BOB WEST: Stroud sitting on Cloud 9 with Sunday’s victory

Published 3:38 pm Monday, August 7, 2017

Chris Stroud was somewhere between Reno and Sacramento when he called Monday morning to share his thoughts and thanks for that long awaited first PGA Tour victory in the Barracuda Championship. It was a conversation I wish everyone reading this could have heard.

Still running on adrenaline despite a taxing 16-hour Sunday, and 2 hours sleep, Chris and his caddie, Casey Clendenon, were headed to a flight that would take them from Sacramento; to Atlanta; to Charlotte, North Carolina, the sight of this week’s PGA Championship.

He probably could have just flown Cloud 9 all the way.

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“It was one of the greatest days of my life,” he said. “It ranks up there with my marriage and the birth of my girls. I had been dreaming about this for so long, but I had literally, in my mind, come to terms that it probably wasn’t going to happen.

“I was OK with that, because I knew nobody could work any harder at this than I have. I am a man of faith and I had accepted that God was in charge and would take care of me no matter what. And He did.”
Right behind God, Stroud felt that fingerprints of Sergio Garcia, Clendenon, fellow pro Von Taylor and, most of all, TEAM Stroud, were all over his first win in 290 PGA Tour starts. His biggest regret was that his
No. 1 fan, his paternal grandfather, was not still here to see it.

You can bet, however, that Grandpa Stroud was looking down with a sense of enormous pride.

Sergio Garcia? Von Taylor? The others are obvious, but Garcia and Taylor?

We will work them in as this unfolds, but there is an amazing performance that begs to be discussed.

Stroud started his memorable Sunday by arising at 5:30 a.m. in Reno for what would be a tee time pushed up to 8:30 by an ominous weather forecast. He completed his round with an amazing eagle at 1:30 p.m.
It would be two lightning delays and three hours later before his playoff with Greg Owen and Richy Werenski began.

The winning birdie putt fell into the cup around 7 p.m. And it will be semi life-changing for Stroud, what with two years worth of PGA Tour exemptions and tickets into nearly every big event but the Masters. There will be other bonuses attached, not the least of which is choosing when and where to play.

Yes, this was just the Barracuda Championship, not a top-of-the line tour stop, but Stroud beat a field of legitimate pros and did it in dramatic, remarkable fashion. How many guys eagle the final hole to get into a playoff, then, after having to wait around for three hours, birdie that same hole twice to win in sudden death?

“I couldn’t have written a better script for my first win,” he agreed. “When the final round started, I wasn’t really think about winning. The most points that had been made in a round all week were 17. I told Casey if we can get to 17, I would finish high enough to be in pretty good shape in FedEx points.”

Stroud, thanks to nine birdies and the clutch closing eagle, would make 20 points. As critical as the eagle was, the key result of the day was a bogey on the par-3, seventh after he’d chunked his tee shot into water. At that point, he was staring at a double bogey and a momentum-killing loss of three points.

“Here is a perfect example that it was my time,” Stroud said. “I had been trying to work in a new lob wedge and finally put it in my bag on Saturday. The old one was worn. After I hit the ball in the water, I was facing a really difficult shot over water. It was 78 yards downwind, with maybe 15-to-20 feet
of green.

“I hit it to tap-in distance. A double bogey then would have been a killer. Things like saving that bogey have to happen for you to win. You also have to make putts and I really putted well. I had changed putters again before this tournament and made so many putts.

“Guys who win, guys who are No. 1, make putts. I rolled in a lot of putts.”

Now about Sergio Garcia: Chris and Sergio are friends. Chris saw him for the first time after his Masters victory at the Byron Nelson classic, hugged him and congratulated him on the triumph that got the gigantic monkey of never having won a major off his back.

“Sergio knew my situation about never winning, knew I was kind of building a bitterness toward golf from being so frustrated. He said to me, ‘Chris, let it go and it will come to you. That’s what I did. I don’t think he has any idea how important his words were for me.”

And Von Taylor: He spotted Stroud on the driving range warming up a third different time for a playoff. He told him about being involved in a recent playoff, how everything was rushed leading to the start of the playoff and how it hurt him. He said to purposely slow everything down. Be the last one to get to the tee.

“That is exactly what I did,” Stroud said. “I waited and took the last cart to the 18th tee. I asked the cart driver to go slow. When we got there I drew the number to hit first. I took extra time talking to Casey. Then I crushed my drive and never looked back.”

Clendenon, a Lamar standout a couple of years after Stroud was a dominant force there, and his caddie for the past six months, proved an invaluable asset throughout. Stroud, ironically, credits him as being sort of a distraction.

“He is so important in helping me stay laid back, in not thinking about golf or bad bounces or anything else until it is time to refocus for a shot,” Stroud said. “He keeps me distracted from myself and my own thoughts. He keeps me from getting ahead of myself. It has been a great partnership.”

Stroud started his day with three consecutive birdies. He reeled off another string of three from 13 through 15. He nearly holed a bunker shot for birdie on 16, then he had a short birdie putt on 17 horseshoe on him.

Undaunted, he hit a 5-wood from 278 yards to 5-feet for eagle on 18.

“It was just all so incredible,” he said. “I am so happy for my wife, for my parents, for everybody associated with Team Stroud. This is such a turning point. One of my first congratulatory texts was from Jimmy Walker. He told me I knew you were going to do it and welcome to Maui.”

Maui, of course, is the site of the exclusive PGA Tournament of Champions in January where only winners from the previous year get to play.

Fellow Texan Walker, meanwhile, has had a somewhat similar career track to Stroud. He is 37 and didn’t win for the first time until age 34 in 2013. Then he quickly won three more times and now has six wins overall, including the 2016 PGA Championship. Once he broke through he went to the next level.

“I would like to think his story is going to be my story,” Stroud said. “I can now see the light at the end of the tunnel. This will not be the last time I win.”

Bob West is The Port Arthur News golf writer.