By Patrick Yost
It was early, but Buddy Clarke was already having a good day. Clarke, a 73-year-old retired CPA, was standing outside the bag drop area of The Creek Club at Reynolds Lake Oconee, waiting for his golf partner to arrive.
PGA professional Stewart Cink, a friend of Clarke’s for the past few years, was coming to play a round and Clarke couldn’t have been happier.
Clarke zipped up a pullover in the morning chill, laughed and squinted into the sharp winter sun. He was ready to play.
“You wouldn’t think I had cancer,” he jokes.
But he does. As does Cink’s wife Lisa, who, since being diagnosed with breast cancer in 2016 and after undergoing treatment during a time when the 2009 British Open Champion Cink announced he was taking a break from golf to help care for his wife, is now in remission.
Cink arrives in a white Ford Raptor pickup truck and uncoils his 6’4” frame from the truck and gives Clarke a hardy hug. The 45-year-old Cink is in his element and, after a long night where he and Lisa served as celebrity hosts at the kick-off event for Greene County Habitat for Humanity’s Showcase of Homes, seems well rested.
For Clarke, it’s affirmation of a man he has kept tabs on since they first met at the Bob Hope Classic celebrity pro-am years ago when Cink was a rising star in the golf world. It’s a friendship strengthened along the way through Clarke’s support of Cink’s charity pro-am, The Cink It Challenge, that raises money for cancer-related charities in the Atlanta area.
For Cink, it’s affirmation of giving back in a world where a lean, hungry kid from Florence, Alabama, can, with his high school sweetheart at his side, develop a golf game that affords him one unforgettable major win, five more PGA championships, numerous Ryder Cup and President Cup appearances, and the opportunity, he says, to be himself.
The night before, Cink and Lisa walked a red carpet at Reynolds Lake Oconee, politely standing for photographs and amiably chatting with guests at an event to kick off the Showcase of Homes to Build Homes for Hope, a major fundraiser for Greene County Habitat for Humanity. His friends, Shane Meder and Don Schoenberger of Black Sheep Interiors, had invited the Cinks to be the honorary hosts for the evening as a way to draw a lightning bolt of star power to the Habitat cause.
Cink said he and Lisa didn’t hesitate for the chance to help.
“It’s all about giving back and our friendship with Shane and Don,” he says. “They called and asked ‘Would you do it?’ and I said, ‘For you, yes. For Habitat, yes.’ It’s pretty simple.”
Here are some things you need to know about Stewart Ernest Cink.
Cink was raised in Florence, Alabama, a small town north of Huntsville and almost Tennessee. Cink played collegiate golf at Georgia Tech, married Lisa while both were still in college, turned pro two years later in 1995, and in his first professional golf outing, won money.
“I got the newspaper at breakfast and saw I made $15,000. It literally felt like a trillion dollars,” he says. He has since won six times on the PGA Tour including the ‘09 British Open where he famously birdied the 18th hole to force then 59-year-old Tom Watson into a four-hole aggregate playoff that Cink won by six strokes.
From 1995 to now, he has earned more than $37 million in career earnings playing golf, has made 438 cuts, and at one point, was ranked as high as fifth in the golf world ranking.
After his British Open win, Lisa leased him a convertible Porche, which he drove for the three years of the lease, turned it in and bought a pickup truck.
That morning, while hundreds toured homes throughout Reynolds Lake Oconee to raise money for Greene County Habitat, Cink had a tee time. He was there that morning, in large part, to support a friend traveling the same journey as his wife, and in part, because of the game.
“I like golf,” he says on the driving range of The Creek Club after he has been approached, and accommodated with a smile, several requests for pictures. “Let’s take a selfie, they’re better!” he tells one older fan.
No, check that, he says.
“I love golf. My whole life has been trying to constantly tweak and improve and incrementally try to do what I can to get a little better every day.” This day would be no different.
The next day, he and a new caddie would be traveling to Augusta to play a practice round at Augusta National in preparation for the 2019 Masters, a tournament he says, despite the British Open win, “has always been the pinnacle of golf.”
And then there’s Clarke, a successful entrepreneur with a boutique CPA firm that afforded him the time and resources to play in several pro-am tournaments like the one where he first met Stewart and Lisa.
Clarke has been paired with Kevin Kisner, Carl Pettersson, J.J. Henry, and John Senden, to name a few, and enjoyed the adrenaline rush of playing before crowds. “
You didn’t have to watch where your ball went. Somebody is going to know what you did,” he says.
He pauses in thought.
“I played above my ability in those events,” he says. “I played better.
“Of course, I didn’t have cancer then.”
He’s had three hole-in-ones and hopes to one day shoot his age. “I just need to get a little older.”
On this day at The Creek Club, playing with a PGA legend, Clarke says he had a good round. “I made three long, unbelievable putts.”
There was a long, lingering lunch and then Cink was gone, getting ready for Augusta.
Clarke says since forging the friendship, Cink has been a sincere booster, a concerned friend, a confidant.
“He’s a very giving man,” he says. “He’ll stop and listen to you. I remember, it was 2015 and I was having major surgery, he called me from the Fed Ex playoffs, which was unbelievable. ‘I just wanted to call you and tell you I was thinking about you.’
“When he has a good round I’ll text him and he’ll respond ‘thank you, very much.’”
Cink carded a 69 the day he played with Clarke, no warm up to speak of, no cameras, no outward expectation.
But there was the love – the love of the game, the love of a self-deprecating friend who needed the warmth of a sun-filled winter morning on a glorious golf course on another glorious day.
“I think he’s a great human being,” says Clarke about Cink. “I think he does the same thing for everyone.
“He makes my cancer feel better.”