Cink at age 50 part of a five-way share of the lead at Innisbrook

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Stewart Cink puts his his umbrella as the rain begins to fall on the eighth hole during the second round of the Valspar Championship golf tournament Friday, March 22, 2024, at Innisbrook in Palm Harbor, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)

PALM HARBOR, Fla. – Stewart Cink made a great escape from the pine straw for an unlikely birdie and had a 4-under 67 that gave him a five-way share of the lead Friday in the Valspar Championship and a chance to entertain thoughts of winning for the second straight tournament.

There's just one difference for Cink. The golf course is a lot longer. And the guys he is trying to beat are a lot younger.

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The 50-year-old Cink, who blew a chance to win on the PGA Tour Champions two weeks ago with a back-nine meltdown, looked steady on a day of 30 mph gusts in the morning, some wind in the afternoon but not close to the nasty weather expected at Innisbrook.

He was tied at 6-under 136 with Kevin Streelman (72), tour rookie Chandler Phillips (68), Brendon Todd (69) and Mackenzie Hughes (68).

“There's a reason that so many players rave about this course,” Cink said. “It requires everything, and so far this week I've done everything fairly well.”

Everyone faced various conditions, though Streelman and Phillips got the tougher end of the draw with wind bending pine branches and snapping pant legs. At least it was in one direction, not the scary, swirling nature in the afternoon.

“This place is tough even in good weather,” Streelman said.

Justin Thomas was poised to join the log jam at the top until he badly missed the 18th green to the right in a tough lie in the bunker and made bogey for a 69, leaving him in the group one shot behind that included Lucas Glover (69).

“I think we got very lucky with the weather,” Thomas said. “I know those guys had a lot of wind this morning, we had some this afternoon, it just was very gusty and it made that back nine very challenging.”

He said he lost focus on his 8-iron from the 18th fairway — “a bad time to have the worst shot of the tournament so far,” he said — but had no complaints about his position going into the weekend on the Copperhead course.

The cut won't be official until Saturday morning with about a dozen players failing to finish before darkness, but one thing was clear — this tournament was wide open. Only six shots separated the players sharing the lead to the players making the cut on the number.

The cut was set at even-par 142, sending home an All-Star cast from a tournament that didn't have all that many in the first place — Jordan Spieth, two-time Innisbrook winner Sam Burns, British Open champion Brian Harman, Tony Finau and Keegan Bradley all missed the cut.

For Spieth, it was the first time since 2017 that he missed the cut at regular PGA Tour events in consecutive weeks (Players Championship, Byron Nelson).

None of the players who share the lead are in the Masters — a win would take care of that — and Todd is best positioned to at least try to get into the top 50 after next week to earn his way back to Augusta National.

Todd was most pleased that he had a good attitude on Thursday in sunshine, knowing Friday would be tougher. It was all of that for just about everyone.

“With the wind blowing that hard, you just had to expect that every once in awhile a shot was going to go somewhere you didn’t want,” Todd said. “It happened a couple times to me, but I was able to grind through it with a few birdies and a few great par saves.”

Cink, who recently became a grandfather, is still irritated by playing the final six holes in 5 over — including a triple bogey — at the Cologuard Classic in Arizona two weeks ago on the PGA Tour Champions.

“Being in contention feels the same way no matter where you are, to be honest,” he said. "Obviously, the field is a little different here at Valspar than it was the last time I teed it up at Cologuard in Tucson. But it still feels the same and I didn’t have a very good finish there. ... I should have won the tournament and I didn’t finish it off. I had a little bit of a meltdown.

“So I’m just thrilled to be right back at the top of the leaderboard,” he said. “I get another chance to learn some really great lessons and maybe some hard lessons this week again.”


AP golf:

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