HUMBLE, Texas – Chris Stroud remembers the first time he took note of Shawn Stefani’s ability.
It was at a junior event in Dallas, probably sometime in the summer of 1998, when a 16-year-old Stefani ripped a 2-iron into a par-5 that found the green from about 280 yards.
“He was a phenomenal golfer from the get-go,” Stroud recalled. “He hit the ball a mile when he was really young.”
While Stroud and Stefani may not be household names to casual golf fans, their paths have been linked for nearly 20 years. After growing up as junior golf rivals in East Texas and attending the same college, the Houston residents are both on the leaderboard through two rounds at the Shell Houston Open, hoping to get a breakthrough win at what is now their hometown event.
Stefani, 33, is two months older, but growing up Stroud was the more decorated player. He played four years at Lamar University in Beaumont, about an hour outside Houston, and became the first player from the school to earn all-conference honors all four years. He added first-team All-American honors in 2004, his senior year.
After a brief stint at the University of Houston, Stefani walked on at Lamar in 2002 and joined forces with Stroud to create a strong college team at a largely unheralded outpost.
“When he came out, we were the No. 1 team in the country,” Stroud said. “We had one of the best golf programs I had ever seen.”
Stefani continues to root for his former teammate, but he described their lengthy past as more of a “competitive friendship.”
“We had some good rivalries. There were a lot of good rivalries growing up in high school and even in college,” Stefani said. “It’s fun to have that. I think it’s good for both of us because we can kind of push each other.”
Stefani has logged significant practice at the Golf Club of Houston in recent weeks, and for the second year in a row those efforts are paying off during tournament week. Last year he came here needing a solid showing to secure his card and left with both a fifth-place finish and full-time status.
This time around, he has made only one bogey through 36 holes and heads into the weekend at 9 under. After watching guys like Fred Couples play in this event when he was a teenager, Stefani is eager to capitalize on an opportunity this week to play in front of friends and family.
“Growing up as a kid, I always wanted to play in this thing,” he said. “It’s always good to be back and obviously playing well at home.”
While Stroud has been playing full-time on the PGA Tour since 2007, Stefani took longer to gain his footing as a professional, finally earning a card in 2013. Since then he has continually improved, just missing out on his first win in a playoff loss to Justin Rose last year at the Quicken Loans National.
Stroud was quick to point to his former teammate’s work off the tee as the reason for his recent success. Stefani ranked sixth last season on Tour in total driving, and he ranks 18th in the category this season.
“He turned a weakness into a strength,” Stroud said. “Any time you can do that in this game at this level, you’re going to see a big change in your game.”
Stroud’s best result came in 2013, a playoff loss at the Travelers Championship, and last season he racked up more than $1.8 million in earnings. The results have dried up this season, though, with only five made cuts in 12 prior starts.
Those struggles led him back to a familiar face: Brian White, who had served as an instructor and coach while Stroud and Stefani were at Lamar, and someone who has been a mentor for Stroud throughout his professional career.
After a six-month “leave of absence” that led him to other instructors, including a brief stop with Butch Harmon, Stroud found that he was “losing the scope of actually playing golf.” He sat down with White earlier this week, and his longtime coach straightened him out.
“He said, ‘Look, let’s get out there, let’s not try to work on your swing too much, let’s get you playing golf. Let’s hit golf shots,’” Stroud said. “Just keep to some simple stuff.”
The pep talk from White yielded immediate results. Stroud has carded matching rounds of 4-under 68, hitting 29 of 36 greens in regulation, and has no plans to change instructors anytime soon.
“To be honest, with all the circles I’ve been in with this game, he’s the answer for me,” Stroud said. “I won’t be leaving him again.”
Twenty years after first crossing paths as teens, Stroud and Stefani are now established on the PGA Tour and remain staunch advocates for each other. Flanked by partisan crowds, they’re playing well at the right time and now sit two rounds away from a potentially life-changing result: first win, first seven-figure check, and oh yeah – first trip to the Masters.
Not a bad scenario for a couple of former Cardinals.
“We’ve had a good relationship for a long time. I’ve really been rooting for him since I’ve been out here, and I know he roots on me,” Stefani said. “Hopefully we can have a Lamar alumni showdown come Sunday.”