mind. And it’s really the hardest way to set your mind at peace, just totally blank.

How would you describe your Ryder Cup experience?
I feel like I made the team by having a string of high finishes when I needed to, then won the next tournament, which was fantastic timing as far as the way it put my mind in such a great place at the Ryder Cup. It was a really great experience and then we had to go ahead and lose. I was really disappointed because I didn’t play my best at the Ryder Cup. I would definitely say of all the tournaments I played (in 2004), I would put the Ryder Cup somewhere in the bottom third as far as how I played. I think a lot of players on our team would say that. I wish I had an answer for why that was, but unfortunately we don’t and we’re still trying to come up with answers.

What would you tell players at Georgia Tech if you went back and talked to them now about your life?
I would say, “I know what you see when you see me. You see me with four PGA Tour wins, you see me with my trophies at your school, you see the All-American by my name, you see my big house, you see my family, wife and kids, my nice car, my membership at East Lake, all that stuff. But that’s not really what I want you to see, that’s not what you should see. If you look deeper, you’ll see more—a lot more. All that stuff will just fade away like dust. When you see inside me, the truth of what you see inside me is that Jesus Christ is inside me all the time. That’s where the happiness that’s on the outside comes from, what’s on the inside.”

What do you do for fun away from golf?
My kids kill most of my time. I’ve got 7- and 11-year-olds. They play ice hockey, which I love. I never played, but if I could go back and do anything over again, I’d play ice hockey. I just love the game. I’ve really become a student of it, a real big fan.

COPYRIGHT 2005 LINKS PLAYERS INTERNATIONAL

  • Stewart Cink

    6 PGA Tour Wins (one major): 1997 Canon Greater Hartford Open, 2000 MCI Classic, 2004 MCI Heritage, 2004 WGC-NEC Invitational, 2008 Travelers Championship, 2009 British Open Championship

    Awards: 1997 PGA Tour Rookie of the Year