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Scott Stallings earns his stripes at Torrey Pines

Inspired as a youth by Tiger Woods at the Masters, Stallings survives on one of the toughest courses on tour while making up for his tough loss in the desert last year.

January 26, 2014|Bill Dwyre

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LA JOLLA — Like many on the PGA Tour's traveling road show, Scott Stallings is mostly a name in the small print. That should change now, at least for a while.

When he won the Farmers Insurance Open on Sunday at Torrey Pines, it gave his career both a tangible and intangible boost.

The tangibles are easy. First place was worth $1.098 million. Also a spot in the Masters.

That means he can return to Augusta National, to the spot on No. 18 where he can revisit an incredible Tiger Woods drive. He'll probably take his dad, they'll walk to the spot and talk about what they always do — that day when he was 12 years old.

More on that later.

The intangibles are less clear.

He won a tournament on a course that refuses to play second fiddle to any golfer. Golf fans know what it means just to win on tour. Better, they know what it means to win at Torrey. Lots of players broke par during this tournament. None would say it was easy. Nor could any take hold of it when they needed to Sunday.

Stallings would agree that, as well as he played, he merely survived better than the others. At one point Sunday, there were 19 players within two shots of the lead and 23 within three. Slowly but surely, Torrey Pines chewed them up, spit them out and deemed Stallings most worthy.

More interesting in the category of intangibles is that, by winning, Stallings got a chance to tell his story, one truly worth listening to.

He is 28. This was his third tournament title, but he leaves the impression that he is far from figuring it out and will never walk the fairways with a swagger. That self-effacing nature, rare in sports, is compelling.

Asked if he thinks this gets him above the radar on the national golf scene, or if he will remain below it, he said, "Very in between, I'd say…I'll go to a golf place and they'll be like, who are you? Then I'll go to a baseball game and people will recognize me.

"I know where I stand. I'm never going to be one that would try to put myself where I don't belong."

He was born in Worcester, Mass., but moved to Tennessee when he was 3. That short stay was long enough to make him a lifelong Red Sox and Patriots fan.

As a youngster, he was a good athlete.

About his golf game then, he said, "I was decent, but I was a very good baseball player."

Then, in April 1997, when he was 12, he had a life-changing experience as he watched the Masters with his dad, a family tradition. He was on a traveling baseball team, they were about to start practice, but then he watched a young Woods go 18 under par and demolish the field. He was smitten.

"Tiger was the one that made me want to play golf," Stallings said. "…At that moment, I quit everything, every sport I was playing, and said that's what I want to do. Every one of my friends thought I was crazy."

What could be so impressive that a 12-year-old would make a decision like that?

"It was just like pure domination," Stallings said.

Until Sunday, Stallings' career, despite his two wins and career prize money that now adds up to $6,184,177, has been off the marquee. He has played a total of six majors, with his best finish a tie for 27th in the 2012 Masters.

Around Southern California, Stallings seemed best remembered for one bad swing.

That came on the final hole of last year's Humana Challenge in the desert. Stallings began the day leading by five shots. On the 18th hole, a par-five with water along the left all the way to the green, he hit his second shot just badly enough that it trickled into the water. Brian Gay won later in a playoff that Stallings didn't even make.

Flash forward to Sunday, No. 18 at Torrey Pines. He faced an almost identical second shot, with similar pressure. Water in front, a chance to make birdie for a likely win or make another mess of things. Did he remember Humana?

"Absolutely," he said.

"I still think about it a lot because I played so well ... I didn't make a bogey for 62 holes or something like that…I actually thought about 18 at Humana the whole time on 18 today."

Sunday, Stallings had 220 yards to the front of the green and 227 to the pin. He hit a four-iron, it cleared the water, trickled onto the green and then started to trickle back toward the water. But it stopped.

He two-putted for birdie and nine under par, then had to wait for Torrey Pines to have its way with the contenders in the two final groups.

True to form, Stallings stood off to the side during the victory ceremony on No. 18, waiting for the big check and the trophy. Near the back of the green, under the watchful eye of mom Jennifer, Stallings' toddler son, Finn, found a comfortable place to sit — right on the scoring placard of the final group of Gary Woodland, Marc Leishman and Jordan Spieth. Soon, he got up and stomped on it, much as his dad had just done to them.

Sunday night, the Stallings family was scheduled to drive back to their winter headquarters in Scottsdale, Ariz. He has a pro-am to play Monday at 10 a.m.

Suffice to say, everybody there will recognize him.

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