SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- The bigger the lead, the harder they fall.
If nothing else, we have relearned one thing the last two weeks on the PGA Tour, and it has always been thus: No lead is safe.
Not three shots. Not four shots. Not five or six or seven. Not even eight. Kyle Stanley began the Waste Management Phoenix Open’s final round eight shots behind third-round leader Spencer Levin. Stanley, the unlucky loser the previous week at Torrey Pines, was the lucky winner this time. He finished one shot ahead of Ben Crane and two ahead of Levin.
Do the math. He picked up 10 shots on Levin in one round.
Stanley, a superstar collegiate player at Clemson who grew up in Gig Harbor, Wash., isn’t going to fill a talk show or a notebook by gabbing about himself. He’s soft-spoken, not yet comfortable in the public eye and not prone to self-analysis.
But what he did Sunday at the TPC Scottsdale was a Mongolian Reversal on the order of Bernhard Langer, who missed the putt on the final green at the 1991 Ryder Cup that allowed America to keep the Cup. He bounced back and won in Germany the next week.
Stanley had a near Van de Velde-ian moment at Torrey Pines. He needed only a double bogey on the 72nd hole, a par 5 he could easily reach in two, to earn his first PGA Tour victory. He made 8 and then lost a playoff to Brandt Snedeker. Stanley was effectively the last man standing here. “Wow,” was about the only appropriate word for his win and his turnaround.
“You go from a very low point to a high point,” Stanley said. “I’m not sure I expected to recover this quickly. You know, I’ll take it. I knew I was playing well; the biggest challenge was seeing if I could put last week behind me. I think I did.”
The best perk of this victory? Stanley will likely never be asked about Torrey Pines again. He replaced the one thing that fans and the media knew about him -- he hideously gaffed a silver-platter win -- with a stunning comeback.
He did it with a collection of good shots, good putts and one amazing cactus dodge. At the drivable par-4 17th hole, Stanley bailed right with his tee shot. It rolled to a stop under a jumping cholla cactus --it’s “jumping” because it seems to almost lunge for you when you get near it. Bogey or worse seemed likely because a pond guarded the far side of the green, which sloped toward the water. He shut the face on a sand wedge, hit down on the ball and darted it on a dead-left trajectory with right-to-left spin. The ball crawled onto the green, 20 feet from the hole. He nearly made birdie.
“That shot from the cactus was unbelievable,” said Crane, who was paired with Stanley. “That was awesome.”
That shot and that par should help people forget Stanley’s mistakes at Torrey Pines. Fans will also remember a pair of clutch par putts at the 15th and 16th holes, strokes that Stanley called the keys to his round. At 16, he missed the green left and played a poor pitch 15 feet past the hole. He poured it in to maintain a one-stroke lead.
“Sometimes in a round, you have to have a couple of putts to keep the momentum going,” Stanley said. “Those were both pretty big.”
File this away for future reference, by the way: Stanley is the real deal. While Webb Simpson is on the verge of ascending to the role of best American golfer, pending that Tiger Woods fellow’s performance this season, Stanley already looks like the Next Big Thing. It’s easy to get carried away by a golfer on a hot streak, but Stanley has the kind of length and power that had CBS announcers oohing and aahing two weeks in a row. You want to be a dominant player, a No. 1 player in the world, it helps to be long -- Luke Donald notwithstanding.
The last two weeks are experiences you can’t duplicate. Stanley is already a better player for last week’s ordeal. On Sunday, he was determined to finish strong and said he didn’t even check a leaderboard until he was on the 17th green, where he noticed he had the lead. Maybe that led to his errant drive on 18, but no harm, no foul. He played a perfect wedge to the 18th, gunned his birdie putt past and out of tap-in range, but made the par to seal the deal. The feeling here is, get used to this. As for Torrey Pines, file it away.
“You know, I’m never going to forget that one,” he said. “It makes this one a lot sweeter, being able to bounce back. I’m at a loss for words. I’m very grateful for the support I’ve gotten. It’s unbelievable, an unbelievable turnaround.”
Levin, a 27-year-old former amateur star who isn’t afraid to light a cigarette on a tee box on national TV, filled in for Stanley in the unhappy runner-up role.
After the round he walked toward the scoring trailer by the clubhouse, head down. He appeared to be searching for answers about what went wrong. He hit three bunkers in a row starting at the 11th hole, three-putted for par at the par-5 13th and then, after regaining a share of the lead at 14 with a clutch birdie putt, bailed out right at the par-5 15th, where he’d pulled his drive into the water a day earlier.
Sunday’s drive hit the cart path on the fly and bounded into the desert, rolling to a stop under a jumping cholla. He used his belly putter to knock the ball back to the rough, just shy of the fairway. Then he slightly pushed a 4-iron, which splashed in the pond guarding the green, short.
“That was shocking to me,” he said. “I didn’t hit it that bad.”
Levin’s caddie had to carefully pull cholla spurs out of Levin’s side and, unglamorously, off his rear end.
Despite the ensuing double bogey, Levin still had a chance if he could have birdied two of the last three holes. He hit some good putts that looked at the cup, but they didn’t go in.
“When you have a six-shot lead and you don’t win, it’s pretty much on you,” Levin said after emerging from the scoring trailer and trading a few handshakes and hugs with family and friends. “I don’t know, maybe I put too much pressure on myself. I’ll try to have a little more fun next time. I don’t think I smiled once today. My physical game is good, so it has to be mental. I so got in my own way today.”
When a PGA Tour media official invited Levin to step into the clubhouse for a press conference with writers, he gamely agreed. As he walked toward the ramp to the media center, fans waiting for Levin’s autograph called out to him.
He waved and assured them, “I’ll be back, I’ll be back.”
For the record, a teary Kyle Stanley said the same thing a week earlier at Torrey Pines. In golf, no lead is safe, and redemption is always just one week away.