Editor’s note: Who climbed and who dropped in 2012? Through Dec. 31, Golfweek.com takes a look at players who made significant moves up or down in the Golfweek/Sagarin Performance Index this year.
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Kyle Stanley finally was alone after blowing a seven-shot lead during the Farmers Insurance Open final round. He was sitting against a wall in his room at the Estancia La Jolla Hotel & Spa. His head was in his hands, and he was crying. The only sound besides the sobbing came from his cellphone. It kept buzzing because of incoming calls and texts.
He finally checked the phone and saw a consoling note from a man whom he had never met – Mark Few, the Gonzaga basketballcoach, who had taken the initiative to get the golfer’s number from a third party. A diehard Gonzaga fan since grade school in Washington state, the surprised Stanley stopped with the tears. Light penetrated his darkness.
“It put a smile on my face,” said Stanley, whose mood brightened further when trading texts with the coach that night at dinner.
That was the first important step in his journey from losing that large lead to, remarkably, coming from eight shots behind to win the Waste Management Phoenix Open one Sunday later.
Just like that, Stanley would find himself on the opposite ends of the two biggest final-round comebacks on the 2012 PGA Tour, personifying the season’s lowest of lows and highest of highs.
After the lift from Few, several key elements contributed to the improbable rebound, starting with Stanley’stalent and belief. The powerful ballstriker knew he was playing well and that his putting, usually streaky, was on.
He knew he had made just one critical mistake. Still hungry for his first victory, he got right back into the fray and didn’t have too much time to think about his stunning defeat. He had a Tuesday morning news conference at Phoenix and got his answers and emotions out, allowing him to refocus.
Further, he was lifted and surprised by such an outpouring of support from players, among others who reached out. He didn’t get too down, saying that following Tuesday that he would absorb the many positives rather than dwell on eleventh-hour misfortune.
During a three-hour session Tuesday night in Phoenix, Stanley learned from sports psychologist Morris Pickens that he needed to eat and hydrate better on the final nine, then he did so while closing with 65 and overtaking Spencer Levin at TPC Scottsdale. Stanley felt more comfortable when in contention again. And he played aggressively from behind, free-wheeling under the radar, rather than playing tentatively from the front.
In other words, he did “all the right things to move forward,” as swing coach Mike Taylor suggests.
“One thing I learned is, at Torrey I played not to mess up, and at Phoenix I played to win and was more aggressive,” said Stanley, who began the Farmers final round five shots ahead. “I was putting to make a putt instead of putting not to three-putt. It’s all in your head.”
A high-spin player prone to spinning wedge shots too much, Stanley zipped one back into the water from 77 yards out when leading by three strokes on the 72nd hole at Torrey Pines. He three-putted from 43 feet for triple-bogey 8 and lost a playoff to Brandt Snedeker, who was seven behind starting the day and nine back with 16 holes left.
Stanley said he doesn’t think about it much anymore but regrets not hitting the shot farther past the front pin and with “dead” hands to take off spin. “It called for a hit-and-stop instead of a hit-and-spin,” he said.
Yes, he cried in the interview afterward and that night. But clearly the pain didn’t linger. “Not getting into a funk and all negative and all down about it was the biggest thing,” said Stanley, the 2009 Ben Hogan Award winner out of Clemson.
Competing the next week was vital in that regard. Stanley said playing Phoenix was “very therapeutic because it took my mind off what happened.” Pickens conjectures Stanley probably wouldn’t have won had his next start been two weeks after the loss. “You’ve got too much time to think about it, and it’s hard to keep your game good three weeks in a row,” said Pickens, who has worked with Stanley for about six years on and off.
As it happened, Stanley had a hand in Tour history. In Phoenix, Levin tied the Tour record for largest lost lead with 18 holes left: six strokes. Six players share the dubious mark. The most recent before Levin were Sergio Garcia at the 2005 Wells Fargo and Greg Norman at the ’96 Masters.
Stanley and Snedeker hardly were alone in making hilly climbs in 2012. Rallying to win from seven strokes down entering the final round were the Tour’s John Huh (Mayakoba) and Tommy Gainey (McGladrey) and the LPGA’s Stacy Lewis (Mizuno Classic), the latter making 10 birdies the final day.
Coming back from a deficit of six to win were Ernie Els (Open Championship), Phil Mickelson (AT&T Pebble Beach) and Marc Leishman (Travelers) on the PGA Tour and Bernhard Langer (3M) and David Frost (AT&T) on the Champions Tour. Scottish Open winner Jeev Milkha Singh charged from five back, as did Web.com winners Hudson Swafford, Doug LaBelle II and Luke Guthrie.
If nothing else, it’s interesting how differently some play when behind than ahead.
“It comes down to having something to lose versus something to go chase after,” Pickens said. “There’s a perception that you have something to lose if you’re in the lead. But the guys I work with, I say you’re not in contention until the
last five holes. I don’t care if you have a two-shot lead or you’re four back. Until those last few holes, neither one is in or out of contention.”
Apparently Stanley knows that now. And, happily, he also knows more about his beloved Gonzaga basketball program. He and Coach Few became closer as the year went on – to the point that Stanley attended two NCAA tournament games in Pittsburgh and hung out with the team in the locker room. The package of gear he received included a jersey with his name on the back.
“It definitely was one of the coolest sports days of my life,” Stanley said.
Right up there with a Sunday in Scottsdale.