When Kyle Stanley teed up at what was to be the final hole at San Diego’s Torrey Pines Sunday (Jan. 29) he needed no worse than a double bogey to win his first PGA event, about a year after the Gig Harbor golf prodigy joined the tour.
Instead his third shot took too much spin and the ball backed off into a pond in front of the green. He took a triple bogey and within the hour he’d seen a seemingly insurmountable lead at the Farmers Insurance Open turn into perhaps the most improbable tournament rival Brandt Snedeker will ever see, let alone win.
Stanley missed a putt on the second sudden-death playoff hole. “Death” may be an understatement.
The 24-year-old former Clemson University star led by as many as seven strokes and his victory seemed to have been conceded by commentators and most of the players in the field. He led wire to wire after a stunning opening-round 62 Thursday. By the time the Sunday TV coverage picked up his fourth round, Stanley was practically being deified by the talking heads.
“Shocked” was all Stanley could utter after Snedeker holed a tricky putt on the second playoff hole and Stanley missed his to end the event.
He was scarcely the only one stunned by the turn of events. He started the day with a five-stroke advantage, birdieing the first two holes and building a seven-stroke lead. Even the three-stroke bulge going into the 18th seemed eminently safe, especially after the heavy hitter became uncharacteristically conservative when he needed to.
Many of us who have followed his brief career have little doubt that he has a great chance to become the state’s best golfing product since Fred Couples. Certain come-lately types also have become de facto fan-club members.
As CBS commenced its fourth-round coverage Sunday, lead announcer (and long-time Couples pal) Jim Nance was alluding to Stanley in the same sentence as the legendary Ben Hogan. Stanley, after all, as a junior at Clemson, was given the outstanding college-player award named for Hogan. Nick (sorry, Sir Nick) Faldo, during the Sunday TV broadcast, called Stanley “the best player out here in every category."
Faldo was referring to players present at the tournament. Those still in competition, most of them, albeit, 10 or more strokes behind the leader, included numerous past winners of major events along with many names familiar to golf fans. Torrey Pines is a favorite destination for professionals. It’s such an idyllic site above the rugged Pacific coastline that one never ceases to marvel at it being a public facility.
Nance’s reference to mid-20th Century master Hogan had something to do with the collective marveling by golf experts of the way Stanley is able to power his tee shots with seemingly every measure of torque from his relatively slight frame. He’s listed at 5 feet 10 inches and 165 pounds, only slightly larger than Hogan.
Comparisons of the young player with one of the greatest pro golfers in history seem laughingly premature. Stanley’s best showing prior to Sunday’s near win, after all, was a second-place finish as a tour rookie last season at the John Deere Classic. The latter might’ve occasioned his initial win but veteran Steve Stricker edged him out on the final hole with an improbable birdie from off the green.
The superlatives for the hard-luck player seemed particularly overwrought when announcers noted that Stanley came into the event ranked just 150th among the world’s pro golfers. The ranking would’ve risen significantly with a victory.
Stanley’s final round didn’t have to be flawless (part of the perverse allure of golf is that perfection is impossible). It wasn’t.
At the par-three eighth he apparently over-clubbed with a seven iron and left the ball in a back sand trap. A tentative sand wedge left him in the fringe and he wound up with a bogey, his only scorecard setback of the round to that point. He had a six-stroke lead over Snedeker with 10 holes to play.
Then, as if to prove his grit, Stanley followed a bad drive on the par-five ninth by angling a long iron to within a 15-foot eagle attempt, settling for an easy birdie.
At the par-three 11th he pulled his tee shot, which seemed to catch a spectator’s shoe before the ball caromed into a bunker. A masterful sand shot set him up for a short par stroke, which he missed and made bogey. His tee shot at 12 caught the right-side bunker and he bogeyed but followed with pars through 17.
The collapse at 18 was one of the worst in memory, the equal, perhaps, of Jean Van de Velde’s self-destruction at the 1999 British Open and Greg Norman’s Master’s disaster three years earlier.
Hearing about the latter golf tragedies probably wouldn’t assuage Kyle Stanley. His first tour victory no doubt will start the healing process and many who admire his talent feel eminently confident using “will” instead of “would.”