SAN DIEGO – Scott Stallings vividly recalls the moment when he first became interested in golf.
Watching Tiger Woods cruise to victory at the 1997 Masters, a 12-year-old Stallings was amazed by the dominant performance.
“Tiger was the one that made me want to play golf,” Stallings explained. “At that moment I quit everything, every sport I was playing and said that’s what I want to go do.”
Seventeen years and two PGA Tour victories later, Stallings, 28, emerged from a crowded leaderboard Sunday at the Farmers Insurance Open to put his name next to Woods’ on the trophy that bears the trademark Torrey pine.
“Tiger’s the standard,” said Stallings, who fired a 4-under 68 to win by one shot over a quintet of players. “Having my name close to his in a great event that he’s obviously dominated is pretty awesome.”
With the scoring average finally dipping somewhat on the brutal South Course, Stallings notched seven birdies after beginning the day in a tie for sixth. His final birdie came after his approach to the par-5 18th flirted with rolling back into the greenside pond, but ultimately remained on the putting surface.
“I knew it was enough to carry,” he said. “I just didn’t realize it was going to be that close.”
Prior to that shot, however, the Sunday storyline revolved around the changing group of names near the top of the leaderboard. Ten different players held at least a share of the lead during the final round, and as many as 19 were within two shots as the leaders neared the halfway point of their round. By the time the final group reached the 15th tee, six players (including Stallings) were tied at 8 under.
Not that any of that mattered to the eventual champ.
“I wasn’t going to look at a leaderboard,” Stallings said. “On this course, the moment you start worrying about what someone else is doing and how they’re handling themselves is the moment that this place will beat you down.”
After finding the fairway with his final tee shot, Stallings had 227 yards to the hole over water – an approach that was eerily similar to the final shot he faced last year at the Humana Challenge.
While his 6-iron at PGA West drifted left and ultimately splashed in the greenside hazard, this time his shot found its target, leading to a birdie that proved to be the difference. After the round, Stallings asserted that his collapse last year in the desert – where he squandered a five-shot lead on the final day – helped to focus him Sunday.
“I don’t think one would happen without the other,” Stallings said. “Obviously you don’t like hitting it in the water on the last hole and losing … but when you look back at it, that’s going to be something I’m going to think about every single time in that situation.”
Before Stallings was able to get both hands around the trophy, though, no shortage of players took a run at the top spot on the leaderboard.
First up was K.J. Choi, who carded the day’s low round of 66 and nearly played his way from the cut line to the winner’s circle before tying for second. Local favorite Pat Perez gave it a run, but a costly bogey at the par-3 16th ended his chances.
Next was Jason Day, still somehow in search of just his second PGA Tour win, but the Aussie was undone by a plugged lie in a bunker at the penultimate hole, and his lengthy eagle try at No. 18 slid just past.
The player who appeared poised to claim the title for much of the afternoon was not Stallings, but rather Gary Woodland, whose length off the tee proved an asset all week. Though he stayed in contention with a string of up-and-downs on the back nine, his title run came to a crashing halt at No. 17, where a drive into the hazard lining the fairway led to a double bogey.
“I tried to hit it down the right side and I just pulled it. Got a little greedy probably,” explained Woodland, who held the 54-hole lead but ultimately finished T-10. “It was just a bad golf swing.”
The last man standing, then, was Marc Leishman, who had hopes of claiming his second Tour win on Australia Day. Needing to hole his wedge approach for eagle at the final hole, he watched as the ball spun back toward the target but ultimately settled a few feet away.
“I thought it had a pretty good chance,” said Leishman, whose runner-up showing was his second such result at Torrey Pines since 2010. “It was always a fraction left, but I was hoping I had misread it.”
Having dodged that final bullet, Stallings became the sixth player under the age of 30 with three or more PGA Tour wins to his credit, joining Rory McIlroy, Dustin Johnson, Keegan Bradley, Webb Simpson and Anthony Kim.
“You don’t get very many opportunities to win golf tournaments on this Tour, and I’ve been fortunate to come out ahead three times,” said Stallings, who last won at the 2012 Sanderson Farms Championship. “As a player, all you ever want is chances.”
As a result of Sunday’s triumph he’ll head back to the Masters this spring for the second time in his career. The prospect of teeing it up again at Augusta National brought a smile to his face as he recalled the performance that first drew him to the game.
“Just like pure domination,” he said of Woods’ Masters triumph in 1997. “He was going to beat them so bad they were going to end up having to like it.”
While his performance Sunday lacked the dominance Woods has often displayed, the end result was the same. Stallings made the most of his chance, fending off myriad challengers, and now will head home once more with trophy in hand.