So often you look at these wunderkinds of golfingdom and the breadth of their experience and success almost takes your breath away.
They went to the best universities for a quality education and college golf, some went on to the Walker Cup and then to Q-School and then to the Tour and ultimately, inevitable success. Shawn Stefani’s road was dusty and less traveled by the stars and much longer.
He graduated from Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas, in 2005 with a degree in General Studies. That was the point that his perfect path he envisioned to the Tour began to diverge from reality. The reality was that he spent the next six years beating around the mini-tours until he finished T54 at the 2011 Q-School to earn a ticket to the 2012 Web.com Tour.
But that was the breakthrough that he needed. On that biggest of the mini-tours closest to the PGA Tour, he finally culled together all of the pieces of the success he had worked six long years for. He finished 6th for the year and earned his ticket to the PGA Tour.
But so far, it has been winnowed down to yet another exercise in patience. He has gotten into just 14 events and missed 8 cuts. Of the 6 he got into, his best finish was a T7 at Tampa that earned him $149,000 for his Tour bank account and, because it was a top 10, entry into the next “open” event, the Shell Houston Open. He missed the cut. And then he missed the cut in San Antonio, Hilton Head and New Orleans before he made another respectable finish (T27) and check ($48, 000) in Charlotte. And missed the cut in Dallas before his most recent tournament, a T42 at Colonial in Ft. Worth.
And now…and now!!…he has the 54-hole lead in the FedEx St. Jude Classic at the TPC Southwind in Memphis, Tennessee. He shot an incredible 4-under 66, incredible when you consider that he made a quadruple bogey on the par-3 11th hole.
One of the statistics that the Tour keeps is Bounce Back, the percentage of time that a player is over par on a hole and then under par on the following hole. So technically he didn’t bounce back from the quad on 11 with a birdie on 12. But he certainly made a hell of an impression with birdies on 14, 16, 17 and 18!
And that’s where this little history catches up to Saturday’s round:
It was a great round and a lot of things happened pretty well and even had a small road bump in the middle of the round, but, you know, I managed to keep it going, stay patient, and things worked out great coming in.
However do you put something like the quad behind you?
I actually hit the tee shot very well. Middle flight kind of a gust came up and knocked it in the water, you know, and then kind of went on from there to make a 7.
But, you know, just told myself to be patient. And then I hit some good shots on 12. Hit a good tee shot on 12, and the drive on 12 is not the easiest drive on the course. So, hit a good one there and then made a good par there.
And then on 13 and 14 hit a great shot on 14 and made birdie there. Kind of — the birdie on 14 was really where I got more calm, because, you know, after making a 7 on a par 3, it’s hard to bounce back from that and to do that was nice.
So patience got him through that three-hole stretch. And the calm that he got from the birdie on 14 carried him through the next saved catastrophe on 15:
And then on 15 another one where I misjudged the wind, thought it was coming off the right. It was coming more in and just hit the wrong club and didn’t really hit it good, either, but found the water. So [after he took his drop] I just had a good feeling about the chip, too. I got over it and kind of dropped it in a good spot and I kind of thought I may have chipped it in or may chip it in, and fortunately enough for me I did [to save the par and the momentum his birdie produced].
So how does this week compare with his breakthrough T7 in Tampa?
I’m actually playing a lot better now than I was in Tampa, you know. I think Tampa was a new experience. I mean, obviously having the lead was great and playing well. But I think I’m much more prepared with my game than I was then. And I’m feeling a lot more comfortable with it.
It’s been a tough year for me. I’ve stayed patient with it and tried to keep going and focusing on all the things that I usually do. It’s tough, you know.
I think qualifying for the U.S. Open on Monday really helped me with some confidence because shooting those two rounds here against the field, which obviously is just another PGA Tour event, but I feel a lot better about my game now than I did in Tampa.
You said “stay patient” a bunch of times now. In a way it fits your broader career. You had to be patient to get where you are. What was that like and were there dark moments when you would think back, “I didn’t. I’ve been scuffling around trying to make the Tour for all those years”? And does it help you at moments of crisis like this to say, “You know what, all good things in time”?
Yeah, it does, because we tend to be whiners. We’re humans. Human nature is we want things. I worked my tail off growing up to become a professional golfer and play on the PGA Tour and, you know, it didn’t kind of happen when I wanted it to, but I just kept working and working and working.
