MEMPHIS, Tenn. – He was supposed to be in New Orleans at the annual PGA Tour stop but Stewart Cink forgot to commit in time.
“First time in 20 years,” he sighed. “I was beating myself up, ‘Can’t believe I forgot to commit. Now I’m not going to play. Going to have to add a tournament.’ Turns out that Wednesday of New Orleans is when she got the phone call.”
It’s the call no one ever wants to receive. Cink’s wife, Lisa, had advanced breast cancer and would begin chemotherapy treatments 12 days later.
Commitment deadlines, points lists and golf all became immediate afterthoughts for Cink. Whatever his wife’s future would be, he planned on being there every step of the way.
The Tour community, as it does so many times, circled around the Cinks.
Players, caddies and officials wore ribbons to support Lisa Cink during last month’s Players, and on Wednesday, Cink ran into Phil Mickelson in the locker room at TPC Southwind for the first time since Lisa was diagnosed. Amy Mickelson, who survived breast cancer in 2009, was one of the first phone calls Lisa Cink received after being diagnosed, and Lefty wanted to offer Stewart a few words of encouragement.
“Amy has been an angel, just awesome for Lisa,” Cink said.
It’s something of a cliché how life threatening experiences put the mundane things into perspective, but for Cink, his wife’s cancer goes well beyond mitigating the stress that comes with being a professional athlete.
“It’s lowered all of the other expectations in my life except for surviving and for Lisa’s survival,” Cink said. “Golf and the kids and how they did on their finals. The fights that me and Lisa were in, we were constantly bickering at each other because we’re married and that’s what people do, all that completely dropped away.”
Life has slowly returned to something approaching normal and last Sunday Lisa asked if Stewart planned to play this week’s FedEx St. Jude Classic.
He did not. In fact, he didn’t know when he planned to play again.
His first tournament back following Lisa’s diagnoses two weeks ago at the Dean & Deluca Invitational didn’t go well and he didn’t think he should leave home again with so many unanswered questions.
“She said, ‘What if I wanted to go?’” Cink said. “It’s not getting back to normal, because I don’t know when I’m going to play again. It’s a glimpse of normal. It feels great because she came here, she wanted to get out of the house. She’s around and I can see her in the morning and at night, I can check on her. She feels good.”
It’s a dramatic contrast to his week at Colonial, his first event back when he arrived late on Wednesday, played two rounds and missed the cut.
“I realized quickly that I didn’t want to be there without her,” Cink said.
Being on the road again, together, is proving to be therapeutic for both Lisa and Stewart, much like his updates on CaringBridge.org, an online community for people battling cancer where he has explained the details of his wife’s cancer and the treatment process.
Lisa has now gone through two rounds of chemotherapy and as Cink picked at a hurried lunch on Wednesday at TPC Southwind prior to his pro-am tee time, there were no updates.
“All we know now is she’s having treatment and she’s been doing OK. There have been some down moments and some ups, but overall she’s feeling better than we thought she would during chemotherapy,” Cink said.
Nor does he have any update on when he may return to competitive golf full time. If Lisa’s health continues to allow her to travel he envisions a handful of starts before the end of the season, but it seems unlikely he’ll play next month’s Open Championship, an event he won in 2009.
Lisa is scheduled to return to MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston that week for her next checkup, a pivotal juncture for any cancer patient.
“There’s no chance I’m going to be away for that,” he said. “No way I’d be anywhere but there with her. I don’t want to miss [the Open], but because I won it I have a lot of Opens I can play in the future.”
But then his schedule was not a concern on Wednesday as he prepared for the FedEx St. Jude Classic. The truth is, even the debilitating demands of chemotherapy weren’t a primary concern either, at least compared to what is, for many, the most difficult part of battling cancer.
“The hardest part is not knowing what the future is going to look like. Always thinking about what if I die? That’s what’s hard for her,” he said. “The chemo, you get through the grind of being tired and the sickness knowing that’s part of the fight, part of war. You know if you can endure this I can beat cancer. But that doesn’t take away from the stress of not knowing.”
For now, however, Cink is content focusing on the more encouraging elements of their cancer battle, as counterintuitive as that may seem.
“We don’t know what the future is going to hold, but we are already reaping the rewards and benefits of post-cancer life,” he said. “Our marriage has never been better.”