Stewart Cink reached the pinnacle of his career in 2009 when he beat Hall of Famer Tom Watson in a four-hole playoff to capture the British Open.
While his sixth worldwide victory appeared to have Cink on an upward trend, injuries and battles with cancer for him, and wife Lisa, helped lead to more than a decade of frustrations and failure to reach the winner’s circle.
When he missed the cut at the Wyndham Championship to close out last season, he had fallen to 144th in the FedExCup points standings and 300th in the Official World Golf Rankings.
Then the golfing gods intervened. Cink’s son, Reagan, had graduated from Georgia Tech, his father’s alma mater, and was ready to take a job in flight operations with Delta Airlines.
But 24-year-old Reagan moved home when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, so he and dad thought it would be fun to become a father-caddie tandem. Lo and behold, Team Cink, with Stewart playing, and Reagan looping, produced a closing 7-under-par 65 to win the family’s first tournament in 11 years – the Safeway Open in Napa, Calif. They then tied for fourth in the Bermuda Championship, again, with Reagan on the bag.
So you obviously stay with a good thing, right? Reagan had helped rejuvenate a career that looked to be deep in a dark place and more pointed to the PGA Tour Champions, so the job with Delta would have to wait and dad’s full-time caddie, Kip Henley, would have to look for another bag. The father-son relationship would remain a player-caddie relationship at least until Reagan is married in July. And the partnership included a visit to Augusta National Golf Club, where Stewart tied for 12th in the Masters last week.
“It was a cherry on the top,” Stewart said. “Having my son alongside for something like that was really cool.”
But not as “cool” as Sunday, when Cink methodically shot a 1-under 70 for a 72-hole total of 19-under 265 and a four-stroke victory over Harold Varner III (66) and Emiliano Grillo (68) in the RBC Heritage at Harbour Town Golf Links in Hilton Head Island, S.C. He had opened with a pair of 63s for his best 36-hole score in 25 years on the PGA Tour that bettered the tournament record of 129 shared by Hall of Famers Jack Nicklaus (1975) and Phil Mickelson (2002).
It was the first time that Cink led after a second round since the 2008 Travelers Championship that he won by a stroke over Tommy Armour III and defending champion Hunter Mahan.
A third-round 69 enabled Cink to retain a five-stroke lead, and his 18-under 195 for 54 holes was two less than the tournament record shot by Justin Leonard in 2002.
Sunday, Cink led by at least three strokes throughout and finished with one bogey and two birdies, the clincher coming when he made a birdie 2 on the picturesque 17th hole. The 10-foot birdie putt enabled Stewart and Reagan to enjoy one final stroll together. After Cink made a 3-foot par putt, the two hugged, high-fived and walked off arm-in-arm.
“Good stuff, dad,” Reagan said.
The duo then celebrated with a teary-eyed Lisa and older son Connor, who had flown in from Colorado for the final round after not having seen dad win in September. A group hug capped a memorable week for the Cinks.
“I don’t ever know if I have words, but there was no way I wasn’t going to win after Connor flew here,” Stewart said with a smile.
“I did the job that I needed to do today to come away with a little bit of a cushion on the last few holes, which is such a pleasure to experience.
“It doesn’t happen to many people that many times in their career, but to walk down that fairway with a big lead and see that ball come up on dry land here on the 18th fringe with Reagan on the bag, and I knew Connor and Lisa were out there … it’s almost beyond words.”
Reagan was equally delighted.
“I really enjoyed everything, especially between the shots,” he said. “Joking around while walking up the fairways was awesome.”
Lisa Cink was emotional in light of having recovered from Stage 4 breast cancer, diagnosed in April 2016 and two years before Stewart had to deal with basal cell carcinoma.
“God has blessed us beyond words,” Lisa said. “What’s so amazing is this kind of rebirth that Stewart is experiencing and at such an older age.
“I’m just in awe of how well he’s playing at this time in his career, and it just seems like icing on the cake.”
Cink joined Hall of Famers Davis Love III (five) and Hale Irwin (three) as the only players with three or more tournament titles. He also joined reigning U.S. Open champion Bryson DeChambeau, ranked sixth in the world and No. 1 in the FedExCup standings, as the only multiple winners this season.
