Fire still burns for Stankowski

Fire still burns for Stankowski

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Fire still burns for Stankowski

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Update: Stankowski got in the Zurich Classic field when Steve Elkington withdrew, and will play the PGA Tour event in New Orleans.

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VALDOSTA, Ga. – First it was the injuries, then the indecision, that cost Paul Stankowski.

The trials would be enough to drive many from professional golf, and they almost did the same to the easygoing Californian.

But that’s behind him now. Stankowski turned 40 in December, and is excited to start a new decade of his life. He’s off to a solid start. In six events on the PGA and Nationwide tours, he has three top 25s, highlighted by a tie for 12th at the Puerto Rico Open.

“The 30s were terrible for me,” Stankowski said. “I played good maybe once or twice in my 30s. I’m looking forward to my 40s.”

Stankowski won two PGA Tour events before he was 28. His last victory was the 1997 Hawaiian Open. He had just 12 top 10s in his 30s, and none since the St. Jude Classic in May 2004.

Stankowski, energized by good health and an improving game, has gone to great lengths to tee it up this year.

He spoke while hitting balls at Kinderlou Forest Golf Club in Valdosta, Ga., site of the Nationwide Tour’s South Georgia Classic. He was third alternate for the PGA Tour’s Zurich Classic at the time, and moved up to first alternate by Tuesday evening.

Stankowski has to decide by 8 p.m. Wednesday which event he wants to play. He said if he gets in the Zurich field by 3 p.m. Wednesday, he and his caddie will have time to drive to Jacksonville and catch the 6 p.m. flight to New Orleans. That’s the last flight of the day from Jacksonville to New Orleans.

If he gets in the Zurich field after 3 p.m., he and his caddie will jump in his caddie’s van and make the seven-hour drive to New Orleans.

“I can’t turn those down,” Stankowski said of PGA Tour playing opportunities. “Nobody wants to be here forever.”

He started the year by playing four consecutive weeks in Latin America, playing the PGA Tour’s stops in Mexico and Puerto Rico, and Nationwide Tour’s events in Panama and Colombia. He also played the Nationwide Tour’s first two domestic events.

“That was painful, but we got through it,” Stankowski said about his time south of the border, where Skype was his only connection to his family. “My wife’s comment to me was ‘short-term sacrifice for long-term gain.’ ”

Stankowski has had success splitting time between the tours. In 1996, he won the Nationwide (then-Nike) Tour’s Louisiana Open and PGA Tour’s BellSouth Classic in consecutive weeks. He was the first person to win on both tours in the same season.

He added the Casio World Open and Kapalua International, a PGA Tour exhibition, later that year. He was 26 years old at the time, and seemed to be a promising young player, especially when he won the next season.

But things don’t always work out as planned.

He tore cartilage in his left wrist in 2002, and had to take Vicodin on the course just to continue playing. He had surgeries in 2003 and ’04 (left wrist), 2005 (left shoulder) and 2007 (right shoulder). He also tore a tendon in his left ring finger in his first start of ’05, an injury that kept him out for the season, and he feared for his career.

“I thought I was retired,” he said. “I couldn’t hold a club, without feeling you had a blowtorch on me.”

He’s better now, thanks to a treatment called active release techniques, and trying to regain a PGA Tour card.

Just as he got healthy, his game went south. He spent the 2007, ’08 and ’09 seasons alternating between two different swings and two different sets of clubs. In part to compensate for the injuries, he bounced between his old swing and a “morped one-plane, stack-and-tilt” swing. He used graphite-shafted irons when he was using his old swing, and steel-shafted irons for his new one.

“I got tired of that, trying to beat the best players on the planet, with two different swings, two different sets of clubs, and zero mindset,” he said. “I feel like I’m going back to basics.”

Neither worked well, as he finished 178th, 210th and 206th on the PGA Tour money list in those three years.

He got a lesson earlier this year from Mike Abbott, the general manager at Diamante Golf Club in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, just before the Mayakoba Golf Classic. Stankowski said the lesson wasn’t overly complex. They focused on keeping width in his swing.

Now he’s going far and wide to find places to play.

“The fire’s still there,” he said. “I’m excited about playing.”

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