With over 20 years as a professional golfer under his belt, Stewart Cink remains one of the most consistent players on the course and one of the most respected individuals away from the game. Cink has six PGA Tour victories to his credit including the coveted 2009 British Open trophy. But more important than wins and prize money is his steadfast faith in God and his rock solid commitment to his family.
In this CSJ Conversation with managing editor Chad Bonham, Cink talks about his love of golf, the importance of integrity, and how Christ’s biblical teachings help guide his actions:
Chad Bonham: Why do you love the game of golf?
Stewart Cink: Golf is so difficult to master. It feels like the better you get, the farther you are away from perfection. A beginner gets so excited when he hits the ball in the air or maybe hits a nice bunker shot. A player who has won major championships doesn’t get that excited about those shots anymore. It takes a lot more to excite you. The closer you get to perfection, the more difficult it becomes. That’s what draws me to golf. It’s such a challenge.
Bonham: What was your first introduction to the game?
Cink: I don’t remember when I first started because I was too young. I’ve been playing since before my memory. I was my parents’ first born. I have a younger sister. My parents wanted to do something outdoors that they could afford that was also something they could take me to. They narrowed it down to golf. They could take me out there on the cart. They played at this cheap municipal course in Huntsville, Alabama. I just learned to play golf by watching my parents. They weren’t really good players but they got to be pretty good. Both my parents eventually got down to single digit handicaps. I just picked it up because they did it. My dad taught me a little bit, but really I learned the values and the enjoyment from my parents and I learned the zeal for it and developed the quest to get better on my own from just playing. When we first moved to the town I grew up in, which is Florence, Alabama, when I was six years old, you couldn’t play at the golf club until you were eight. From six to eight, I would beg my dad to take me to the golf club on Monday when they were closed so I could play. I’d already started falling in love with going out on the course and I couldn’t wait to be old enough to be able to play for real. I played in my first tournaments when I was about eight or nine. I got to experience that winning feeling. I won the age group and got my name in the paper a little bit. I got a taste of different things through the game of golf that I wouldn’t have in any other kind of activity I would have chosen.
Bonham: What are some things we can learn about integrity from the game of golf?
Cink: I just think the game of golf teaches you so much about yourself like who you really are and what you’re made of. It puts you in situations where you’re tempted to kick the ball out from behind a tree. Not on the PGA Tour, but growing up as a kid, when there’s nobody out there watching and you’re having the round of your life and you hit that crooked ball off the last tee box and it ends up stymied right behind a tree. You think it isn’t tempting to kick it out of there and say, ‘I found it!’ The game has an unwritten rule that tells golfers not to do that stuff. In that way, it tells you so much about who you are. That’s a rules situation, but again, it also teaches you a lot about yourself and how you perform under pressure, when the heat’s on. It tells you about how you’re going to perform in other areas of your life when the heat’s on. The vast majority of golfers don’t go on to play golf as a profession, but they do go onto other professions where there will heat on them from time to time. Some people choke under pressure. If you don’t have integrity as part of your character, you won’t perform well under pressure.
Bonham: Can you relate a time when your integrity was challenged?
Cink: In 2004 at Harbor Town, I was in a playoff. On the 16th hole, I hit my ball into a waste area. It was confusing at the time for some of the players that there was a difference between the waste area and the bunkers. The waste areas weren’t hazards so I was able to move some of those impediments away from my ball. There was a rules official right there with us and I cleared it with him before we even got there. I asked him what I was allowed to do, not because I didn’t know, because I already knew. I asked him that so he would know exactly what I knew. I was just making him aware of what I was going to do and that I knew exactly what I could move. On TV, it appeared to be a bunker. Everybody called in and said, “He can’t do that,” because they thought it was a bunker. At the end of the playoff when I won, they had to go and review the tape and it took a long time. It was stressful even though I knew I’d done nothing wrong. It was still stressful and a little embarrassing. The worst part of it, when I was tested, was the next day when my competitor in the playoff was vocal and outspoken about his belief that I was wrong and that I should have been disqualified from the playoff or assessed a penalty. He talked with the media and of course the media outlets were calling me and trying to get me to respond. That’s where I was tested. I felt an urge to lash out and defend myself, but I also felt like the right thing to do was to stay quiet and let the rules stand behind me and know that I did nothing wrong. That really affected me for the better part of a couple of months because even though I hadn’t done anything wrong, I felt like I was a cheater because I was being portrayed that way by a few individuals and it really hurt. I felt like the win I got was tainted and not by anything I did but by events that took place afterwards, which was really difficult. It was a testing period. But I look back on that and I was proud of myself because I didn’t do any interviews. I declined everything. I let the facts speak for themselves. I didn’t want to defend myself. I felt like I handled it with integrity and in the end I was totally exonerated. The story still exists but I’m satisfied. I feel like if I’d gone out and defended myself, that it would have been a mess.
Bonham: How does your faith impact the way you approach life away from the golf course?
Cink: On a bigger scale, because I’m a Christian and outspoken about it out on the tour, I believe that I’m a role model in a way, but it’s also my responsibility to set a good example and live by the words that I say. Today especially with all the social media and everybody has a camera on their phone. Everybody you talk to is media these days. Literally, everybody is media. Everybody has a phone that can publish a picture of you doing something. They’re especially waiting for someone who is a do-gooder to take a fall. It seems like one of the favorite things to do in our society is see someone who’s been a big hero fall. During Tiger Woods’ personal struggles, it was really disturbing for me to hear almost the enjoyment the reporters had when they were talking about that. They still joke around about it. Society loves to bring down winners. In a way, I feel like I’m in that position because I’ve had a successful golf career but also because I’m an outspoken follower of Christ and I speak to a lot of groups. I can’t imagine what it would mean to me personally if I made a mistake and had to backpedal or if I had to live with myself because I said one thing but acted another way.
Bonham: How has being a follower of Christ helped guide you in this area of your life?
Cink: One of the greatest teachings in the Bible is the contrast between Christ’s life and the disciples. The biggest example I always think of is the woman at the well. They go into town. He stays at the well. The woman comes out to the well. She’s got a bad reputation. She’s had four or five husbands. The man she’s living with isn’t even her husband. She was a scourge of the town in everyone’s mind. What does Jesus do? He offers her living water and everlasting life. He talks to her and he cares for her. He serves her. This wretch of the town, He serves her. When everybody comes out to see Christ, they’re all amazed and dismayed that He’s even speaking to her. He puts them in their place quickly and says, “This is the right thing to do.” The contrast between how He acted and how His disciples acted is vivid and tells us a lot about the way we should be in the world.
Bonham: So in a world where the value of integrity seems to decrease every day, why do you think it should still matter for the believer?
Cink: Being a Christian is more than saying, “I believe” and then going about your merry way. God wants us to mimic Christ. One of the reasons He sent Christ was to give us an example of how to live. Think of what the world would be like if everyone tried to be Christ-like. There’d be no wars. There would be no fighting. It would be a peaceful and happy world without these problems that we have. He wants us to be like Christ so we can find Him. We’re not born with that in us. We’re born with the nature to seek Him, but we have to try to do it. The way to seek Him is to be like Christ.
Stewart Cink and several other PGA golfers (including Webb Simpson, Jonathan Byrd, Aaron Baddeley, Bernhard Langer, and Kevin Streelman) are featured in the book Life in the Fairway.
(Photos: Chris Condon/PGA Tour; Chad Bonham; Courtesy of Stewart Cink)