The 47-year old earned 500 FedExCup points to move to No. 3 in the standings, and the $1,278,000 that he pocketed was nearly as much as the $1,404,000 for his previous victories at Harbour Town in 2000 and 2004 combined.
Cink’s first PGA Tour win came in the 1997 Canon Greater Hartford Open when he beat Tom Byrum, Brandel Chamblee and Jeff Maggert in a playoff while becoming the Rookie of the Year. Now, Cink is only the fourth player to win twice in the same PGA Tour season after turning 47. The others are Julius Boros, Sam Snead and Kenny Perry (who accomplished it twice).
“The guys that come out here year after year get better and better, younger and younger, and they don’t make it any easier,” Cink said. “And players are inundated with info a lot more than there used to be.”
So with more than ever to combat, Reagan, a scratch handicapper, and dad collaborate on strategy before tournaments.
“We do a good job with our mapping of hole locations and where the holes are relative to bunkers and trouble and all that stuff, and we kind of grade everything,” said Cink, who moved to world No. 44, his best ranking position since the 2010 season.
“So the night before, we look at wind direction and are already planning for what kind of shots are going to come up from around the green based on certain wind and hole locations, and we just kind of go from there and make our plan.
“The tee shots are dictated by where the tees are placed. We don’t know any of that, so it’s more vague. It’s more like distance zones we’re trying to hit to. If they move the tee 50 yards up, we just take 50 yards off our zone and say, well, it must be a 6-iron off the tee today.
“If you just come into every hole blind and you walk up to it and start making your decision, that eats away at your reserve of energy, especially at my age.
“It’s kind of a conservation plan that we came up with. We call it bludgeoning, and we just bludgeoned that plan almost to death. When you manage yourself around a course like that and execute, the golf courses yield.”
Cink, who previously donned a plaid jacket given the Heritage winner in 2000 and 2004, almost always uses “we” when working with Reagan, who was born in 1997, the same year Cink scored his aforementioned maiden PGA Tour victory in Hartford.
“When we have choices to make, he’s really good about reminding me what the prudent one is,” said Cink. “He’s not just my son caddying. He’s a professional caddie doing an excellent job. He could caddie for any player in the world and understands the game plan and golf at a really high level. He’s a good golfer, but he thinks about golf way higher than his scratch handicap would indicate.”
Reagan, who has a son’s privilege of speaking his mind in a way that a regular tour caddie might not, isn’t shy about elaborating on his influence.
“I think I call the shots,” the younger Cink joked. “He listens to me most of the time. It’s a blast out there. We operate on the same wavelength pretty much all the time, so we get to joke around and have a great time in between shots, even when the stakes are pretty high and he’s playing really well. And it’s efficient planning when we get to the shots, so it really works on a lot of levels.”
Lisa worked hard and remains thankful after surviving the Stage 4 breast cancer. The disease spread to the lymph nodes of the new health advocate and required aggressive treatment of nine rounds of chemotherapy administered through a port in her chest. Stewart decided to step away from golf until Lisa could join him.
“I learned so much from Lisa about how to fight and how to do what it takes that I thought I could apply some of that to golf,” said Cink, who had a sizable chunk of tissue removed from the right side of his nose in 2018.
“She was really valiant with her struggle and her battle, and I figured if she could do that much and be that disciplined, then why can’t I. It’s a little different when we’re talking about cancer versus golf. It had a little bit of an effect on my golf but was very positive.
“After what Lisa had been through, my carcinoma was nothing and we took care of it.”
The religious Cink has rightfully been recognized for his character throughout the highs and lows of his career. In 2017, he received the Golf Writers Association’s ASAP Jim Murray Award for cooperation with and accommodation of the media. Later that year, he also was the recipient of the Payne Stewart Award, presented annually to a player who embodies the spirit of the late three-time major champion via his respect of the game’s traditions, his charitable arm, his devotion to growing the game and his distinguished manner on the course.
The Cinks are indeed one of the leading families of the PGA Tour.