Stanley Overcomes For 1st PGA Tour Win

I had a feeling on Monday night when I submitted my expert picks for Phoenix that Kyle Stanley would win this week. I knew that he would stop mourning his loss at Torrey Pines and the pity party the golf world has been holding for him over the last week.

You don’t play this game for a living unless you know how to take the good with the bad. After shooting a bogey-free, 6-under 65 on Sunday to earn his first PGA Tour win, the 24-year-old Gig Harbor, Wash., native told CBS commentator Peter Kostis that the game had taught him not to get too high or too low.

The game doesn’t let you take for granted a single shot. He had a 3-shot lead on the 72nd hole at Torrey Pines a week ago, but walked off the green with a triple-bogey and a trip to a playoff with Brandt Snedeker that he lost. Fans and players felt bad for him because his shot on 18 hadn’t warranted the ball spinning off the green into water.

It wasn’t fair. So it seemed like fate that he would win in Phoenix. After taking control of the tournament for good on the inward nine after Spencer Levin made a double-bogey on the par-5 15th hole, Stanley struggled on his last three holes with errant shots, but he made excellent recoveries and a couple of nice par saves. Everything went right for him.

Every player needs a little luck to win. Stanley hit a couple of drives that could have rested in unplayable lies in the desert, but he got fortunate bounces.

Levin wasn’t so lucky. At the 15th hole, his drive settled into a bush, where he had to chip out with a putter. From there he hit his third shot into the water. He went on to make a double-bogey on the hole. Though he could have made birdies to catch Stanley on the last three holes, he never rebounded from his troubles at the No. 15.

Stanley’s win was his redemptive moment. But he didn’t deserve to win any more than Levin deserved to lose for blowing a big lead. Yet, it’s more than a coincidence that Stanley would win a week after his disastrous finish at Torrey Pines.

It made me think of David Toms, who won at Colonial last year a week after losing in a playoff at the Players. Toms had been very successful in his career, but his children had never seen him win. For two weeks, the golf world wanted to see Toms win for his 13-year-old son, Carter.

Stanley’s win on Sunday was for all the people that had supported him over the last week: the people who had kept vigil over him through one of the toughest weeks in his life. And it was also a victory for the importance of consistent play and perseverance.

Earlier in the week I watched Stanley chunk a chip shot that needed to land delicately over a ridge to a front pin position. But he holed his next shot from off the green. It was one minor scenario early in a tournament, but it was window into his ability to withstand all sorts of challenges in the heat of the moment.

After these last two weeks, Stanley might be mentally tired, but his future is very secure on the PGA Tour.

Levin’s loss
As I watched Spencer Levin blow a 6-shot lead on Sunday at the Waste Management Phoenix Open, I thought eight years back when I first met him as a 20-year-old college student playing Shinnecock Hills in his first U.S. Open. He was then as he is now, a feisty chain smoker with an unorthodox swing. With that swing and slight build, you knew he had to be a special talent, especially when he made a hole-in-one at the 170-yard, par-3 17th hole in his first round.

[+] EnlargeSpencer Levin

After a great season in 2011, when he had six top-10s — including a second at the Mayakoba Classic, it wasn’t surprising that the 27-year-old Sacramento native would be playing well at Phoenix. It also wasn’t surprising that he had shot a 63 in his second round at TPC Scottsdale. A week earlier at the Farmers Insurance Open, he had shared the first-round lead with Kyle Stanley. Both men shot 10-under 62s.

But I also wasn’t surprised by his performance on Sunday afternoon, where he shot a 4-over-par 75 to finish in third place. From a statistical vantage point, the former University of New Mexico star hadn’t played all that well in the final round in his first three events of the season. Even par on Sunday won’t get it done on the PGA Tour.

Through his first three rounds, Levin made only two bogeys, but on Sunday he had four and a double-bogey. On the final nine holes, where he had gone a combined 8 under for the week, he went 3-over on Sunday.

Like Stanley, Levin will learn a lot from what happened to him this week in Phoenix. That same hurried and temperamental spirit that I saw at the 2004 U.S. Open, where he finished in a tie for 13th, was present on Sunday. Sure, his swing tempo got even faster when the pressure rose as Stanley mounted a challenge, but that’s his game.

I expect Levin to play well next week at the ATT Pebble Beach National Pro-Am. It was there in 2004 that he won the California State Amateur.

General Lee
When I was a kid in the early 1980s, the Friday night lineup on CBS was Hulk, the Dukes of Hazzard and Dallas. As a Georgian, I had a special affinity for Dukes of Hazzard. Bo and Luke Duke were good ole’ boys, but the only politics they seemed to have were that Boss Hogg couldn’t run Hazzard County as his own little fiefdom. The Confederate Flag that graced the top of General Lee, their orange 1969 Dodge Charger, was a ubiquitous symbol of the old Confederacy that lost the Civil War to the north.

[+] EnlargeBubba Watson

This past week at the Waste Management Phoenix Open, Bubba Watson drove the original General Lee to the golf course every day. CBS shot overhead images of the car, featuring the Confederate Flag. Last month, the 33-year-old Bagdad, Fla. native had purchased the iconic car in an auction for just over a $100,000. He understood why the Charger would offend people, but he argued that the car wasn’t really about the racist past that’s associated with some of its symbols.

Honestly, the car never bothered me as a child because Bo and Luke seemed to me to be the kind of progressive thinkers that Bubba has shown to be in my numerous interactions with him over his seven-year PGA Tour career. And for most of my life, the Georgia state flag was based on one used by the Confederate States of America.

