Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 2, 2012

Eighty Yards Of Horror For Kyle Stanley

As professional athletes go, Kyle Stanley isn’t remotely a household name. In fact, he doesn’t even approach that status in households full of golf fans. But for much of last weekend, as he walked the fairways at Torrey Pines as the leader of the Farmers Insurance Open, he seemed destined to break into the consciousness of sports fans in the best possible way. Then on Sunday afternoon, in a matter of minutes, he did so in the worst way of all.

Just 24 years old, Stanley is in his second full season on the PGA Tour. He played mostly on the Nationwide Tour from the time he turned pro in the summer of 2009 until December 2010, when he earned his 2011 Tour card with a strong finish at Q-School. He showed considerable promise in his rookie season, making 22 cuts in 28 starts and earning more than $1.5 million while recording four top-10 finishes. He just missed recording his maiden victory at the John Deere Classic, finishing second to Steve Stricker by a single stroke when Stricker rolled in a 25-foot birdie putt on the final hole.

So while Stanley may not have been recognizable to most of the fans in San Diego, on the strength of his 2011 play it should not have come as a total shock when he opened with a scintillating 62 to share the first round lead with Spencer Levin. Playing the easier North Course in his first round, Stanley closed with an eagle 3 on the par 5 18th hole; later estimating that he hit his drive 380 yards, leaving just an 8-iron into the green. The 10 under par score was his lowest in relation to par as a professional. He followed that up on Friday with a solid 4-under 68 on the tougher South Course, good enough for a one stroke lead over the field at the tournament’s halfway point.

Stanley’s closest pursuer through two rounds was Brandt Snedeker, who had won twice before on the PGA Tour, most recently last spring at Harbour Town. But in Saturday’s third round the two went in opposite directions. Snedeker opened with a bogey, and was up and down throughout the round, finally settling for a 2-over 74. Meanwhile Stanley continued to play steady golf, recording five birdies against just a single blemish for his second consecutive 68. By the conclusion or play on Saturday his lead had ballooned to five strokes over John Huh and John Rollins, with Snedeker two shots further adrift.

Five shots clear with just 18 holes to play, Kyle Stanley appeared to have his first PGA Tour victory in his grasp. He probably didn’t know that in the last ten years the third round leader has held on to win this tournament less than half the time. He likely wasn’t aware that this stop on the Tour’s annual West Coast swing hasn’t produced a first-time winner in two decades. But like every other Tour player in search of a first championship, he surely knew just how hard it can be to stay in the moment and maintain the mental focus that makes all the difference on Sunday afternoon. Yet Stanley seemed calm and collected in the interview room after Saturday’s round, assuring reporters that he would have no problem sleeping that night.

Seemingly true to his word, there was no trace of nerves as he started his final round with a pair of birdies to expand his lead. When he made the turn at 3-under for the day and 21-under for the tournament, it looked as if the back nine would be little more than a pleasant Sunday stroll for the native of Gig Harbor, Washington. Perhaps it was at that point that his mind wandered just a bit. Maybe he allowed himself to picture the trophy presentation. Whatever the reason, as he played the final nine holes his swing became noticeably quicker. A bogey at the 11th hole was followed by another at the 12th. Playing a few groups ahead, Snedeker, who had also shot 3-under on the front nine, had birdied the 10th and 13th. The seven shot deficit was now three. Stanley’s errant and increasingly hasty play continued on the 14th, but he managed to coax in a long par-saving putt to maintain a three-shot lead. He was still three in front when he split the final fairway with a perfect drive. From 237 yards, the long-hitting Stanley could have gone for the green of the par-5 final hole in two, but instead opted to lay up. He was left with but eighty yards, a simple soft wedge over a pond fronting the green and onto the putting surface. For 71 ½ holes Kyle Stanley had been the best player in the field. For the next few minutes he was the worst.

Rather than take something off of a pitching wedge to eliminate backspin, he hit a firm and high sand wedge. The ball landed past the flag and immediately started to spin back. It rolled by the cup and picked up speed as it continued to the front of the green, then down the sloping fringe toward the pond. For a moment it looked like it might stop in the thicker grass. But the moment passed, and the ball trundled down into the water. In the fairway a stunned young golfer hung his head. After the penalty stroke, he predictably played his fifth shot some fifty feet past the flag. When from there he needed three putts to find the hole, Stanley had triple bogeyed the 18th and fallen into a tie with Snedeker. It had taken him six strokes to cover the final eighty yards of the tournament. After the emotional blow of those six strokes, it was inevitable that Brandt Snedeker would win the sudden death playoff, which he did on its second hole. The golfer who had been calm and collected in the interview room on Saturday was reduced to sobs in the same chair 24 hours later.

As every weekend duffer knows, golf is a game that can reward with sublime joy on one hole, and punish with extreme cruelty on the next. It is also, in the end, a solitary endeavor. Tour pros have caddies and swing coaches and sports psychologists and entourages, but ultimately they too stand alone over the ball, club in hand. On the PGA Tour as Stanley’s 2011 season shows, it is a game at which one can make a very, very good living without ever winning. But the best competitors don’t play to make a good living, they play to win. It’s always hard to do so, and hardest of all when one hasn’t done it before. On Sunday with a first victory in his grasp, young Kyle Stanley stood alone and experienced the game’s cruelty. When or if his chance will ever come again is impossible to know. But if it does, it would only be fair that next time he gets to feel the joy.

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