PORT ARTHUR —
Once again the Shell Houston Open proved to be a positive vehicle for Lamar University golf coach Brian White and the Cardinal program.
A year after White was hailed across the golf world for a pre-tournament putting lesson that helped D.A. Points walk off with the championship trophy, former Cardinals Shawn Stefani and Chris Stroud finished 5th and T12 respectively. It was the best ever PGA Tour finish for Stefani and the steady Stroud’s 7th top 20 this season.
Stefani, in fact, was the SHO’s best story this side of Aussie Matt Jones’ miracle finish to overtake Matt Kuchar, win the tournament and earn a trip to the Masters. The Barbers Hill ex, playing on his second and final medical exemption, needed to finish at least 35th to claim enough Fed Ex points to regain full PGA Tour playing status for 2014.
The medical exemptions were to compensate for Stefani having to leave the tour late in the 2013 season to have surgery for a pinched nerve in his neck. He chose to use the exemptions at Torrey Pines in San Diego, where he missed the cut, and at the Golf Club of Houston, which is just down the road from where he grew up in Baytown.
It was an all or nothing deal in the SHO. To stay on the PGA Tour for the rest of 2014, the minimum he could accomplish was the aforementioned 36 Fed Ex points. The alternate criteria was winning $84,084, but that would require a T18.
Ultimately, it didn’t matter. Stefani not only far surpassed both requirements, making $256,000 and accumulating 110 Fed Ex points, he was on the edge of contention most of the week with rounds of 67-69-73-69. In the process, he got considerable TV time, especially when he was rolling in long putts, and Lamar received frequent mentions.
It was truly a feel-good story to watch for those of us familiar with Stefani. As a youngster at Barbers Hill, his booming drives and soft touch around the greens fairly screamed he would be the next big thing to come out of this part of Texas. I watched him play many times in high school and junior events, paired with Stroud and my youngest son, Grayson, and always walked away impressed.
From a sheer talent standpoint, Shawn looked like he would be a better player than Chris. That thought was reinforced when Stefani won his first collegiate tournament at Lamar. After that, however, for whatever reasons, he took a step back. Stroud won often, became an All-America for LU and has had considerably more success at golf’s highest level.
Stefani turned pro in 2005 but didn’t make it to the PGA Tour until 2013, after winning twice and finishing sixth on the Web.com Tour money list in 2012. He showed flashes of the brilliance in his rookie season, leading at Tampa and in the Fed Ex St. Jude Classic in Memphis after 54 holes. He wound up 7th in both events.
It was an up-and-down year, however, as he missed 11 of 20 cuts before taking the medical leave.
Stefani’s most memorable tour moment of 2013 came in the U.S. Open at Merion, when he authored a hole-in-one on the 213-yard, 17th. It’s the only ace recorded in five U.S. Opens played at historic Merion. Google Shawn Stefani hole in one and you can watch it on YouTube.
White, meanwhile, was elated at seeing his former player do so well in Houston, and is hopeful it can be a turning point in his career.
“What he did was really impressive,” said White. “Am I surprised. Maybe a little, because of what he’s been through, and the pressure on him to make the cut and finish at least 35th. But I’ve always believed Shawn was capable to doing great things. He was the most physically talented player we ever had at Lamar. He’s one of those guys when they play good, they can make you shake your head.
“He’s had some technical issues with his swing, but he’s doing a good job of making it work. What I really liked was how he rebounded on Saturday, after that stretch from 5 through 7 when he went double bogey, double bogey, bogey. At that point some guys would have unraveled. He knocked in a 65-foot eagle putt on the next hole, made another eagle at 13 and added a birdie at 18. That was special stuff.”
So now Stefani has a second PGA Tour life. From out of nowhere, he jumped all the way to 141 on the money list and No. 161 in Fed Ex points. With the confidence built up from a truly remarkable performance in Houston, there’s no reason to think we won’t see him in contention again.
“Today I woke up and realized last week wasn't a dream!”, Stefani posted on his Twitter account Monday. “It's such a great feeling that I played well when I had to. Can't wait for this year!
Neither can Brian White. Between Stefani and Stroud, 2014 is shaping up as a convincing recruiting poster for the Lamar golf program.
Sports editor Bob West can be e-mailed at email@example.com