PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – If you’re looking to turn around a rough round of golf on a day when the wind is howling and the greens are continuing to firm, you wouldn’t choose the eighth hole at the TPC Sawgrass Stadium Course as a logical starting place.
But there stood Kyle Stanley, playing in the last group of the day at the $10.5 million Players. He was 2 over for his day, holding a 4-iron in his hands, standing on the tee with that lonely little flagstick waving back some 247 yards away. He ripped a shot to 18 feet, holed the putt for 2, and from there, he would not drop another shot. Another 2 at the island 17th – a perfect yardage, he said – and Stanley was in at even-par 72, tied for the lead at a prestigious tournament that could change his life on Sunday.
Stanley, 29, a former All-America world-beater at Clemson, easily kept his card his first three years on the PGA Tour (2011-13), then slipped off into golf’s hinterlands. He failed to finish in the top 150 in the FedEx Cup race in 2014 and 2015, collecting zero top 10s in either of those seasons. He basically was lost.
What started to get him turned around? He took some time off in late 2015 (“I needed it,” he said) and received a sponsor exemption to a Web.com Tour event (Rex Hospital) in North Carolina. His future father-in-law, Mike Enneking, showed up to caddie for him, not really schooled in the job. Which meant Stanley had to take ownership of every part of his game.
“It was good for me,” said Stanley, who will play in Sunday’s final group alongside J.B. Holmes (both at 9-under 207), “because I had to do all the work. I had to do my yardages. I had to pick my own clubs, read my own putts. At a time when I was lacking confidence, to make all those decisions and call the shots, in a way it made me re-learn my game a little bit, start to play better.
“That was a nice way, or a steady progression, of getting some of that confidence back.”
This season, in 14 starts, Stanley owns a pair of top-10 finishes (including one in Houston last month), has six finishes inside the top 25, and has missed the cut only twice. He ranks third on Tour in greens in regulation, and is 15th in scoring. He is 54th in FedEx Cup points and should easily pass $1 million in earnings on Sunday.
Stanley is happy off the course, too. He and his wife, Dolly, a former Big Sky Conference player of the year in soccer, married in October 2015 and have settled in back home in Gig Harbor, Wash., when they are away from the traveling PGA Tour circus.
The Stadium Course presents a tremendous test, but Stanley is confident his game is ready to face it. Despite all that is on the line, Sunday may be a less stressful test than last year’s Wyndham Championship, the final regular-season event in the FedEx Cup race, where good play led to a tie for 14th and propelled Stanley from 127th to 116th in points, sending him to the playoffs with a card in hand for 2016-17.
No doubt a good deal will be on the line on Sunday at The Players, where the winner will earn nearly $1.9 million.
“Golf is kind of interesting to where sports just in general, one week can change a lot,” Stanley said. “I don’t think I was necessarily thinking that far in advance back then, but that was a little bit of a confidence builder for me to play well at the Wyndham. I had to, just to keep my status.
“And then going into this year, I’ve just tried to do everything that I can control, preparation-wise, off the golf course, and stuff like that. I’ve been doing that, and it’s nice to come to the course and stand on the first tee feeling like you deserve to play good golf.”