GREENSBORO, N.C. – For 72 holes at the Wyndham Championship, Shawn Stefani managed to steel his nerves. He kept his cool and focused on his craft.
But shortly after hitting one final, pivotal putt, the tears started to flow.
“It’s pretty emotional, actually,” said Stefani, his lip quivering as he dabbed his face with the towel draped around his neck. “Started to get a little emotional on 18. Sorry.”
Stefani had already hit 5,887 shots during the PGA Tour’s marathon regular season. But it was stroke No. 5,888 – a 6-foot birdie attempt on the 18th green at Sedgefield Country Club – that determined whether he would keep his card for next season and avoid a trip to the Web.com Tour Finals.
Such is life at the final event of the Tour’s regular season, one last pressure cooker for players to endure with status on the line and postseason bids up for grabs. But few have experienced the highs and the lows of those stakes quite like Stefani did during the final round.
Entering the week at No. 133 in the FedEx Cup points race, Stefani had played himself onto the fringe of contention and was projected to move to the coveted 125th spot based on the 54-hole standings. After curling in a 22-foot eagle on the 15th hole Sunday, Stefani was inside the number and appeared on the verge of accomplishing his goal.
But little about Stefani’s professional journey has been easy, and the final round at Sedgefield was no exception. A pulled drive on No. 17 led to a bogey, so he went to the final hole needing at least a par to make the playoffs and, more importantly, keep his card.
With everything on the line and his playing privileges hanging in the balance, Stefani calmly delivered a 7-iron from 173 yards that rolled to close range. With his hands shaking, he stroked a putt that was center-cut – and carded a birdie that moved to No. 123 in points in the process.
“He was rock solid all day, man. He really was. I know he was nervous, but you don’t really see it in him,” said caddie Chris Callas. “Really the first time I saw him show any emotion or anything was right after he got done. All day long, we kind of did what we do every day. We tried not to change anything, and we played good. I can’t say enough about him.”
Looking back, Stefani admitted that his offseason wasn’t quite as productive as it could have been. He and his wife, Jaclyn, bought a new home in Texas, and his game received less attention as a result.
Stefani describes himself as a “glass half-full guy,” so he wasn’t worried even after a lackluster spring that included six missed cuts in seven starts. But as the summer months edged on, Stefani could feel the pressure beginning to mount.
“I kept telling myself, we still got events left, still have tournaments left,” he said. “But you know, when you say it in March and there’s 17 events left, and you look in July and there’s four events left, you’re like, ‘I don’t have a lot of time.’ But I really felt like I was close.”
Stefani was still 143rd in points entering the Travelers Championship earlier this month. But a putting tip from fellow pro Scott Brown led to a T-11 finish, and after his result at Sedgefield – just his fourth top-25 of the season – he can book a flight for The Barclays.
For Stefani, 34, it’s the culmination of months of hard work to get his game back on track and the latest chapter of a pro career that began 11 years ago after a stint at little-known Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas.
“I’m not an all-American story like a lot of these kids are, getting a lot of sponsor exemptions out of college,” Stefani said. “I wasn’t a great college player. I had to earn my way the hard way, mini-tours, 15-hour drives, driving across the country and, you know, it means more to me to keep my card than it does to some of the other guys who have won, because I’ve gone the hard road for the game.”
As Stefani spoke to a group of reporters, his caddie looked on with a weathered grin, having survived the Wyndham gauntlet and emerged on the right side of the bubble by the slimmest of margins.
“This week was a grind,” Callas said. “I bit some nails off this week, I promise you.”
One event, one round, one shot. Players often lean on clichés about focusing on the task at hand, choosing to keep their eyes from drifting toward larger goals.
But as Stefani can now attest, sometimes one shot can make all the difference.
“I’m very blessed to be where I’m at today, and I’ve worked hard. I feel like I deserve it,” he said. “The game doesn’t owe you anything, and I feel like the game gave me something today.”