Stanley’s Shocking Stumble
By Stephanie Wei under PGA Tour

Stanley and Waldman: WTF just happened?

Wow — that was the first thing I blurted out, shaking my head in disbelief. Most of you also probably found it hard to find the right words to describe what we watched on the last hole in regulation at Torrey Pines in the final round of the Farmers Insurance Open.

I mean, did I really just see Kyle Stanley, who started the day with a five-shot lead and extended it to seven with 11 to play, make a triple-bogey on the relatively straightforward par-5 18th? Did he seriously take six shots after blasting his drive 300 yards down the middle of the fairway? Which then forced a mind-blowing playoff against Brandt Snedeker, who won on the second extra hole.

Indeed, that’s what unfolded.

All week Stanley had methodically executed shots on the North and South courses with power and a robotic-like demeanor. On Saturday night the 24-year-old, originally from Gig Harbor, Washington, was sleeping on a five-shot lead with just 18 holes between him and his first PGA Tour victory.

Sure, those who know him will tell you he hasn’t necessarily dealt with pressure well in past experiences (and they’ll also tell you his pants are too tight). And it wasn’t out of the question for someone to come from behind and win. It wasn’t entirely out of the realm of possibility that either John Rollins or John Huh, the two tied for second and the closest contenders, would shoot four-under and Stanley would struggle and post one-over. Still, with how well he was playing, it was hard to fathom a different outcome.

My friend and I decided to make a wager on whether or not Stanley would pull it off. Of course, anything is possible in this crazy game, but I had my money on Stanley. Literally. Mostly because I figured Brett Waldman, his veteran highly-esteemed caddie who spent last year playing on the Nationwide Tour, would navigate his player around the course with ease.

When Stanley started hot and got to 21-under, it looked like he was going to run away with the trophy. I prematurely started gloating and texted my friend that there was no way Kyle would blow a seven-shot lead. On the back nine he began hitting some stray shots (and looking like he was buckling under pressure a bit), but he was scrambling and draining clutch par putts.

Meanwhile, Brandt Snedeker, who has a habit of going low in the final round, was making a run. Going into Sunday, Snedeker trailed by seven, but thanks to five birdies (and no bogeys) through 16, he’d gained a lot of ground. Then he bogeyed 17 and it looked like it was over. Snedeker, who had hip surgery in the off-season, closed out with a birdie to shoot a solid 67. In his post-round interview, he basically said he’d made a good run, but he’d started too far back and it wasn’t going to be enough, etc.

We thought so, too. And so did Gary McCord, the on-course announcer following Snedeker’s group, because he had left the golf course and had to rush back when he heard Stanley had done the near impossible and triple-bogeyed the last hole.

It was pretty painful to watch Stanley’s meltdown, one so epic that it’s now listed in the history books along with Jean Van de Velde’s at the ’99 British Open and Robert Garrigus’ at the ’10 St. Jude Classic. Actually, it might rank higher in terms of shock value since the 18th at Carnoustie isn’t exactly easy and neither is the 18th at TPC Southwind in Memphis. In contrast, the 18th at Torrey Pines is a reachable-in-two par-5, especially for someone like Stanley, who has prodigious length (he ranked second in driving distance, averaging 314 yards this week).

A few things made me pick my jaw up off the ground on that last hole in regulation. First of all, Stanley still had a three-shot lead. No way he could triple-bogey the par-5, right? I mean, he could have taken fewer strokes if he had bunted his ball down the fairway with a sand wedge.

“Looking back, I don’t really know what I was thinking,” said a tearful Stanley in his post-round presser. “It’s not a hard golf hole. It’s really a pretty straightforward par-5. I could probably play it a thousand times and never make an 8.”

With his 300-yard drive safely in the fairway, leaving him with 240 yards to the green, he and Waldman decided to lay up. I’m pretty sure a fair number of players/caddies on tour will tell you it was the wrong play (of course hindsight is 20/20, right?). Instead, why not just go for it in two and airmail it into the grandstands (especially since he was hitting it so well)? Then, you take a drop and chip on safely. And worse-case scenario, you fat it in the drink, but you can still get up-and-down after taking a penalty and drop. Look, If you’re going to rinse it, then do it on the second shot because you’ll still lying three after taking a penalty shot and hitting four up to the green. (Or if you lay up, then take more club and maybe try to end up in the back bunker. Just anywhere but the water.)

Laying up is only keeping every bad outcome on the table. As Steve Elkington tweeted, “The only way to make 8 is LAYUP…”

Sure, Kyle got a little unlucky on the third shot. He didn’t expect it to spin that much (and the ball stopped twice in the grassy bank before rolling its way into the drink).

“We tried to lay it up close enough so that we wouldn’t put that much spin on it,” Stanley said. “Thought I had a pretty good shot, but just had too much spin.”

Fair enough, but point is, that shouldn’t have even been a possibility. Let’s chalk it up to a lapse in decision-making. After all, I’m told Kyle is known to freeze under pressure and maybe Waldman is a little rusty since he hasn’t been in that position for a while (plus it’s only the duo’s third event together).

Then there was Stanley’s second wedge shot after the drop. At the last minute, Waldman grabbed the club Kyle had in his hands and replaced it with another. Which me and an LPGA friend thought was strange.

I asked someone who is familiar with Stanley’s game about the situation. He said: “Well, (Brett) probably gave him a sand wedge to try to chip in there. He’s got that shot. I probably would have done the same thing. But knowing Kyle, what he heard was, ‘Send it to the back, keep water out of play,’ when he needed to land it at about 70 skip and use the backstop. There’s nine paces fro the pin to the top of the slope.”

Now this isn’t Stanley’s first difficult heartache, but it’s by far the most painful (and memorable). Last year at the John Deere Classic he was leading by two until he bogeyed the last hole, while Steve Stricker birdied the final two to win. To be fair, Stricker pulled off an incredible shot from the fairway bunker and then made a clutch putt.

There was also last year’s U.S. Open Sectional qualifier in Columbus last June. He was in a six-way playoff for the three remaining spots. Stanley was the first eliminated with a sloppy bogey on the second sudden-death hole. (He also looked like he was going to puke and/or cry, but don’t blame him…)

Let’s hope he’ll take this — to use some popular cliches — as a valuable “learning experience” and “come out of it stronger.”

“I know I’ll be back,” said Stanley. “I’m not worried about that. It’s just tough to swallow right now. I just need to be patient. One of my goals coming into this year was to just keep putting myself in position, and I’ll do that.”

Let’s be honest, it’s not always easy to recover from these kinds of incidents, especially when it’s not the first time. Time will tell. I have no doubt he’ll be back in contention soon and hopefully he’ll handle it better and get rid of this stigma.

On a related note, many pundits and fans were predicting Stanley to be the breakout player in 2012. He obviously is a tremendous talent, but with Waldman’s deft guidance, perhaps it’s the final ingredient Stanley needed to take him to the next level. Interestingly enough, when I met and spoke with Waldman during the Humana Challenge, he said he wouldn’t be surprised if the win came as soon as the following week at Torrey because the course suited Kyle’s game to a tee, etc. Unfortunately, the conversation slipped my mind until Saturday night, otherwise I would have played him in my Fantasy Golf lineup.

Well, my heart and thoughts go out to Kyle and I hope he has a good week in Phoenix. The fans on the infamous 16th hole might not be the most sympathetic crowd, though.

(AP Photo/Chris Carlson)