Watson is a golfer who can’t be expected to know the history of the flag or to be responsible for America’s sordid racial history. But it might be time for him to learn.

Still I wonder what the response might be if he ever drove General Lee down Magnolia Lane at the Masters or up to the gates at East Lake in Atlanta for the Tour Championship. I’m sure the reception would be a lot different than it was in Phoenix. Long memories make you take notice of even the slightest reminders of a horrible time in American history.

The Accidental Champion
When Paul Lawrie won the 1999 British Open at Carnoustie, he was ranked 159th in the world. His biggest win up to that point had come that February at the Qatar Masters. At the time, the 30-year-old Scot would probably have continued in obscurity if Jean Van de Velde had been able to make at least a double-bogey at the 72nd hole. Though he had rallied from 10 shots back of the leader at the start of the final round to get into a four-hole playoff with Van de Velde and Justin Leonard, Lawrie was fated to always be known as an accidental major winner.

While majors have never gone purely to unheralded players, no major winner since Bob Goalby at the 1968 Masters had been as much an afterthought to the tournament.

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Thirteen years after that first win at the Qatar Masters, Lawrie, now 43, got his second victory at the Doha Golf Club in Qatar on Sunday. The event was shortened to 54-holes due to high winds. Lawrie shot a final-round 7-under 65 for a 15-under par total to beat Jason Day and Peter Hanson by 4 shots.

Since Lawrie’s win at Carnoustie, he’s won five times on the European Tour, but he’s never quite become a top-tier player. Unlike so many good European golfers, he never found success in the United States. He would become a good European Tour player, but never a true international star.

Before Lawrie’s Carnoustie triumph, John Daly’s win at the 1991 PGA Championship had been the biggest major win by an unsung player in recent times. At the time that Daly overpowered the Crooked Stick Golf Club with 300-yard drives, he was ranked 168th in the world.

Big John was at the Qatar Masters this week and in the early goings it looked like the 45-year-old, two-time major champion could win the event after a first-round, 5-under 67. Since his last win on the PGA Tour at the 2004 Buick Open at Torrey Pines, he’s had more success on the European Tour, where he has had several top-10s, including a tie for second at the 2009 BMW Italian Open.

After a 1-over-par 73 on Saturday, Daly bounced back with another 67 to finish fourth at 9 under.

Lately, there hasn’t been much good to say about Daly’s golf. In November at the Australian Open, Daly walked off the golf course during the first round after hitting all of his balls in the water on the 11th hole at the Lakes course in Sydney. In 2011, he had just one top-10 on the PGA Tour, a tie for 9th at the RBC Canadian Open.

With ever-dwindling opportunities to compete on the PGA Tour, Daly will probably play more on the European Tour in the future.

With his win at Qatar, Lawrie gets into the top 50 in the world and with more good play he might finally climb out of the shadow of Van de Velde. Still he’s a major champion, a select club that’s entitled Daly to a life in the game long after his prime.

In many ways, Daly’s two majors have been both a burden and a blessing for him. If he wasn’t still a popular player with the fans, tournaments around the world wouldn’t continue to give him appearance fees and exemptions into their events. But hopefully he has enough pride to not settle for ceremonial golf. His play this week indicates that he still has some game and desire.

For Lawrie, another win is another step closer to the great promise he showed at Carnoustie in ’99 and another chance to prove that he wasn’t an accidental major winner.

Butcher shop
It’s becoming a familiar story on the PGA Tour: a top player tries to take his game to the next level by changing his swing with the help of Butch Harmon. Tiger Woods did it in 1998 after he won the 1997 Masters by 12 shots. In 2007, Phil Mickelson fired Rick Smith and hired Harmon. As they saw their fortunes rise, Adam Scott, Justin Leonard and Stewart Cink got on Harmon’s bus before they changed course.

Gary Woodland is the latest convert to the 68-year-old Harmon, the oldest of the four sons of teaching legend and 1948 Masters champion Claude Harmon. The 27-year-old Woodland, who previously worked with Randy Smith, had a breakout year in 2011. (Woodland’s former agent had been Smith’s son, Blake.)

Woodland won the Transitions Championship and had five other top-10s on his way to $3.4 million in earnings. With only four missed cuts all year, it was difficult to find much wrong with his game.

But then we live in the era of the professional tinkerer. Many players think that finding that next level in their games means hiring the most popular swing doctor. Woodland has said that he wants to change the whole path of his swing. Harmon wants him to become less one-dimensional. Apparently, Woodland doesn’t have enough shot variety or flight control with his wedges.

On Sunday at the Waste Management Phoenix Open, Woodland showed signs that he’s settling into the new swing. He shot a 5-under 66 that included two eagles to finish in a tie for 26th.

It’s no doubt that Woodland will become a better player under the tutelage of Harmon, who has a proven track record of helping the top players reach their full potential. It’s not that there aren’t other teachers as equally qualified to work with Woodland, but Butch is one of the special instructors on tour. He might not be the best teacher, but he certainly teaches the best players.

Yet that doesn’t mean that every aspiring player should try to work with Harmon. Like Phil Jackson of Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers fame, he does his best work with the most gifted players. But that’s not to take away from his wonderful eye for detail in the golf swing.

Hopefully, under Butch’s guidance, Woodland won’t lose the heart that got him to the PGA Tour, because he was born with everything that he needs to be a great player.

Farrell Evans covers golf for ESPN and can be contacted at [email protected]