Q&A with Stewart Cink

The golfer discusses winning the British Open, Twitter, and the Bible.
This month Stewart Cink returns to Augusta National Golf Club to play in his thirteenth Masters. At thirty-six, Cink has matured into one of the most consistent performers on the PGA Tour. The Georgia Tech alum boasts career winnings approaching $30 million, but it wasn’t until last year’s victory over Tom Watson at the British Open at Turnberry, in which Cink squashed Watson in a four-hole playoff, that the Duluth resident won his first major. As Cink himself admits, it was the major he figured he was least likely to win. But with the help of a retooled short game and a focus on routine and not outcome, he not only won, but he also deprived the fifty-nine-year-old Watson (and the media) of what was shaping up to be the greatest sports story of all time. In February, Cink talked with Steve Fennessy about how he won the British Open when he was sick, his love of Twitter, and the Bible study group that helps keep him grounded during the long months on the road.

Talk about the first time you saw Augusta National in person. When I was in college we used to play there every year at Georgia Tech. We had decent connections who would host us. The first time I stepped foot on it was to play it. It was around January or February. We drove over there in the morning. It was the most exciting day—up until then—of my life. The weather was kind of rainy. Everyone was a little nervous. We got there and the weather cleared out. But when we got to the eleventh green, we started hearing little claps of thunder. By the time we got to the twelfth tee, the bottom had fallen out and it was an all-out thunderstorm. As it was a tradition for the older fellas, as soon as it started to rain, they said, “Let’s call it a day.” So all we could do was look down the twelfth fairway. I never got to play Amen Corner.

How were you playing up until then? I don’t remember. I was in awe of the place. I was surprised how hilly it was, and how much undulation there was on the putting surfaces and off the edges.

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You drive the ball 290 yards on average and hit 77 percent greens in regulation. It seems Augusta should have been your first major, where those kinds of numbers are rewarded. I’ve always thought the British Open would be the last major I would win, not the first one. It’s not in my style. Conditions can range from like a nor’easter to pretty nice. The Masters—you’d think it would fit into my type of game better. But it hasn’t really done that. I think the reason is I haven’t been pleased with my short game for a while. To win at Augusta, you really need to be on top of your short game. So I’ve worked hard on it. About a year ago, I changed my whole approach. It paid off right away. I’m trying to get better. If you look at the best players, Tiger (Woods) and Phil (Mickelson), they have that dramatic type of short game. That’s what I’m working for.

When you went to bed on the Saturday night before the final round at Turnberry, you were three shots back. What did you fall asleep thinking about? The strange thing was how peaceful I was the whole week. I’m a guy that gets nervous. I get nervous before a tournament starts, I get nervous when I’m in contention. But for some reason that week, I wasn’t. Lisa [Cink’s wife] and the boys [sons Connor and Reagan] were with me. I was just having a good time over there. I was enjoying myself. I was just content. I was also under the weather. After the first round, I had the chills. I had achy joints. They put me on some antibiotics. But every day I would get up and I would feel like crap. But I had adrenaline, and I’d feel fine during the round. So I would just play golf and go back to bed. After Wednesday [of tournament week], I didn’t practice one time, except for my normal thirty- to forty-minute warm-up. Not once. I think it lowered my expectations. So when I went to bed that Saturday, I was just calm with everything.

After your win, you went on David Letterman and read off the “Top Ten Surprising Facts about Stewart Cink.” The number one fact: “Even I was rooting for Tom Watson.” Obviously it’s a joke, but what was it like facing off against someone you watched play when you were growing up? I’d played with him over the years, so we know each other a little bit. But when you’re in the battle at the moment, you don’t think about it. I was aware of the big story, but I had a job to do myself, and that preoccupied my thoughts.

So how did winning change things for you? I had a lot more media requests, which was fine. It really hasn’t changed my life. Or, I guess I could say I’ve settled back into the same thing I always was. My priorities are not moveable. They’re where I want them to be. I have my faith and my family, and my career’s down there somewhere. I feel if I had been a new kind of player coming on the scene it would have changed things.

Where do you keep the Claret Jug (the trophy awarded to the British Open winner)? It’s just around the house. Sometimes it stays in the closet, sometimes it’s on the bureau. It’s spent some time in my trunk. You get it for the year.

Don’t they ever worry it’ll get lost? I’m sure it’s been lost or misplaced. Tom told me about taking it on a fishing trip and it got damaged.

We’re still a few months away from the Ryder Cup, but you’re ranked fourth right now in the standings. How different is it playing for a team as opposed to just for yourself? It’s different because you’ve got a lot of other guys to lean on for support, but really the difference is playing for the flag. It’s such an honor to play for the country. When the gun goes off, there’s no place like that in golf. It still gives chills in my spine when I think about the first tee at Valhalla or my first Ryder Cup at the Belfry. It’s mayhem at the first tee.

