During his first 13 years on the PGA Tour, Stewart Cink was among golf’s elite players on an annual basis.
The former Georgia Tech standout was a fixture on both the Ryder and Presidents Cup teams, qualified for the Tour Championship eight times and became a major champion in his 13thseason, winning a memorable playoff in the 2009 British Open over Tom Watson.
At the age of 36 the long time Duluth resident was on top of the golf world and seemingly in the prime of what had already been a very distinguished career.
The next 11 years, however, consisted mostly of frustration on the golf course for Cink, who had been among the game’s most consistently successful performers to that point. Not only was he unable to add to his list of six career victories on the PGA Tour, but his name virtually disappeared from leader boards after years as one of the most frequent contenders in Tour events.
All that changed Sunday, as the 47-year-old Cink made his return to prominence with an impressive victory in the Safeway Open, a long time PGA Tour stop at Silverado Resort in Napa, Calif., and the opening event of the 2020-21 season.
Trailing by eight strokes after 36 holes, Cink shot back-to-back scores of 65 on the weekend to match his career low total of 21-under par and win by two strokes after beginning the final round in a tie for seventh place, two shots off the lead.
Cink was one of 11 players within two shots of the lead after 54 holes, but was one of only two contenders to break 70 Sunday on the par-72 layout. The only other player among the 11 challengers to break 70 Sunday was Harry Higgs, who needed an eagle on the par-5 16thto shoot 68 and finish second behind Cink.
For much of Sunday’s final round, Cink and the other contenders after 54 holes were chasing Doc Redman, who birdied his last six holes for a 62 that got him into the clubhouse at 18-under, two shots ahead of the third round leaders and four in front of Cink, who was early in his final round.
One day after shooting 6-under 30 on the front nine, Cink went out in 4-under 32 to pull even with Redman, and added four more birdies on the back to offset only his second bogey of the tournament. A birdie at the par-5 18thclinched Cink’s first victory in more than 11 years and guaranteed him exempt status on the PGA Tour until he turns 50 in 2023.
Cink has finished outside the top 125 on the FedExCup points list three times in the last five seasons, limiting how frequently and where he could play the following year. With his win in Napa, Cink is fully exempt through the 2022-23 season, and qualifies for the 2021 Masters and PGA Championship, each of which he has played just once since 2014. He is also in the ‘21 Tournament of Champions in Hawaii, which he has not competed in for more than a decade, as well as the 2021 Players.
Coming down the stretch Sunday, Cink found himself in a position he had not been in for some time, and even with the absence of spectators at the tournament, did not have to deal with his conflicting emotions alone.
His son Reagan was caddying for him for the fourth time in a PGA Tour event, and his wife Lisa, who is in remission after battling breast cancer, was walking the course with her husband and son.
“I was very aware of the situation we were in and obviously very focused on what I was trying to do,” Cink said after his victory. “But also at the same time, I was aware of the journey and how my golf game hasn’t produced all that great of results for the last ten years.
“It’s been a while since I really played well for four rounds, and even here, the second round I was not exactly outstanding. But I played really great over the weekend.”
Cink opened with a 5-under 67 to trail Russell Knox by four shots, and fell eight off the lead after 36 holes following a 70 that included a 3-putt bogey from 15 feet on a par 5. That turned out to be Cink’s only bogey over the first 70 holes, and he played his way into contention with a brilliant performance on the front nine Saturday.
Birdies on six of his first eight holes drew Cink within striking distance of the lead, which was 15-under after 36 holes but only 16-under after the completion of the third round. Cink reached both front nine par 5s in two, birdied both of the long and demanding par 3s and holed consecutive birdie putts of 21 and 35 feet. He could have shot in the 20s on the opening nine, but was unable to cash in on three other birdie opportunities, missing from inside 10 feet on the par-5 ninth.
Cink did not give himself many chances on the back nine, and managed just one birdie for a 65 and a tie for seventh, two shots off the lead held by three players, none of whom had won on the PGA Tour.
While almost all the third round leaders were spinning their wheels Sunday, Cink put on another display of superb ball-striking on the opening nine, going out in 4-under 32 with all four of his birdie putts from inside six feet.
Cink took the outright lead when he chipped in for birdie on the par-3 11th, and he holed a 20-footer on the par-3 15thto increase his lead to two. A sand-save birdie at the par-5 16thgave him what looked to be a comfortable 3-shot edge, but his second three-putt bogey of the week at 17 placed him in some jeopardy going to the final hole.
“I left a five-foot putt short on the 17thhole that I need to make,” Cink observed. “That’s not like what a champion does. But a champion does get back up off the mat when he gets knocked down and I got knocked down a little bit there. I went and played the 18thhole the best I’ve played it in my whole life.”
After a 326-yard drive that found the narrow fairway, Cink hit a 7-wood from 254 yards just over the green to set up the 2-putt birdie that sealed his first victory since his major triumph at Turnberry in 2009.
“I think I came to terms with the possibility that it might not happen,” Cink said of a seventh career victory. “It did, but it’s not something I was settled or content with. I’m still working like crazy to try to be the best golfer I can be, but there was probably a time where I felt like maybe age might have caught up with me and I might have had had my last win out here.
“But I wasn’t ready to concede that.”
Cink’s first six victories included two each in Hartford and Hilton Head, a WGC title at Firestone and the ’09 British. But in the intervening 11 years, he had very few opportunities to add to his career win total until Sunday.
His 21-under total for 72 holes matched his career low total in relation to par, but he did not win either of the two previous times he shot 21-under.
“This one probably ranks at the top as far as I remember my quality of play,’ Cink said. “I’ve never been really that straight of a driver, but I felt like I had really great command of my driver this week. I drove the ball like a young kid with lots of power and plenty of distance. I hit a ton of fairways the last three days, and that’s just not the type of golf I normally play.”
In addition to scoring his seventh career victory, Cink’s top-10 finish was the 100thof his career, the vast majority of which preceded his 2009 triumph at Turnberry. If Cink is able to sustain his career revival, he will have the chance to make his first start since 2009 in the Tour Championship at East Lake, where he has been a member for some time.