Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 12, 2012

What A Difference A Week Makes For Kyle Stanley

When last we left young Kyle Stanley, the second-year PGA Tour pro was sobbing in the media center at Torrey Pines Golf Course. Standing in the fairway of the final hole of the Farmers Insurance Open with a three shot lead, Stanley had turned certain victory into devastating defeat when his sand wedge shot from 80 yards spun back off the green and into a pond. After a penalty stroke, Stanley hit his next shot more than fifty feet past the flag and three-putted for a triple bogey that dropped him into a tie with Brandt Snedeker. A few minutes later Stanley’s humiliation was complete when Snedeker won the tournament on the second hole of a sudden death playoff, and the tears flowed.

Winning a PGA Tour event is never easy, even if a handful of superstars sometimes make it look like it is, as Phil Mickelson did at Pebble Beach this Sunday. Winning for the first time is particularly difficult, because a golfer has to overcome all of the nagging doubts and uncertainties that can creep into his head while dealing with the pressure of doing something that he has never done before. That’s what makes a collapse like Stanley had in San Diego so horribly painful to watch. There was no way of knowing when or even if he would ever be in position to win again. Plus the sad outcome meant that if he ever was, he would also have to find a way to set aside the bitter memories of his 72nd hole meltdown.

That last bit is no easy task. Golf is at least as much a mental exercise as it is a physical game. The old adage by Bobby Jones, that “competitive golf is played mainly on a five-and-a-half inch course, the space between your ears,” is especially true at the game’s highest level. It is their mental toughness and the ability to stay in the moment every bit as much as their vastly greater swing speed that make touring pros an entirely different breed of golfer than weekend duffers. Maintaining that focus can be exceedingly difficult if the brain wants to rerun that video of an earlier disaster. That’s why a collapse like the one Kyle Stanley suffered two weeks ago can lead to a pro wandering in the wilderness for years. It’s happened to many journeymen players, but victory turned suddenly into defeat by one’s own hand can impact star players as well. After Mickelson’s infamous final hole double-bogey at Winged Foot cost him the 2006 U.S. Open, he didn’t come close to even contending at a major championship for almost two years, missing the cut at two of the next six majors.

All of which makes what Kyle Stanley did just one week after the Farmers Insurance Open all the more amazing. From San Diego the Tour moved on into the Arizona desert for the Waste Management Phoenix Open, the annual frat party stop on the Tour’s schedule. Every year over the course of the week more than half a million fans walk the grounds of the TPC of Scottsdale course. An all-time one-day attendance record was set this year during Saturday’s third round, when more than 173,000 fans passed through the gates. Many spend the day getting well lubricated, and the combination of lots of people and lots of beer means that at this tournament sponsored by a trash removal company the traditional notion of quiet and respectful golf galleries goes in the dumpster. In their place are raucous crowds who are equally quick to boo a bad shot as they are to cheer a good one.

In this decidedly unusual atmosphere Stanley began his final round in fifth place, facing a gap of eight strokes between himself and third-round leader Spencer Levin. But Levin played poorly on Sunday, recording four bogeys in the first twelve holes and then a disastrous double bogey seven on the 15th hole. That gave hope to all of those chasing him, including Stanley. Playing two groups ahead of Levin, the 24-year old from Gig Harbor, Washington, birdied the 2nd, 3rd, and 8th holes to make the turn at 3-under for the day and 12-under for the tournament. Stanley’s solid play coupled with Levin’s miscues meant that the lead had been cut in half. When Stanley rolled in two more birdie putts on the 11th and 13th holes while Levin was missing par putts on the 11th and 12th the two were tied. After Levin’s disaster at the 15th, Stanley found himself two ahead of the third round leader and one ahead of playing partner Ben Crane. Against all odds, Kyle Stanley again had his first PGA Tour victory in hand, if he could banish the memories of what had happened just seven days earlier and record three pars in front of the throngs lining the final three holes.

He wavered and he wobbled, but in the end Stanley’s will to win prevailed. His tee shot at the par-3 16th was long and left, and a difficult chip shot up a hill ran more than eight feet past the hole. But he steadied himself and rolled in the par-saving putt, as the massive gallery roared its approval. His drive on the short par-4 17th was so far right that it found the desert; but he recovered with a solid chip to the putting surface and a two-putt par. Finally on the home hole he hit a massive drive that was so far left it finished in the rough on the wrong side of a lake that players normally drive across off the tee. Taking his stance in front of one of the many hospitality areas on the grounds, he had just over 100 yards to the flag. Pushing aside any thought of what had happened the last time he’d been in a similar position on a tournament’s final hole, Stanley lofted a wedge safely onto the green. Two putts later, he had completed one of the most remarkable one-week turnarounds in PGA Tour history. By doing so he became the latest in a growing line of young pros elbowing their way onto the Tour’s center stage.

In an interview before the start of the tournament, Stanley acknowledged the essential nature of the game of golf. “It’s a crazy game,” he said. “It can love you, it can hate you.” Just one week after the full wrath of the golfing gods had reduced him to tears, Stanley cried again.  But this time they were tears of joy.  Kyle Stanley had come all the way back, and was definitely feeling the love.

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Responses

  1. Well said. And, golf fans mark your calendars! Feb 22-26: the @MayakobaGolf Classic airs. Info/times/tix and more right here: http://bit.ly/zJ1i0h


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