PORT ARTHUR —
If you were going to make a bet on what comes first — Chris Stroud playing well enough to finish top 10 in the Shell Houston Open, or that elusive first PGA Tour victory — history would indicate the latter might be a better proposition.
Stroud, you see, for a variety of reasons, has never managed to get himself in contention at the SHO. Matter of fact, he’s only made it to Sunday’s final round twice in eight tries. In 21 rounds, he was able to post a sub 70 just two times, with a low of 68. His best-ever finish was T31 in 2009.
Contrast that, meanwhile, to a pair of third place ties already this season, as well as tying for first in last year’s Traveler’s Championship, before losing in a playoff to Ken Duke.
All signs, however, point to the former Lamar University All-America giving the home folks something to cheer about starting Thursday. Stroud, who traditionally hasn’t scored consistently well early in the year, is off to the best start of his career. He’s never come into his hometown event playing better or feeling more confident.
“I’m hitting the ball great,” said Chris, who skipped last week’s PGA Tour stop in San Antonio. “I’ve been hitting more fairways, which has led to more birdies. My chipping and scrambling have been fantastic. My putting has been a little inconsistent, and I’ll be spending a lot of time on the putting green this week. About the only thing I could pinpoint as being a bit weak has been my bunker play.”
The numbers certainly support what he says. Dating back to the start of the new wraparound season last October, Stroud’s made 7 of 10 cuts, while carving out six top 25s, three top 10s and the aforementioned pair of third place ties. He’s No. 30 on the money list at $1,063,0007, he’s 34th in Fed Ex points, 15th in scoring average (69.89) and has been in the 60s in 19 of 35 rounds.
So what has kept him from being more of a factor in Houston? Is it one of those “horses for courses” deals, with the Golf Club of Houston (formerly Redstone Golf Club) being outside his comfort zone? Is it added pressure he puts on himself to play well in front of family and friends? Is it the time of year when the SHO rolls around?
“Maybe a little bit of all that,” he said. “No question, the first few times I played in Houston, I put more pressure on myself. There are different things that come into the equation when you are playing at home. It can be comfortable, yet there are distractions. Now that I’m so well ingrained in my playing process, that part is not a factor.”
He will admit the golf course does not play to his strength off the tee, but added a qualifier tied in to his belief in himself.
“This is very much a draw-biased course and is on the low end as far as courses that fit my eye off the tee. I don’t like to move the ball right to left and have worked hard with Whitey ( Lamar golf coach Brian White) to take that out. My issue for this week is whether to stick with the driver I’ve been hitting great, switch to another driver that will make it easier to draw the ball, or back off to a 3-wood on holes I’m uncomfortable.
“That kind of stuff is part of a game plan you go through every week. You do things to specifically tune your game to certain courses. More and more, I’m playing courses that suit what I do best. Being an optimist, though, I feel like I’m capable of playing great on this golf course. I’m going in expecting to have a good week.”
Stroud also conceded that Houston’s early spring date has not served him well.
“I think if you check my record for the first three months of the year, I haven’t played as well as I do later in the year,” he said. “Of course, everything changed with this new schedule. The season started in the fall when I was playing well. It enabled me to be selective about my winter tournaments. I play, practice, rest and go into tournaments better prepared.”
Winning, to be sure, has always been a higher priority than playing well in the SHO, and Chris, 32, believes more than he ever has that victory No. 1 could come any week. For reinforcement, he needs look no further than four first-time winners this year, including three in his over-30 age group.
One of those three, Baylor ex Jimmy Walker, 34, won for the first time, then added two more titles and is the game’s hottest player. The past two tournaments have seen 30-year-old Matt Every win at the Arnold Palmer Invitational in Orlando, which is near where he grew up in Daytona Beach, and Steven Bowditch, 30, triumph in San Antonio.
They continued a season-long trend that shows how deep the talent on the PGA Tour is, and that a player’s world ranking doesn’t mean he can’t win. Thus far in the 2013-14 schedule, the breakdown has shown only one winner among players ranked 1-through-10 in the OWGR, 4 winners from 11-through-30, 10 from 31 through 100 and 5 from 100 through 400. Stroud is No. 81.
“It’s a new era in golf,” Stroud said. “Everybody has a support team behind them and gets better every year. There are just so many good players, I don’t think you’ll ever see anybody winning six, eight, 10 tournaments a year like Tiger and Vijay Singh once did. You will continue to see new faces, guys you’ve never heard of come out and break through.
“I know my time is coming. I’m not putting pressure on myself thinking about winning. I’m trying to focus on what’s right in front of me. I’m a better, more prepared player than I’ve ever been. I just have to keep giving myself opportunities. I’ve won on every level I’ve played. I have no doubt I’m good enough to win on this level.”
So get those bets down with your buddies. Does a top 10 in Houston or a win come first? And wouldn’t it be amazing if both happened in the same week?
Sports editor Bob West can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org
PORT ARTHUR —
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