Kyle Stanley learns valuable - and expensive - lesson

Jan 31 2012 - 10:54pm

Strange how many are expressing sympathy for Kyle Stanley, as if he'd suffered through something more horrible Sunday than a valuable learning experience.

It was a high-profile one, of course, and an expensive one at that. But, on the upside, those tend to be the most effective.

The dramatic reversal of fortune that led the Gig Harbor, Wash., golfer to take second in the 2012 Farmers Insurance Open in San Diego is certainly not an event that will define his career.

The man is 24.

For most of four days, he owned Torrey Pines, and he had an unshakable -- perhaps interlocking -- grip on the throats of opponents.

For 63 holes, he displayed a level of play and completeness of game that portends many years of title contention.

The physical architecture of his swing is so grounded and balanced, fluid and rhythmic, it seems ready for any challenge and infinitely repeatable. But it remained for him to learn what every championship golfer must at some point -- that Sunday back nines are the kind of experience you simply have to survive before you can master.

In those last pressurized nine holes, nothing was easy, little was fair and even gravity played favorites.

Getting as low as 21-under par on Sunday afternoon, Stanley owned a cushion of seven strokes and was only a shot off the tournament scoring record (set by Tiger Woods). And even as veteran Brandt Snedeker rallied, Stanley was up by a comfortable three as he stood on the tee of No. 18, a par-5 guarded by a pond in front of the green.

His victory seemed so assured that the person in charge of painting the winner's name on the giant ceremonial check already had finished the bold, block-lettered "Kyle Stanley." The amount: $1,080,000.

Stanley ended up being consoled by the runner-up check of $648,000.

And he didn't take second because of strategic errors or foolish decisions. His mind was fully engaged as he played smart with a second-shot lay-up to 77 yards, and from there he lofted a wedge to the middle of the green, well past the pin.

But on the final hole of what would be his first tournament championship on the PGA Tour, how could he know how much backspin that hyper-adrenalized downswing would impart?

The ball bit and spun back toward him, cruising past the hole and toward the pond. It slowed on the fringe, and then eased into a teasing tiptoe through the thicker grass, coming almost to a stop several times before submerging.

A three-putt followed and the reincarnated Snedeker won the playoff on the second hole, the par-3 16th. But not without another haunting, taunting development.

Snedeker overcooked his tee ball and it appeared headed for a canyon, which likely would have cleared the way for Stanley to win after all. But as it headed for the hazard, it hit a television tower, giving him a free drop and another salvation. The shot was far more errant than the one that landed Stanley in the drink.

Them's the breaks.

About half the headlines in Monday's papers referenced the event as a Stanley "collapse" rather than a Snedeker "victory."

Some even cited the famed Jean van de Velde disaster in the 1999 British Open when he triple-bogeyed the 18th at Carnoustie to force a three-way playoff won by Paul Lawrie.

But van de Velde was 33 at the time and had been a professional for 12 seasons. And shaky judgment played a role in his demise.

Stanley might benefit from looking at somebody in his own age group -- Rory McIlroy -- who quickly bounced back from what was considered an emotionally damaging Sunday back nine at last year's Masters.

McIlroy, then 21, led by four going into the final round, and was still up by one at the turn before unraveling to an 80 -- the highest score by a final-round leader at Augusta.

Remember all the questions: Oh, will he ever bounce back from this? Will his young psyche ever recover?

Well, yeah, he came back convincingly, and in a hurry, scoring a runaway victory in the U.S. Open by a record-low score of 16 under.

And, suddenly, his stumble at the Masters was forgotten.

He had learned the lesson Stanley just experienced: Sometimes the game isn't through with you even if the name is already on the check.

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