The goal is to celebrate their wedding anniversary Sunday in the manner to which they are accustomed and as they prefer it, the way they couldn’t the last two years. Golf got hard and grief made it harder because it was too much with them. And still it is with them, but they’ve learned to embrace the golf to help hold off the grief.
After a two-year absence that ended a 19-year run, Stewart Cink is back in the U.S. Open this week at Erin Hills. He opened the 117th national championship on Thursday with a 2-over-par 74, a frustrating result after some early promise, and the tall Georgian lamented his late stumble while still reveling in his return.
When you win a major championship, you are inclined to believe that another will come, and none would mean more to Cink than adding the U.S. Open Trophy to the Claret Jug he captured in the 2009 Open Championship, when he played spoiler and dispatched a spunky 59-year-old Tom Watson in a four-hole playoff.
But just having a tee time on Sunday at Erin Hills would be enough.
Cink and his wife, Lisa, will be married 24 years on Father’s Day, a piece of timing the Cinks didn’t quite digest and envision when they tied the knot as 20-year-old college sweethearts at Georgia Tech.
“It pretty much renders Father’s Day useless, but that’s fine with me. The U.S. Open kind of does that, too,” Cink, 44, said as he stood beside the original stone Erin Hills clubhouse that this week serves as the scoring area. “I can barely remember our anniversary not being at the U.S. Open, ever since we got married.”
Their celebrations traditionally are rather modest. To say the least. “We went to Steak & Ale one year. That was big. That’s when Steak & Ale was still around,” he said with a grin. “We usually don’t do a lot. The U.S. Open is a pretty big way to celebrate.”
This year’s championship carries extra meaning, and not just because Stewart has been absent the last two years. Last April, Lisa was diagnosed with Stage 4 breast cancer. Stewart’s golf hadn’t been sharp for months, and he couldn’t envision carrying on while his wife was about to begin intense treatments. He didn’t even try to qualify, vowing to put his career aside until she was well enough to travel with him.
The fact that he’s here, that he has worn himself out the last few weeks on the PGA Tour, is telling in regard to Lisa’s well-being. He acknowledges the emotional highs and lows any couple naturally would endure, his eyes becoming soft, but her condition has stabilized as she undergoes medication infusions every three weeks – thankfully without many severe side effects.
“The way I’ve been since we got the news is, if I’m playing then she is probably doing OK,” Cink said. “She’s in what the doctors call ‘sustained remission.’ Which is a good thing. The maintenance therapies she’s on are doing what they’re supposed to do and keeping everything from progressing.”
Cink’s progress on the golf course has somewhat mirrored Lisa’s status. Of late he has shown flashes of the talent that has produced seven career titles, contending at Colonial and the FedEx St. Jude Classic that resulted in two of his three top-10 finishes this season. In between, he competed in the Memorial Tournament, where he tied for 25th, and then successfully navigated the 36-hole qualifier in Columbus, Ohio, with rounds of 68 and 66. At the time, he alluded to how meaningful his return to the U.S. Open was to him.
“For sure it’s nice to be back. I’ve always loved this tournament, and as an American there’s special meaning,” said Cink, who finished third in 2001. “I had a couple of chances to win. Played 19 straight. I didn’t like missing it because it is such a special event. It’s fun to challenge yourself on these tough courses.”
His response to the challenge of Erin Hills was disappointing. It wasn’t so much the score – he was 2 under through seven holes before four bogeys dragged him down – but the way he responded as the long round progressed.
“It started off great. Hit it great out there. Then had a couple of putts I missed. I didn’t feel … that kind of zapped my energy and I fought it on the back nine,” he said, tossing a ball from his right hand into his left. “I was dragging. I think it’s probably more to the last few weeks than being in the U.S. Open or the golf course or anything. It’s a lot of golf, and golf near the top of the leader board, which takes more out of you. But I’ve got to dig a little deeper and find more focus. That is not the way I usually play. I don’t usually play scatter-brained. There were some shots where I really tried to gather myself and I just didn’t do a good job. I didn’t have a whole lot.”
Without question golf has been more challenging these past months, and good golf all the more difficult to muster. But the game also has been a refuge, a way to assuage some of the heartache and worry. It never abates, but he can tuck it away and let his mind burrow into a task from which he still derives satisfaction.
“I’m always excited about golf. I can be excited about golf while still having a heavy heart and a lot of emotions with the ups and downs,” he explained. “I love playing golf, and nothing is ever going to change that. Golf gives me something to focus on and really attack and dive into.”
And Lisa, during their 24 years of marriage, has been right there beside him, providing the support that he has tried over the last year to return in kind. “She’s a great teammate. The best,” he said. “I’m grateful she’s with me, and I’m glad she gets to dive into golf a little bit, too. It does mean a lot to her. The game has meant a lot to both of us, has given us a lot. We are in this together.”
The couple has no special plans for the weekend – except for the hoped-for starting time. Cink wants to play golf, which would be the most fitting way to recognize the day. But on Tuesday, the start of a two-week break from the road, they will have their celebration.
“I haven’t been told what we’re doing. It’s all up to her, what she wants,” he said with a smile. “But I’m looking forward to it.”
Dave Shedloski is an Ohio-based freelance writer and a frequent contributor to USGA websites.