PAnews.com, Port Arthur, Texas

June 25, 2013

National coming-out party for Stroud

Tom Halliburton's column


The Port Arthur News

PORT ARTHUR — Chris Stroud needed Sunday. Opportunity opened its door and Chris walked right through the doorway.

Our Port Neches-Groves and Lamar University golf hero did not disappoint. He did not win The Travelers Championship’s playoff but he won more important benefits than the short-term financial gain or title might represent.

That is, Stroud won those benefits if he should move forward and build on his unique experiences from TPC River Highlands.                                                                              Stroud never led a PGA tournament during the final round before he walked off the eighth hole with the sole possession of a lead.

For a guy without a prior pro victory, Stroud snagged a one-shot advantage on the field shortly after 2:30 and never flinched for three hours.

Ken Duke knocked in a lengthy putt on that back nine and lofted a perfect approach shot on the second sudden-death playoff hole.

But it’s important to emphasize that Duke did those things. Stroud never choked. He never gave anything away. He made clutch putt and solid drive, hole after hole with the pressure-packed environment.

That should serve as a most valuable teacher for bigger, more significant future opportunities.... provided that Stroud exits those three hours with the realization that he handled his moment like a true champion.

Stroud actually may have held a national coming-out party Sunday that can far surpass Ken Duke’s financial gain and first tour title.

Chris chipped in from behind the 18th green when the ball had to go in the hole in order to force a playoff.

That moment endeared Stroud with the public in ways that Duke never captivated the viewers or the spectators.

Chris simply was Chris after that ball went in the hole at 18. He showed raw, real emotion and let it all hang out.

As CBS veteran announcer Verne Lundquist said, Stroud made thousands of fans by identifying with the gallery.

Can this happen more for Chris? More TV time? More huge paydays? More national exposure from Lundquist, Jim Nantz, and press conferences on The Golf Channel?

Yes it all can if Stroud builds on Sunday’s experience. There are bigger and tougher strides and challenges ahead.

There are major championships. There are final-round pairings with more familiar household names like Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Rory McIlroy.

But Stroud’s very own desire and work ethic and comfort level are the keys at this point. He’s had a taste of it and he may be hungry for much, much more of it.

What makes The Travelers’ experience so much different for Chris than his previous brushes with national exposure?

Easy. Those first eight holes on Sunday at TPC River Highlands proved that Stroud could deal with the opportunity and not back down.

The next 10 holes — from around 2:30 to 5:30 our time — proved he could hang. They testified that Stroud possessed the fortitude to keep it all together.

He kept it together, too. He kept it together much better than Bubba Watson, his playing partner and 2012 Masters champion.

Our intention was never to assemble a shot-by-shot replay of Sunday’s events but it was occurring to me around lunchtime on Sunday that something very special might be happening for Chris.

So here then are my notes, scribbled on a pad, as Sunday progressed. All times are CDT:

12:50 p.m. — The Watson-Stroud twosome tees off. An incredible gallery roar for Bubba welcomes his arrival to the first tee.

Chris looks tight and hits it way left after Bubba goes way right.                                        1:30 p.m. — My wife Donna and I both are furious because The Golf Channel stops showing the live golf and the pairing with Bubba Watson and Chris.

Donna watches a lot more TV golf than I do but Stroud’s involvement or a major tournament tends to get more of my attention.

Since the live golf is off until CBS picks it up at 2 p.m., Donna and I head to lunch at a Groves restaurant on Twin City Highway.

2:25 p.m. — Donna and I are noticing how strong the wind is blowing and that seems like a good thing for Chris to me, because he’s used to wind after growing up in the Golden Triangle.

2:38 p.m. — A television at the restaurant shows Stroud gets the undisputed lead with a par at the 211-yard eighth hole and Watson settles for a bogey.

2:47 p.m. — After Stroud makes a superb trouble shot to the ninth green, Watson chips in for a birdie to tie for the lead but we miss seeing it because we’re riding home and listening to Sirius XM radio’s tournament coverage.

2:55 p.m. — As we arrive at our home, two things upset me. First, our grass has grown super high in a matter of a few days. Second, everyone and his dog is at 10-under-par now — Stroud, Duke, J.J. Henry, Charley Hoffman and Graham DeLaet.  

3:03 p.m. — Watson drains a putt on the 10th hole but something more important gets my attention. Even though Stroud’s birdie putt at 10 stays left of the hole, it looks like Chris is handling the occasion very relaxed.

3:26 p.m. — Duke knocks in a snake at 13, placing Stroud two shots off the pace. Lamar University and Stroud’s “mind coach” Henry Bolton draw air-time from Lundquist.

3:38 p.m. — Watson makes a short birdie putt while Stroud leaves his putt out to the right. Now it makes journalistic sense to show Chris less.

4:03 p.m. — Stroud has a long bunker shot at 15 and wow, what a shot he hits. The ball stays just barely up on the slope and Chris knocks in a birdie putt.

Stroud’s putt barely sneaks in the side door. Chris gives a fistpump. I kick my leg up off the recliner in excitement when Stroud’s ball drops in the hole. My 70-pound black labrador (Sassy) barks loud because of my leg kick and I haven’t the slightest idea why she’s barking.

4:11 p.m. — Everything suddenly changes as Watson’s 9-iron at 16 goes into the water and rips into his caddie Ted Scott for having him use the wrong club.

“Why should he blame his caddy,” Donna asks. “It was Bubba who hit the ball.”

4:25 p.m. — Duke walks off the 17th green with the tournament in his back pocket... It’s his to lose as he heads to the 18th tee. DeLaet gets a bogey at 16, moving Stroud into second place by himself.

4:36 p.m. — I can’t begin to convey how proud of Chris that I am for making a tough par-saving putt at 17.... But things look bleak because Lundquist is talking how Duke would become the oldest first-time tour winner since Ed Dougherty in 1995.

4:44 p.m. — It looks as if Stroud is waiting for the wind to stop blowing before he hits a 92-yard sand wedge shot to the 18th green. This approach has to get close for him to have any realistic shot at making a birdie and catching Duke. When the ball rolls off the back of the green, Donna and I head to our car to leave the house.

4:45 p.m. — We turn on the Sirius XM car radio two blocks from home only to hear that Stroud chips in from 51 feet to force a playoff.

“Oh my God, turn around Donna, let’s go back home,” I said.

5:04 p.m. — Thank God my TV is recording the golf, so that Donna and I can see that incredible chip-in. And then Chris carries his little daughter up the hill — what a tremendous moment.

Moments later, Duke’s tee shot goes into and somehow comes out of the fairway bunker on 18 during the first playoff hole.

5:15 p.m. — It was worth coming back home by itself to see Stroud hit a terrific sand shot and follow it up with a clutch putt to extend the playoff to a second hole.

It makes us proud to hear Lundquist and Ian Baker-Finch remark about what a clutch putt that Chris hit.

It’s obvious to me that CBS announcers are geniunely impressed with Stroud’s consistency and his ability to handle the pressure of the moment.

5:22 p.m. — Walking up the 18th fairway for the last time, Stroud is awesome with his rapport to the TPC River Highlands gallery, while Duke is maintaining the classic stoic, typical pro golfer’s demeanor.

5:28 p.m. — It’s over and Duke wins fair and square with Stroud conducting himself like a perfect sportsman and gentleman.

The only thing Chris can do in a situation like that is tip his cap to the other guy because he never lost the tournament. He made Duke win it and he did.

If Stroud handles himself the same way in future pressure situations, his day will come.

Tom Halliburton is The News sports columnist