Stewart Cink makes PGA Tour win, Ryder Cup team
Stewart Cink had a week he won’t soon forget. It began the night of Aug. 15, at home in Atlanta, shortly after he returned from the PGA Championship, when his telephone rang and U.S. Ryder Cup captain Hal Sutton was on the other line.
“Let’s do it,” Sutton told him. Cink didn’t know what to say. Do what? he thought to himself.
“You mean you want me on the team?” he asked.
Sutton did. And if there were any lingering questions concerning Cink’s appointment, Cink provided an emphatic, authoritative answer at the WGC-NEC Invitational. Having opened the tournament with a blistering, 7-under-par 63, Cink never let anyone closer than two shots in becoming the PGA Tour’s first wire-to-wire winner this season.
The last man to make the U.S. team was first at Firestone from start to finish. He closed with an even-par 70 Aug. 22 on a day when par was a worthy score, ending the tournament in style with a 15-foot birdie putt that gave him a four-shot victory over Tiger Woods and Rory Sabbatini. Cink finished at 11-under 269 and earned $1.2 million, the largest payoff of his career, propelling him all the way to fifth in PGA Tour earnings ($3.64 million) this season.
“My potential is just starting to be realized,” Cink said. “It’s a huge win for me. My confidence is at an all-time high in my career right now. . . . I hope there weren’t too many questions (about his Ryder Cup selection), but if there were, maybe this will answer a few of them.”
Woods wasn’t in contention after chipping through the green and into a bunker for bogey on the opening hole. He finished with a rare birdie for a 69, and continued his streak of never finishing worse than fifth at Firestone. He also kept his No. 1 ranking for another week - 263 weeks in a row – when Vijay Singh and Ernie Els both suffered letdowns after a dramatic week at the PGA Championship.
A week after his playoff triumph at Whistling Straits, Singh shot 70 in the final round and tied for 32nd. Els never broke par all week, closed with a 72 and tied for 65th. Sabbatini was the only player to give Cink a slight scare, making a 20-foot birdie on the 14th hole Sunday to get to 8 under, just two shots behind. But the diminutive, powerful South African bogeyed two of the next three holes to fall back, and Cink was solid over the last eight holes. Sabbatini’s final-round 68 gave him his best finish ever in a World Golf Championship.
The timing could not have been better for Cink – or his Ryder Cup captain.
Cink finished 14th in the standings after the PGA Championship, but Sutton picked him over Steve Flesch (No. 11) and Jerry Kelly (No. 13), also choosing him over Scott Verplank and British Open champion Todd Hamilton. Cink won the MCI Heritage in April and was starting to play his best golf with the Ryder Cup approaching. Sutton also liked the fact that Cink ranks No. 1 in putting on the PGA Tour.
All of that was on display at Firestone, where Cink had full command of his game for four rounds, two rain delays and a different cast of contenders over the weekend. Cink, who slept on a five-shot lead through 54 holes, had been 0-6 when leading going into the last round, and while he never had a margin so wide, Firestone was tough enough that anyone not on top of his game would pay the price.
Greens began to dry out under a second consecutive day of sunshine, and it didn’t take long to figure out that it would be a day for Cink to hang on. David Toms missed three of the first five fairways and was unable to reach the green, each time taking bogey. While not as dense as the rough in a U.S. Open, the grass was 8 inches long in spots and not a good place to be.
Woods, playing in the same group with Toms ahead of the final pairing, missed the first green in a small bowl of thick grass. As soon as his chip came out, Woods knew he was in trouble, the ball rolling off the green for an opening bogey he could ill afford.
Playing with a nice cushion, Cink proved just steady enough. There was a time not so long ago when he struggled with his progession in golf’s pecking order, becoming too tough on himself and expecting too much as he climbed the world ranking. “I was killing myself,” he said. He finally sought the help of therapist Preston Waddington in 2002 to help him deal with his fears. The two still talk once a week.
Now Cink is far more comfortable in his own skin, more accepting of his mistakes, and playing better than ever. His fourth PGA Tour triumph was undoubtedly his biggest, and big things lie ahead – namely, a trip to Oakland Hills and a date with his second consecutive Ryder Cup.
“I feel almost better about being picked now than I did in 2001 finishing 10th, because Hal Sutton wanted me to be on the team,” he said. “Out of all those guys, he picked me and Jay Haas to be on the team. . . . I’m feeling good about myself, but maybe it’s not just me. Maybe other people are noticing.”