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Top Players Remember Stewart and Chase Woods

Tour Championship: One year after fatal plane crash, standouts gather for $5-million event at East Lake.

November 02, 2000|From Associated Press

ATLANTA — Thanks to Tiger Woods and his yearlong dominance of golf, this year's edition of the $5-million Tour Championship is more like the combination of an All-Star game and an ATM machine.

Don't tell that to Stewart Cink.

"Outside of a major, this would mean the most to me," Cink said Wednesday.

Cink is enjoying the best season of his career. He won the MCI Classic over Ernie Els, went 4-0 as a rookie in the Presidents Cup and has earned more than $2 million, the first time he has cracked the top 10 on the money list.

What mattered the most to him at the start of the year, however, was redemption from what he considered rock bottom in his young PGA Tour career. That was two years ago, when the top 30 players came to East Lake Golf Club--his home course--to play for the richest prize on tour.

Cink wasn't among them. Instead of driving through the gates of the course where Bobby Jones grew up, he drove to Alabama and winterized his lake house.

"It was terrible," he said.

A week earlier, Cink needed only to finish seventh at Disney to qualify for the Tour Championship. He was in a tie for eighth going into the final round, stumbled over his own expectations, shot 76 and tied for 51st.

The closest he got to East Lake that week was in front of his television.

"I hated that," he said. "I had made such a public deal of the fact that this was a goal to get here in this tournament. And then to put myself in position and fail. . . . Not only was it disappointing, but pretty embarrassing.

"It was definitely a low point to have a lot of my friends and all the players come here and enjoy the place, and me not be part of it."

That's not the case this year.

Cink will be among the 29 players chasing a first prize of $900,000 at East Lake, a course that has a major championship feel with its tight, fast fairways, super-slick greens and dense rough that figures to keep low scores at a minimum.

Woods is the defending champion, having won by four strokes over Davis Love III at Champions Golf Club in Houston last year in a tournament whose competitors were still in shock over the death of Payne Stewart in a plane crash.

The late U.S. Open champion was remembered again Wednesday, when the PGA Tour presented the inaugural Payne Stewart Award to Byron Nelson, Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus.

"Payne learned from and valued the ideals and traditions set forth by the three legends of the game receiving this award," his widow, Tracey Stewart, said in a ceremony on the 18th green.

PGA Commissioner Tim Finchem said the nominating committee was split on who should receive the first award--those who already have established golf's traditions, or a younger player who tried to emulate them.

"We have elected this year to honor those who have set the standard, and who Payne Stewart himself tried to emulate," Finchem said.

Nelson, 88, and Palmer came to the ceremony. Nicklaus had a previous commitment with the Boys Club of New York.

Nelson called Stewart one of his "absolute great friends," a relationship that began when Stewart won the Byron Nelson Classic in 1990.

Stewart also won Palmer's tournament, the Bay Hill Invitational, in 1987, and donated his prize money to a local hospital. Palmer said Stewart often came to his office to talk about where golf was going.

"The tragedy has affected all of us," Palmer said. "I suppose that one of the things that's very important--and I hope will come out of this--is that young people understand what Payne Stewart meant to the game of golf. They have a responsibility to carry on the traditions and things that are important in golf."

East Lake is where Hal Sutton resurrected his career, winning the Tour Championship two years ago with a par from the bunker to force a playoff with Vijay Singh, and a four-wood to about four feet for birdie on the first extra hole.

The rest of the course is a shadow of when Cink and David Duval used to play when they were at Georgia Tech. The neighborhood was so seedy that both recalled stories of players getting robbed at gunpoint.

Since then, developer Tom Cousins has led an effort to restore the course and the neighborhood.

"The golf course was in shambles. The clubhouse was in shambles. The neighborhoods were in shambles," Duval said. "That has just all changed. That's an exciting thing to see. It seems like they are starting to try to write their own history with that."

Woods wouldn't mind adding to his own historic season.

He was in the midst of reshaping his swing two years ago, and East Lake got the best of him. Playing with Singh, he was 10 strokes behind after the first 10 holes, 18 behind going into the weekend and finished 15 out of the lead.

Now, he has a chance to join Nelson, Ben Hogan and Sam Snead as the only players to win at least 10 times in one season. Victories in the Tour Championship and next week in Spain would make him golf's first $10-million man.

"Is that a goal? Yes," Woods said. "Did I ever think that could happen? Yes."

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