Agony and Ecstasy

Published on Wednesday, March 28th, 2012 in Features

Many thought Kyle Stanley might never recover from a Sunday collapse at
Torrey Pines. Just seven days later, he rose from the ashes to win in Phoenix.

Photo courtesy Transamerica/transamerica.com

By Bob Sherwin

All Gig Harbor’s Kyle Stanley needed on his final hole was a par to achieve his goal.

He was confident. He was in control. He could do this.

Yet, on his approach to the 18th green, he flubbed it, blew the par and ultimately was denied what seemingly was his for the taking. It was painful to watch — fortunately, there was hardly anyone watching.

This 18th-hole foldo occurred not earlier this year at Torrey Pines, but nine years ago, in 2003, when Stanley was an underclassman at Tacoma’s Bellarmine Prep, a hot-shot junior poised to flash his talents at the 4A state golf championships at Canyon Lakes Golf Course in Kennewick.

Stanley erratically chunked his wedge to the green, then two-putted, missing the cut by one stroke. His vision of a state championship vanished.

“[That was] exactly when it started for him,’’ says Matt Stanley, his father. “He was a good young player but was cut after the first day. He did not play the 18th hole well.

“That was the nadir of his golfing career. It really bummed him out,’’ the elder Stanley continues. “We talked a lot after that, about how no matter how much talent you have, you have to work harder than anyone else.

“He was kind of a confident kid who didn’t practice much,’’ Matt adds. “But overnight he transformed himself to become someone who worked very hard. This was a 14-, 15-year-old boy doing that. He knew that’s what it would take. It was the best lesson ever, really.

“It was why his latest loss was far from being a downer.’’

His latest loss — a double nadir, if you will — is the one we all saw. It came in front of a considerably larger audience, the nationally televised Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines on Jan. 29. In his second full PGA season, Stanley appeared to be a lock for victory with a seven-stroke lead early in his final round, and a three-stroke lead entering the final hole. A par would win it; heck, a double-bogey would win it.

Standing in the fairway, hitting his third to the par-5 18th green, victory seemed assured. But Stanley over-spun his approach to the green, and the ball scooted back into the water. After leaving his chip 40 feet from the hole, a suddenly flustered Stanley started counting the shots he needed to save the win.

“As we stepped onto the green I looked at my caddy and said, ‘We have to two-putt this, don’t we?’” Stanley recalled later. “That was probably when I really started feeling the pressure.”

He three-putted instead for a triple-bogey, then three-putted again on the final hole of a devastating playoff loss to Brandt Snedeker. His tears in the post-round press conference gave further evidence of the crushing disappointment of the loss, while his words — no bitterness, no regret, just disappointment and resolve — earned the respect and sympathy of golfers and golf fans worldwide.

After the round, Stanley joined his father, mother Michele, sister Kristen and a friend for a somber dinner. They talked about what went wrong — the “What ifs” and, more importantly, the “What nows.”

It was an emotionally painful couple of days, but what bolstered Stanley’s spirits was an outpouring of support from his family, fans and fellow golfers.

“By Tuesday he sent me a text,’’ Matt recalls. “He said, ‘You know, this may sound weird, but I think it’s going to work out all right.’ Those (18th hole collapses) were his two bleakest moments — but they were two of the best things ever for him.’’

What also propped Stanley up was a pep talk from Phil Mickelson. A four-time major champion might not seem to have much in common with a second-year Tour pro still hunting for his first win, but Mickelson had watched Stanley’s finish the previous Sunday, had seen the press conference highlights, and knew exactly what Stanley was experiencing. Just six years ago at Winged Foot in New York, Mickelson had stood on the tee at the par-4 18th, just four shots — or even five — away from his first U.S. Open title. Instead, he sliced his tee shot into a tent, sliced his second into a tree, knocked his third into a bunker and put his fourth over the green, en route to double-bogey.

Media reports compared Mickelson’s 18th-hole collapse to that of Jean Van de Velde at the 1999 Open Championship — a comparison that was also now being made of Stanley. Van de Velde never recovered, winning just once more on the European Tour, seven years later. Mickelson, however, did — and perhaps saw this as his chance to help Stanley do the same.

Mickelson invited the young pro to a nine-hole practice round at Whisper Rock in Scottsdale the day before the Waste Management Phoenix Open. As they talked, he emphasized how important it is for a young golfer to stay aggressive — when you get a Sunday lead, don’t ease off the throttle, but instead, go for the throat.

“On Sunday at Torrey, I was thinking about winning all day,” Stanley said later. “I almost started playing to protect. The biggest thing [Phil] told me was that you can’t change your mindset. If you get up five, try to go up six; if you get up six, go up seven. You can’t change your game.”

It was advice Stanley wouldn’t forget.

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