Get Stewart Cink talking about his multifaceted life and he’ll steer toward mountains if not water. Outdoors means anything but just golf. “I love being at high places,” he says. And he’s not talking about his 10th-place perch in career money, about that high stack of $27.7 million. He means skiing, hiking and climbing. Golf never gets in the way of adventure.
“I love playing golf, but there are a lot of other things I consider myself more passionate about in the real world,” the 2009 British Open champion said in a lengthy, candid interview. “I’m not going to stop skiing because there’s a chance I might break an ankle or knee. Some people might think that’s a cavalier attitude, and maybe it is, but that’s life. It’s more than just career.”
That outside-the-ropes outlook helps explain why he played the 2003 British Open with a broken ear drum and concussion. He was “groggy” at St. George’s because of a nasty wakeboarding spill.
“I don’t do anything half-blooded,” Cink said. “I’m kind of like full-bore.”
Thrill-seeking has its limits. The line is drawn behind the bedrock priorities of faith, marriage and parenthood. You learn that when you grow up fast, when you wed and have a baby at 20. An old soul develops in a young body.
“I’ll jeopardize my golf career with any injury, but I won’t take a risk in those areas,” said Cink, now 36. “That’s the underlying cornerstone.”
It didn’t take instructor Butch Harmon long to see he was dealing with an aberration when he began widening the 6-foot-4-inch Cink’s swing arc in 2002 and helping him transform into a power player.
“He’s a different kind of guy for a PGA Tour player in that he doesn’t make golf the most important part of his life,” Harmon said.
That’s not to say the well-liked Cink, six-time Tour winner and under-the-radar cash cow, doesn’t strive to improve with the zeal of his youth. He does. He employs swing, mental and fitness coaches. It’s just that he works hard to ensure that “golfer” is more occupation than identity.
“Golf has a way of getting into your confidence and sense of self,” Cink said. “In the past, I was too overly concerned with how my scores, shots and expectations made me feel. I’d ride the roller coaster of emotions, good or bad. Now I just try to be willing to accept whatever happens.”
Having worked with three mental coaches since turning professional in 1995, Cink has learned not to compare himself with others and to purge expectation. Acceptance is built into his golf credo: Play the ball where you find it and hit it again. He and caddie Frank Williams often communicate that message to each other.
Lisa Cink, his wife of 16 years, has known the easygoing golfer since she sat in front of him in 10th-grade English class in Florence, Ala. She has had a close-up view of his wide vision.
“He’s definitely not one who lives and breathes golf every moment,” she said. “It’s very important. He tries to treat golf as his job. If his career ended tomorrow, it’d be a devastating loss but wouldn’t be the end of the world. The main thing about him is, he’s a very content person. He’s one of those guys who blooms where he’s planted. He’s OK with who he is and where he is.”
If that means being dissimilar, that’s fine.
“I’m definitely eccentric,” Cink said. “My interests out here aren’t the same as a lot of guys’ interests. Guys like fast cars. I’m not a fast-car guy. I’m not in the conversation with fast cars. I had a Porsche Turbo and it was cool, but I wasn’t into it that much so I got rid of it. I have a (Toyota Tundra) pickup.”
His matriculation at Georgia Tech also qualifies as aberration, particularly for a three-time All-American who won three national Player of the Year awards as a senior. As he says, college and married-with-child life aren’t designed for each other. But the mix taught him nothing if not time and money management, as well as how to change diapers between rounds.
“We had no money,” the son of a door salesman and school bookkeeper said. “We sucked our parents dry. We were starving, basically. It made us tougher, though. I’ll never forget about those days.”
Here’s an entry you normally don’t find on a Tour star’s resume: To get by, the Cinks also relied on food stamps and Medicaid.
“At the time it was hard, but it’s not like someone dealt us this hand,” Lisa Cink said. “We knew it was temporary. That’s the good part. We had an end date.”
Puggy Blackmon, his Tech coach, recalls those days when he could find diapers in the players’ locker room and lounge.
“We’d pick up Stewart to go on a trip and he’d be running around putting stuff together and there’d be baby stuff all over the place,” Blackmon said. “He grew up a lot faster than most kids.”