I was probably a little bit impatient the beginning of this year wanting to play too well, try to force things, and I really have stayed patient throughout the year and just know things will turn. They always do. Every player has ups and downs. And if you do stay patient, things will turn and you will start playing at your capabilities.
When you have a — like you did on 11, is there a moment where you have to calm yourself down? Are you cursing yourself? What’s that feel like when you know what you’ve done?
I feel like I hit one bad shot on 11. That was the putt I missed for triple (laughter). I know that sounds crazy, but, you know, I hit the club that I wanted to hit. Unfortunately, was the wrong club at the wrong time.
The second one I plug in the bunker, you know, just hit it too good and carried it too far, which obviously the next bunker shot wasn’t the greatest, but you could have hit that thing anywhere.
You just — you deal with it, you know? Things happen and you just have to deal with them and move on. You can’t fret about it. You can’t let it bother you. Because if it bothers you out here, you’re toast and then these guys will run all over you.
I just said, you know, keep doing what you’re doing, keep swinging the club well, because I’ve swung the club well all week and I just remain, you know, at that level of it and just — things worked out great.
Is there a point of pride to get all the way back to know that you had that crisis and here are you sitting there? Is it satisfying to —
Yeah, very satisfying. I mean, if anybody does that; you know, it does bother you a little bit, but it’s who gets over it fastest and who moves on the fastest. And to finish the way I did with three birdies on the last three was great.
But I was just out there just playing the game and having fun. That’s what I’m here for is to play the best I can and have fun with it, and I did that today.
Does that personality come about as part of being 31 years old and a rookie and having been through a lot of life?
Well, I’ve had plenty of hard times on the mini tours, Q-School, which who hadn’t had tough times in Q-school? You know, I feel like I’m pretty mature for a golfer. I don’t have the experience on the PGA Tour that a lot of these guys do, but I know how to play the game and I make I feel like right decisions to better my game. And, you know, I’ve always believed that I could play golf against the best players in the world.
Now, putting yourself in position is one thing and continuing to do it is another. This is what I’ve worked for my whole life is to be in this position, and tomorrow will be great. I mean I’m looking forward to what I will gain out of tomorrow, you know. Everything will be a gain out of tomorrow no matter what happens.
So, all I can do is go out there and focus on what I do and see what happens. Because like I said, it’s going to be a great time. And, you know, I’ve got Harris again tomorrow, too. So I think it’s a great pairing. He’s a lot of fun to play with. You know, we talked a lot today and we’re just kind of a calm, relaxing group, and I’m looking forward to that.
You’re a baseball guy, too. Were there ever moments on the mini tours you thought of yourself a little bit of a Crash Davis character [the catcher in “Bull Durham], that you wondering if you were destined to live your life in the minors? Or did you ever — did you always think you were going to get to the show?
You always believe. You never stop believing. Luckily I had the support from all of my family and my friends to keep going, which without the support from your family and friends it’s tough, you know.
Even Tiger Woods has all the support from everyone closest to him. And not one person in my corner ever told me to give up. And that was — it was very helpful. You know, you believe in yourself and you keep doing a lot of right things, and when things don’t go your way it’s tough.
But, you know, I never gave up hope and kept working and working and working and, you know, now I’m sitting here talking to you guys tonight.
Is it fun seeing Phil Mickelson there behind you or is it threatening seeing Phil there? It’s a nice leaderboard.
I mean, I can’t worry about what Phil is doing out there. Phil is Phil. He does what he does and the crowds love him. You know, I even like watching him when I’m not playing.
I’m just going to go worry about what I’m doing tomorrow. I can’t worry about what he’s doing, what the rest of the field is doing. Just going to go out and focus on what’s Shawn doing.
You mentioned you’ve been swinging the club pretty well, but you also had your putter working a little bit. Anything that — anything that’s working particularly well right now or just the fact that you’ve got a lot of holes lately?
You know, I’ve just been — I’m doing the same thing over and over again. And so when you’re doing the same things over and over again and you feel good about them, I just focus on that. You’re not focusing on everything else around or other things that can kind of get in your way.
So, my mind is very simple right now. I’m not trying to do too much. I’m not thinking too much. I’m committing to what I’m doing and then doing it. And it’s working out well right now. I’m just going to ride the wave.
And patiently wait for the biggest day of his golf career so far to unfold. How can you not cheer for such resilience and discipline?