Stefani keeps his card - barely

By Will GrayAugust 21, 2016, 10:51 pm

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 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.

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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.”

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Punch shot: Predictions for the 147th Open

By Golf Channel DigitalJuly 18, 2018, 4:00 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – In advance of the 147th Open Championship, writers sound off on burning questions as players ready for a fast and firm test at Carnoustie. Here’s what our writers think about myriad topics:

The Monday morning headline will be …

REX HOGGARD: “Survival.” This one is easy. It always is at Carnoustie, which is widely considered The Open’s most demanding major championship test. Monday’s headline will be that the champion - pick a champion, any one will do - “survived” another dramatic Open. You don’t dominate Carnoustie; you endure.

RYAN LAVNER: “DJ Bashes Way to Victory at Carnoustie.” If somehow a two-win season could be disappointing, it has been for DJ. He’s first in scoring average, birdie average, par-4 scoring, par-5 scoring, strokes gained: tee to green and proximity from the rough. Those last two stats are the most important, especially here at Carnoustie, with these dry conditions. The game’s preeminent long-and-straight driver, there’s a better-than-decent chance he rolls.

MERCER BAGGS: “Rahm Tough: Spaniard charges to Open victory.” Jon Rahm will claim him maiden major title this week by powering his way through the winds and fescue at Carnoustie.

JAY COFFIN: “Thomas wins second major, ascends to world No. 1 again.” Shortly after The Open last year, Thomas rolled through the end of the PGA Tour season. This is the time of year he likes best. Despite a poor Open record the last two years, he’s not remotely concerned. He’s a tad miffed he didn’t win in France two weeks ago and comes to Carnoustie refreshed, with a gameplan, and ready to pounce.

Who or what will be the biggest surprise?

HOGGARD: Style of play. Given Carnoustie’s reputation as a brute, the surprise will be how the champion arrives at his lofty perch. Unlike previous editions at Carnoustie, this week’s dry conditions will promote more aggressive play off the tee and the winner will defy the norm and power his way to victory.

LAVNER: Tiger Woods. This is Woods’ best chance to win a major this year, and here’s believing he contends. His greatest strengths are his iron game and scrambling, and both aspects will be tested to the extreme at Carnoustie, helping separate him from some of the pretenders. With even a little cooperation from his putter, he should be in the mix.

BAGGS: Padraig Harrington. He had a good opening round last week at the Scottish Open and has some good vibes being the 2007 Open champion at Carnoustie. He won’t contend for four rounds, but a few days in the mix would be a nice surprise.

COFFIN: Alex Noren. Perhaps someone ranked 11th in the world shouldn’t be a surprise, but with so much focus on some of the bigger, household names, don’t be surprised when Noren is in contention on Sunday. He hasn’t finished worse than 25th since early May and won two weeks ago in France. He also tied for sixth place last year at Royal Birkdale.

Who or what will be the biggest disappointment?

HOGGARD: Jordan Spieth. Although he was brilliant on his way to victory last year at Royal Birkdale, Spieth is not the same player for this week’s championship, the byproduct of a balky putter that has eroded his confidence. Spieth said giving back the claret jug this week was hard, but his finish will be even tougher.

LAVNER: Weather. This might sound a little sadistic, but one of the unique joys of covering this tournament is to watch the best in the world battle conditions they face only once a year – the bone-chilling cold, the sideways rain, the howling wind. It doesn’t appear as though that’ll happen this year. With only a few hours of light rain expected, and no crazy winds in the forecast, the biggest challenge for these stars will be judging the bounces on the hard, baked-out turf.

BAGGS: Jordan Spieth. The defending champion is still trying to find his winning form and Carnoustie doesn’t seem the place to do that. As much as he says he loves playing in strong winds, there should be enough danger around here to frustrate Spieth into a missed cut.

COFFIN: Rory McIlroy. I hope I’m wrong on this, because the game is better when Rory is in contention at majors. Putting always has been his issue and seemingly always will be. While there isn’t as much of a premium placed on putting this week because of slower greens, he may still have to hit it close. Super close.

What will be the winning score?

HOGGARD: 10 under. The last two Opens played at Carnoustie were won with 7-under and 6-over totals, but this week’s conditions will favor more aggressive play and lower scores. Expect to see plenty of birdies, but the great equalizer will come on Sunday when wind gusts are forecast to reach 25 mph.

LAVNER: 15 under. An Open at Carnoustie has never produced a winner lower than 9 under (Tom Watson in 1975), but never have the conditions been this susceptible to low scores. Sure, the fairway bunkers are still a one-shot penalty, but today’s big hitters can fly them. The thin, wispy rough isn’t much of a deterrent. And the wind isn’t expected to really whip until the final day.

BAGGS: 12 under. We aren’t going to see the same kind of weather we have previously witnessed at Carnoustie, and that’s a shame. Any players who catch relatively benign conditions should be able to go low, as long as they can properly navigate the fairway rollout.

COFFIN: 14 under. Walked into a local golf shop in the town of Carnoustie wearing a Golf Channel logo and the man behind the counter said, “It’ll take 14 under to win this week.” Well, he’s been here for years and seen Carnoustie host The Open twice before. He knows more about it than I do, so I’ll stick with his number.

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Watch: Na plays backwards flop and practices lefty

By Grill Room TeamJuly 18, 2018, 3:16 pm

Fresh off his victory at The Greenbrier, Kevin Na is taking a quite-literally-backwards approach to his Open prep.

Caddie Kenny Harms has been sharing videos of Na's early work at Carnoustie.

This one shows Na standing in a bunker and playing a flop shot over his own head (as opposed to someone else's):

While it's unlikely he'll have a need for that exact shot this week, it's far more likely a player may have to think about turning his club over and playing from the wrong side of the ball, like so:

Na has made 4 of 6 cuts at The Open and will look to improve on his best career finish, currently a T-22 in 2016 at Royal Troon.

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McIlroy growing 'comfortable' on Open courses

By Ryan LavnerJuly 18, 2018, 1:45 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – For a player who once complained about the vagaries of links golf, Rory McIlroy enters this Open with a dazzling record in the sport’s oldest championship.

Though he missed the 2015 event because of an ankle injury, McIlroy has now posted three consecutive top-5 finishes in the year’s third major.

“It’s surprising a little bit that my best form in major championships has been this tournament,” he said Wednesday, “but at the same time I’ve grown up these courses, and I’m comfortable on them. I think going to courses on The Open rota that I’ve played quite a lot. I think that helps. You have a comfort level with the golf course, and you’ve built up enough experience to know where to hit and where not to hit it.”

Full-field tee times from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship

McIlroy still regrets what happened in 2015, when he “did something slightly silly” and injured his ankle while playing soccer a few weeks before the event. That came a year after he triumphed at Royal Liverpool.

“Since 2010, I couldn’t wait to play The Open at St. Andrews,” he said. “I thought that was one of my best chances to win a major.”

He tied for 42nd at Carnoustie in 2007, earning low-amateur honors.  

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Height of irony: Phil putts in front of 'rules' sign

By Grill Room TeamJuly 18, 2018, 1:36 pm

A picture is worth 1,000 words and potentially two strokes for playing a moving ball under Rule 14-5 but not Rule 1-2.

Phil Mickelson has been having some fun during his Open prep at Carnoustie hitting flop shots over human beings, but the irony of this photo below is too obvious to go over anyone's head.

Mickelson also tried tapping down fescue two weeks ago at The Greenbrier, incurring another two-shot penalty.

And so we're left to wonder about what Phil asked himself back at Shinnecock Hills: "The real question is, ‘What am I going to do next?’”