Leading up to the British Open, you started working with a sports psychologist, Morris Pickens, who works out of Sea Island, Georgia. How did that change how you think? It’s not how you think. Sports psychologists are about how you approach different shots. On the course it’s easy to get lackadaisical and let your commitment wane. You have to stay on top of everything or you’re going to throw one or two shots away, and one or two shots can mean everything. The way to be most effective with your shots and your putts is to be committed to what you’re trying to do, to be prepared—which is where practice comes in—but not get too much into results. If you try to force a ball to go into the hole from twenty feet, you’re not going to have a good success rate. So you need a preshot routine. You’re thinking about what you’re doing, you’re not thinking about where the ball’s going. Even though as a machine the brain is a great thing, you can only think of one thing at a time cognitively. So if you’re focusing on your preshot routine, you’re not thinking about results. Watch a good free throw shooter and you’ll see the routine is the same every time. A free throw is about as close as you can get to a golf shot. Same as a tennis serve or a baseball pitch. A preshot routine settles your nerves. That’s what I worked on with Morris, and it got to where I could rely on it. The British Open was the first big test. It was unbelievable how calm I felt.

I saw from your Twitter feed that you attend the Tour’s Bible study group on Wednesday nights. Can you talk about that? I spend over half my year out traveling. I go to church here in Duluth, but if I go to church twelve times a year I’m doing pretty good. We have four or five players, but in Los Angeles a few weeks ago we had fifty people there. It’s not just players. We have caddies, spouses, TV people. It’s open to anybody. It helps us keep that balance. If you’re alone out there it’s hard to keep up with studying and your worship. Being around other people helps me grow. I’m so thankful for that because it keeps me grounded.

Tiger Woods’s case does bring up family issues. You and Lisa got married in college and had your first child while you were still at Georgia Tech. Your family is still together. Is it tough when your work keeps you on the road so many days? My kids are sixteen and twelve. They don’t travel that much anymore. They’re fully entrenched. What’s hardest now is on the marriage. When I’m gone, my wife is a single parent. I can pick up the phone and talk, but I can’t take the dogs for a walk or drop the kids off at the dentist’s office. It’s tough on the marriage. But we just make it work. We’ve been blessed. We got married when we were twenty. That was some really tough times early on. We didn’t have a penny. We relied on our parents. They didn’t have anything either, and it pretty much drained them. We just got through it. We just scratched what we could out of it, and that laid a great foundation.

What is it with you and Twitter? As of today you have 1,225,825 followers. I wish I could explain it. It’s been phenomenal to see that thing grow. I started a year ago. Someone sent me a message last week in Tucson congratulating me on my one-year anniversary. I was one of the first [golfers] to start. I just try to be honest and respect all my followers. They don’t care how far I hit my eight-iron. They can find that anywhere. But they can’t always get a picture from inside the locker room. Or what the course looks like early in the morning. They can’t see that otherwise. I consider myself sort of a roving observationist in this world. The things I see around that entertain me I put out there, and that entertains them.

What comes across after reading your tweets is that golf is important to you, but it’s not everything. You talk just as much about skiing and about hockey and movies. I think the impression people have about pro golfers is that it’s all golf all the time. You seem to have struck a balance. That’s important to me. I love to play golf and practice golf. But I also get tired of it. I saw myself going down that road in the mid-nineties when I got out of college. I was pretty much all golf, getting my career started. But I remember talking to my wife about how I didn’t want to be a one-track person. I want to do other things. I want to make sure I have a getaway, a way to set golf aside. Back in 1998 we bought a lake house in Alabama. I grew up in an area there where a lot of people had lake houses but we didn’t. So the green seemed greener.

Because it was. Yeah, it was. So that became my escape. Now we still have a lake house, but it’s in South Carolina. That was sort of my escape. I try to balance everything. I’m diligent about practicing golf when the weather cooperates, but you have to strike that balance.

You’re a big Thrashers fan. So how bad is it that they lost Ilya Kovalchuk?
I don’t think there’s a good way to paint that picture. He’s one of the top six players in the league. He’s explosive, he’s fast, he’s physical. It’s tough to lose a guy like that. But [new Thrasher] Niclas Bergfors is going to be a special player in the league. It’s going to be an interesting transition. I hope the fanbase has the patience to stick around, even though they’re fickle already.

You love hockey and snow skiing, yet you grew up in Alabama. How did that all come about? I had a best friend who went skiing all the time, and he’d come back with a trail map. His parents’ basement was full of trail maps. My dad is from Colorado, so I had it in my blood anyway. I used to stare at the trail maps, but we never could afford to go skiing. Then an old manager told me that Beaver Creek [Ski Resort in Colorado] is a nice place to ski, so I said, “OK, twist my arm.”

You’ve got like twelve pairs of skis. You must be pretty good. Don’t let that fool you. You can also buy five sets of golf clubs and not be any good. The kids are really good. Lisa and I are getting there. We’re no Ted Ligety.

You live in Duluth near TPC Sugarloaf. But you’re also a member at East Lake, Berkeley Hills, and River Club in Suwanee. Which do you consider your home course? I would say East Lake, even though I don’t play there as often. It’s my home course, because of the Georgia Tech connection. They were also the first to give me an honorary membership. They took a chance on me before I even won one dollar. It’s the crown jewel of Atlanta golf.

What is the best single golf hole in metro Atlanta? Number nine at East Lake. It’s my favorite par 5. It’s got everything. It’s a difficult hole but can reward you with birdies or eagle. It’s got a great backdrop with the beautiful clubhouse. It’s elevated with a great view of the lake. Yeah, the city of Atlanta is a great place to live for a golfer.