CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Chris Stroud still remembers what it felt like to contemplate walking away from the game he loves.
It was less than a year ago when Stroud headed into the season-ending Wyndham Championship with his card on the line. A tie for 68th didn’t do the trick, relegating him to conditional status. After an unsuccessful run through Web.com Tour Finals he started asking himself some pointed questions.
“I was really let down. I was depressed, I was upset. I didn’t know what to do,” Stroud said. “Maybe I wasn’t good anymore. I really said that to myself.”
It’s a sobering tale with which many Tour pros can empathize. Guys can spend years seemingly on the verge of a breakthrough, only to suddenly tumble miles into the abyss.
Given where he stood last August, it’s all the more remarkable to see Stroud one shot off the lead and in the final pairing heading into the conclusion of the PGA Championship. It’s even surprising just to see him here at all.
After grinding through 289 career starts without a win, Stroud finally tasted victory last week in a playoff at the opposite-field Barracuda Championship. The 35-year-old had expected to spend this week at home in Texas with his wife and two daughters, but instead he snagged the final spot in the field by virtue of his breakthrough win and raced across the country.
He hasn’t slowed down since, and now sits on the cusp of a career-defining achievement, tied for second with Hideki Matsuyama and one behind Kevin Kisner.
“I’ve dreamed about this for years, so it’s in there,” Stroud said. “I know all these guys are going to be super nervous. I’m sure I will be, too. But last week just gave me an unbelievable sense of calm. I’ve never felt so relaxed on the golf course, and I think it’s a lot of the reason why I’m playing so well.”
Stroud was a two-time All-American at Lamar University, and after turning pro in 2004 he harbored ambition of beating the best the game had to offer, even someday becoming world No. 1. What resulted was a solid but unspectacular career.
At his home gym in Texas, Stroud assembled a “vision board” that included pictures of players hoisting a variety of trophies, with their faces cut out and replaced by his own. That belief never wavered as he logged season after season, usually good enough to keep his card but never good enough to win – until Sunday.
“I’ve never appreciated things more than I do now,” Stroud said. “All I know is I’m very grateful for where I’m at.”
While the win in Reno was a monumental achievement, the opportunity that lies ahead of him dwarfs it completely. Stroud has never appeared out of his element at Quail Hollow despite making just his ninth major start and first in three years. He carded the only bogey-free round Thursday, and he grabbed a brief share of the lead Saturday before closing his even-par 71 with back-to-back bogeys.
“I didn’t do anything great today. I just hung in there,” Stroud said. “Made some great pars early. Wish I would have snuck away with a couple pars the last two holes, but I’ve got a chance tomorrow.”
At this time last week, Stroud was entering the final round at Montreux with the goal of simply staying inside the top 150 in the season-long points race to maintain his conditional status. The win granted him the first two-year exemption of his career, and now he sits 18 holes away from potentially adding his own picture to the vision board – no cutouts required.
“It’s a dream come true to be here, to be up here, talking to you guys at the PGA Championship, one of the greatest tournaments in the world,” Stroud said. “You know, I’ve been waiting on this a long time. I didn’t think it was going to take me this long, but I’m glad I’m here.”