It wasn’t a win, but Chris Stroud surprised with solid finish at Players

May 16, 2011

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — Despite all the technological advances we’ve seen in golf equipment over the last decade, the most important wood in your bag is still the same as the old joke says — your pencil.

Chris Stroud, a little-known but promising player from Houston by way of Lamar University, had what was perhaps the biggest week of his professional golfing life. He charged onto The Players leaderboard Sunday with 31 on the front. Stroud actually got to 10 under with five holes to play and was within three strokes of the lead. He’s never won in his short career on the PGA Tour, or his brief time on the Nationwide Tour, but he was within striking distance at The Players.

It was dream-come-true time. While Stroud didn’t pull it off, he made a good showing despite three-putting from long range on the final two greens for a bogey-bogey finish. That took a little edge off his performance, but it was one he could be proud of nonetheless.

And Stroud, 29, did it all with the help of his trusty pencil — and it has nothing to do with creative scorekeeping. Stroud struggles with putting at times. He ranks 122nd in the Tour’s new putting stat — strokes gained-putting — and is 142nd in a more relevant stat, three-putt avoidance.

He’s tried just about everything. This week he was using a belly putter with a crosshanded grip. He solved an alignment problem Sunday by drawing a line on the top of his putter, using a pencil to fill it in. It worked beautifully. He closed with a 68 despite that bogey-bogey finish and finished tied for 12th.

“I finally lined that putter up right,” Stroud said. “I struggle with that, for some reason. I don’t line the putter up right. I’ll hit a good putt and lose confidence because the putt doesn’t come off right. Today, I hit nice putts and it was beautiful. It worked great. Whatever can help me line up is great.”

Sunday was a continuation of a decent year for Stroud, who is beginning to make a little noise as a PGA Tour player. He shot 62 at Disney last year and was an early leader at the Mayakoba Classic this spring after a 63 that featured eight birdies in a row, one off the all-time Tour record. Stroud eventually finished fourth, his highest finish on the PGA Tour.

His Players showing isn’t his highest finish, just his most significant.

“This tells me that my game stacks up against the best,” Stroud said. “This is a major for us; everybody knows that. I guess you could call it the fifth major, and it’s one of the strongest fields in golf. It’s just nice to see that my game can stack up. It’ll be great for me down the road when I’m not playing that well, to call back weeks like this. You have to make sure you believe in yourself and never give up. It’s a great week of confidence for me.”

Historically, Stroud is a bit of a slow starter. He had that nice Mayakoba week in late February, and a tie for 63rd at the Honda Classic. Then he missed four cuts in a row before tying for 26th in New Orleans and 64th at Quail Hollow. He likes the Stadium Course, where he finished 10th in last years Players, because it reminds him of the tree-lined courses he grew up playing at The Woodlands just north of Houston.

“This is a shotmaker’s course, which I love,” he said. “There is a good vibe here for me. I seem to play well this time of year, when the weather starts warming. It seems like my year always gets started in New Orleans.”

That front-nine 31 wasn’t as easy as it looked, by the way. As inauspicious starts go, this one was world class. At the first hole, “I hit the worst drive I’ve hit all week,” he joked. “I snaphooked it in the trees.”

How bad could it be? Well, Stroud still had 210 yards to the pin from the rough, but he then played one of the best 5-irons of his life. It somehow ended up 10 feet from the pin, and he made the birdie putt. “It was like, Here we go,” said Stroud. Insert your own beer commercial catchphrase here.

He played a terrible second shot at the par-5 second hole that flared well right into a bad lie. “I don’t know if even Phil Mickelson could have gotten this one up and down,” he said with a chuckle. “It was a one-out-of-200 shot. I hit a perfect shot out of this terrible lie, 30 yards from the pin. It landed in the collar, stuck, and rolled to a foot. It was a great break.”

Two under after two holes, Stroud sank a 15-footer for birdie at the third and an eight-footer for birdie at the fourth. “That seemed to settle me down,” he said.

Another big moment, “A humongous par save,” Stroud called it, came at the par-5 11th, where his second shot went over the green and was in bad shape. He tried a bump-and-run shot that flew too far and found the front bunker. Then he hit a so-so bunker shot to 15 feet, and holed that par putt. “That was a big swing for me,” he said.

It wasn’t until he reached the par-5 16th that Stroud glanced at the scoreboard to see where he stood. He was pleasantly surprised. “I thought if I could maybe finish birdie-par-par and get to 11 under, that might have been a good number,” he said, “because those last few holes are really hard.”

He laid up at 16 but wasn’t able to get his birdie putt to go down. At 17, he rushed his wedge shot as he tried to gauge the wind. It was changing directions “every 15 seconds or so,” Stroud said, from downwind to into his face and back again. So after Matt Jones hit to the green, Stroud sensed a lull and tried to get his shot off before the wind gusted again. He pulled it to the front left portion of the green, and his ball rolled off a slope up against the collar of rough, stopping dangerously close to the water. He tried to putt it, and the ball went airborne immediately. It rolled past the pin to the back right fringe. He still had almost 12 feet from there and he missed the par attempt, taking a bogey.

At 18, his approach shot came up short — 63 feet short, according to ShotLink, the tour’s laser measuring system. He left his first try well short and three-putted again for another bogey. It could’ve been better, but it was still a good week.

“It was a great round, I hung in there today,” said Stroud. “I’m really happy about the week and that I had a chance to maybe even win this thing. I did the best I could with what I had. I love this course.”

It’s official. Pencil him in for next year’s Players.