PARAMUS, N.J. (AP) — Stewart Cink enters the FedEx Cup playoffs at No. 58 in the standings, his best starting position since 2010. Thanks to a tie for fourth at the PGA Championship, he will return to the Masters for the first time in five years.
He would not have seen this coming three months ago.
"The main thing that happened was ... what you think are bad circumstances turn out to be good circumstances," Cink said.
Cink enjoys the late spring because he typically plays well on some of those courses, such as Colonial, Muirfield Village and Quail Hollow. Bad final rounds turned potential top 10s into middle-of-the-pack, if not lower. The final straw was Memorial, where he ended a streak of making the cut in 19 consecutive appearances.
"I felt like crap playing bad golf," Cink said. "I had to have a little bit of something to wake me up. I didn't do anything new, I just recommitted to what I was working on the last year."
That can be a tall order for a 45-year-old whose last victory was the 2009 British Open at Turnberry. Cink put in time with swing coach Mike Lipnick, and he started hitting the ball the way he envisioned the flight. Over the next two months, he had three top 5s — a runner-up at the Travelers Championship when he closed with a 62, and a tie for fourth at the St. Jude Classic and the PGA Championship.
The real test was at Bellerive, where he played in the raucous arena with Tiger Woods in the third round and matched his 66. In the mix at a major for longer than he can remember, Cink finished with two birdies for a 67 to tie for fourth.
"Being paired with Tiger helped me," Cink said. "I was nervous playing with the Tiger. The crowd was a factor. It felt like a Ryder Cup. It was a great challenge, and I really wanted to embrace it and test myself and see how well I can hang in there. I didn't have the option to fall back into a comfort zone. There wouldn't have been one in that group. I'm proud of myself the way I played."
Cink's five-year exemption to the Masters from his British Open victory ran out in 2014, when he shot 68 on Sunday and missed by one shot finishing in the top 12 to earn a trip back to Augusta National. He looks forward to going back.
But that's in April. Ahead of him is a chance to return home to East Lake for the Tour Championship for the first time since 2009.
"I'm super excited," he said. "I have a better chance to go back to East Lake, and that's a goal from here on out to see if I can make it."
More than recommitting to his golf, Cink said his heart is in the right place. The last two years have provided the ultimate test after his wife, Lisa, was diagnosed with late-stage breast cancer. He said her health has been steady — no setbacks — the last several months.
"It goes without saying that my life has taken on a different perspective," Cink said. "I'm enjoying playing golf. I don't have anything to lose. I'm having fun competing, testing myself. There's no downside. ... I wish I could tell my 18-year-old self that."
PAYNE STEWART AWARD
In what is becoming among the most esteemed awards presented by the PGA Tour, the Payne Stewart Award will be given to two-time Masters champion Bernhard Langer at the Tour Championship this year.
The award is given annually to a player who best exemplifies the character, charity and sportsmanship of Stewart, the three-time major champion who died in a plane crash on the Monday of the 1999 Tour Championship.
Stewart Cink won the award last year. The ceremony is Sept. 18 in Atlanta and televised live on Golf Channel.
"We all are so proud of Payne Stewart and the husband and father he was, the player he was and the character he had," Langer said. "I was very close with Payne for a number of years. Toward the end of his career, he became a believer in Jesus Christ and a Christian, and that was very touching to me because the same thing happened to me a few years earlier, so we had even more in common at that point. To now be receiving the Payne Stewart Award, I feel extremely honored."
The German turned pro in 1972 when he was 15 and joined the European Tour four years later. He won the Masters in 1985 and 1993, played in the Ryder Cup 10 times and was the winning captain in 2004. On the PGA Tour Champions, he has 37 victories, including a record 10 majors.
"Bernhard Langer epitomizes the ideals around which the Payne Stewart Award is built," PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan said. "Fueled by his strong faith and steadfast humility, Bernhard has become one of the great ambassadors for this game and continues to set an admirable example every time he tees it up."
PLAYER OF THE YEAR
Brooks Koepka already can count on one award this year. He has clinched the points-based award from the PGA of America as player of the year. Majors are worth 30 points, and there is a 50-point bonus for winning two of them. That gives Koepka 110 points for his U.S. Open and PGA Championship victories.
Even if Dustin Johnson, Justin Thomas or Bubba Watson wins all four FedEx Cup playoff events for seven titles this year, he would not catch Koepka.
The PGA Tour award is a vote of the players.
That's still up for grabs, though Tiger Woods thinks the race is over.
"You win two majors, you've got it," Woods said. "It's not real complicated."
Woods thought back to 1998, when David Duval won four times on the PGA Tour. The PGA Tour vote went to Mark O'Meara for his Masters and British Open titles.
"I think two majors trumps it," he said.
WRAPPING UP THE MAJORS
An obscure record was set at the PGA Championship. Seven players had all four rounds in the 60s, led by champion Brooks Koepka. The others were Stewart Cink, Jon Rahm, Francesco Molinari, Justin Thomas, Justin Rose and Webb Simpson.
The previous record was five players with all four rounds in the 60s at Baltusrol in 2016, Valhalla in 2014 and Riviera in 1995.
Koepka and Charl Schwartzel each shot 63 in the second round. That extended the streak to four consecutive years when at least one player shot 63 or better in the majors. Tommy Fleetwood also had a 63 at the U.S. Open, so that makes 2018 the fourth time there were at least three rounds of 63 in the same year. The other years were 1980 (Jack Nicklaus and Tom Weiskopf at the U.S. Open, Isao Aoki at the British); 1993 (Nick Faldo and Payne Stewart at the British, Vijay Singh at the PGA); and 2016 (Henrik Stenson and Phil Mickelson at the British, Robert Streb at the PGA).
Tiger Woods also got in on the act. His 64 in the final round at Bellerive tied for low score of the round. The last time no one had a lower score than Woods in one round at a major was in the 2010 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, where he and Dustin Johnson each shot 66 on Saturday.
Wake Forest junior Jennifer Kupcho has won the Mark H. McCormack Medal as the leading player in the 2018 world amateur golf ranking. The award gives Kupcho an exemption into the U.S. Women's Open and the Women's British Open provided she stays an amateur. ... Brooks Koepka, Justin Thomas and Justin Rose each have a mathematical chance to reach No. 1 in the world this week at The Northern Trust. ... The University of St. Andrews is honoring teaching pro Renee Powell and British journalist Katharine Whitehorn by naming a residence hall after each of them. Powell in 2008 became the first female golfer in the five centuries of St. Andrews to receive an honorary doctorate degree. ... Darren Clarke makes his PGA Tour Champions debut this week at the Boeing Classic outside Seattle.
STAT OF THE WEEK
Only two players outside the top 25 in the world have won majors in the last five years. Martin Kaymer was No. 28 when he won the 2014 U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2, and Jimmy Walker was No. 48 when he won the 2016 PGA Championship at Baltusrol.
"You don't want to be put on the bench in the playoffs." — Harris English, whose tie for 11th at the Wyndham Championship was narrowly enough for him to qualify for the FedEx Cup playoffs.