Cink was two years behind another Tech All-American, David Duval. Blackmon says the two shared mutual respect but weren’t close, in part because Duval was ultra-focused on golf and “was not there for social life and camaraderie. Both were into their own things.”
Back in those early ’90s, Lisa Cink says she was drawn to her man’s intelligence, humor and peaceful manner. She hints his tastes have grown perhaps beyond typical masculine boundaries.
“He likes chick flicks and Broadway shows,” she said. “In high school, I could talk with him for hours on the phone like I could with my girlfriends.”
A talk is precisely what she wanted when he got home to Atlanta after tying for eighth at the 2008 Wachovia Championship. She turned on the television and fast-forwarded the Wachovia telecast to the part where Cink took off his cap on the 18th green and shook hands.
“Look at that,” she told her husband. “You look terrible. You have to shave your head or let your hair grow out.”
A thick, black ring of hair circled Cink’s head, with little evidence of growth up top. “Monk hair,” Lisa called it. The top was white and the neck tan. So Lisa did the honors using clippers. Cink has gone cueball ever since.
Bald is beautiful. Particularly when you can see the image shine off of a Claret Jug.
That same spring, Cink drew attention for character as well as haircut. He disqualified himself on the final day of the Zurich Classic after discovering he had violated the since-changed Rule 13-4 for testing conditions of a hazard. The day before, he had stood in a fairway bunker and played a shot off grass that went into a greenside bunker. His caddie raked the fairway bunker, then a violation of an obscure rule, before they walked to the green.
“He stands for the right reasons,” said 2007 Masters champion Zach Johnson, Cink’s closest friend on Tour. “He’s a man of integrity and honesty. Stewart understands that if you let golf rule your life, things can go astray. Even when his scores aren’t good, you see the same Stewart.”
Same goes for Twitter. Cink tweets on good days and bad. Until winning the Open at Turnberry, he had been known largely for consistently cashing big checks, the bunker rule and Twitter. He got into the latter to let fans see his personality. Now he has more than 800,000 followers – a number that surprises a man with no expectations.
“Outside of a select few, the fans don’t know who we are,” Cink said. “All they know is we hit our 7-iron 175 yards – and our stats, money and number of wins. That’s not about who we are.”
Sometimes Cink sends 10 tweets in a day, then he might go idle for three days. He values Twitter also because he now has more supporters than before, online and in gallery, and it allows him to interact in a fun way during a sometimes lonely road existence. He gets a few hundred responses a day and says he reads almost all of them.
Plus the mode of communication activates his creative gene. Asked for his best tweet yet, the Cinks agreed independently: The Statue of Liberty, standing out there in the water next to Liberty National, looks like she’d make a great marshal.
Cink has gained more than 2,000 Twitter followers since he won the Open. He also has gained Q rating and more requests on his time. But mainly he has picked up confidence.
“It’s just not Stewart Cink,” Lisa said. “It’s ‘Oh, he won the British Open.’ As he views himself, it’s like, ‘I’m in the club now.’ ”
On the flight home from Scotland, he turned to his wife and said, “Wow, just yesterday, it really happened. I won a major.” The feat surprised few because Cink has been an upper-echelon player for a long time. He has finished in the top 43 in earnings every year but one since 1997. Counting this year, he has been part of four Ryder and four Presidents Cups this decade.
Cink says he has gained 25-30 yards off the tee since he started with Harmon in 2002, going from average to long. “He’s unlocked my inner big man,” Cink said. The computer says his driving-distance average swelled from 279.6 in ’02 to 296.9 yards last year. The computer also says this: His best stat seems to be making bank deposits.
He says every part of his game needs improvement but one: decisionmaking, i.e. picking clubs, seeing the right shot.
“I’m ranked low in a lot of statistics, but I’m usually high in scoring average and on the money list,” Cink said. “That’s because of intangible stuff like decisionmaking.”
Next up for him is the Oct. 8-11 Presidents Cup at Harding Park in San Francisco. Harmon sees him as a vital U.S. team member not only for his Open pedigree but because he can play with anybody.
“He’s the best,” Harmon said. “A very nice guy who flies under the radar as a good player. He’s quiet, reserved and doesn’t get the credit he deserves.”
But that’s OK. Cink’s accepting nature can handle it. Besides, apparently he wasn’t expecting any.