Stallings closes in on Humana win, Masters berth

Scott Stallings smiles during a news conference after finishing his third round of the Humana Challenge PGA golf tournament on the Nicklaus Private Course at PGA West, Saturday, Jan. 19, 2013, in La Quinta, Calif.

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LA QUINTA, Calif. – Scott Stallings needed painkillers to get through last year’s Masters. His doctor advised him not to play, but sitting out one’s Augusta National debut is implausible. You never know if you’ll get a return invitation.

Stallings has a chance to return a year after that painful debut. This time would be different, though. He’d be healthy, and a father.

“I said, ‘Man, you can put me in a body cast. I’m still going to play Augusta. Tomorrow is not promised. That could be my one and only opportunity to play in the tournament,’” Stallings said. “I did a lot of damage that week. . . . It was worth it.”

Stallings tore cartilage in his ribs at last year’s Humana Challenge, an injury that hampered him for the first half of the 2012 season. Just 12 months later in the California desert, he leads the tournament. A victory would secure a return to the Masters.

Stallings will take a five-shot lead into the Humana Challenge’s final round. He stands at 22-under 194 (66-65-63) and five shots ahead of five players. He’s bogey-free for 54 holes, and made two eagles Saturday at PGA West’s Nicklaus Private Course. Stallings is trying to become the first player since Lee Trevino in 1974 to win without a bogey over 72 holes.

Sunday’s final round will be played at the Palmer Private Course, where Stallings shot a first-round 66. Low scores are readily available at the Palmer Course, which has played to a 69.5 scoring average this week, so Stallings will have to keep going low, though.

There’s a good chance one of his closest pursuers will shoot a round in the low-60s. The Palmer Private is the same course where David Duval shot 59 to win the 1999 Bob Hope Chrysler Classic.

Stewart Cink, one of the five players in second place, didn’t sound optimistic about his chances, though. Roberto Castro, Charles Howell III, John Rollins and past Humana champion Charley Hoffman also are in second place.

“I’m probably a 14-point underdog tomorrow with a five-shot deficit,” Cink said, comparing his deficit to football odds.

Stallings, 27, has just five top-10s in 57 PGA Tour starts, but two are victories. This is his third season on the PGA Tour. He finished 13th at the Hyundai and missed the cut at last week’s Sony Open. Stallings also has his first child, a baby boy, on the way. Bradley Finn Stallings is due the week of the Northern Trust Open, Stallings said.

Stallings’ previous victories came at the 2011 Greenbrier Classic and last year’s True South Classic. No, they’re not the most prestigious events on the PGA Tour, but Stallings could become one of just six players who are currently younger than 30 with three or more PGA Tour victories. The others? Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy, Anthony Kim, Webb Simpson and Keegan Bradley. That’s pretty good company. This would be Stallings’ strongest victory yet, at least according to the Official World Golf Ranking.

A win this week is worth 44 OWGR points. His Greenbrier and True South wins were worth 32 and 24, respectively. A win at the Humana Challenge would put Stallings on the cusp of the valuable top 50 in the Official World Golf Ranking. Residing in the top 50 guarantees players starts in the majors and World Golf Championships.

Most importantly, a return to Augusta National would come with a win Sunday.

“You never know if you’re going to get the opportunity to (drive) down Magnolia Lane again,” Stallings said.

That opportunity could come again sooner than expected.

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