Commentary

Scott Stallings earns hard-fought win

Updated: January 26, 2014, 9:48 PM ET
By Bob Harig | ESPN.com

SAN DIEGO -- Gone but not forgotten, Tiger Woods' implosion was still a part of the conversation Sunday, even if the world's No. 1 golfer was well on his way to the Middle East in search of his game.

Woods' 79 on Saturday and early exit from the Farmers Insurance Open meant the attention in the final round shifted to a slew of players who found themselves in the mix at Torrey Pines, a rare victory in their sights.

And it should provide more perspective for what he has accomplished, and just how hard it is to do.

Scott Stallings emerged victorious, shooting a 4-under-par 68, posting a score of 9-under par as he watched the other contenders fall short. It was his third victory in four years, and he did it despite hitting just four fairways but by making a clutch birdie at the 18th hole.

It sure wasn't easy. Stallings lamented the swing issues he has been dealing with, the quest to get better, the changes to his game he decided to make last fall.

And he credited with Woods with getting him started down this road to professional golf.

When Woods won the 1997 Masters by 12 shots, Stallings, now 28, was a 12-year-old multi-sport athlete getting ready to join his traveling baseball team in Tennessee. Woods' victory changed everything.

"Just pure domination," Stallings said. "He was going to beat them so bad they were going to end up having to like it. Obviously, Tiger's done it a ton of times now, but at that point, no one's really kind of come on and just smoked them, and I was like, 'Man, that is awesome; he's driving it a hundred yards past these guys he's playing with.'

"I'm like, man, I want to do that.'"

Stallings decided then and there -- as Woods was winning his first major at age 21 -- that he wanted to be a pro golfer.

"I quit everything, every sport I was playing, and said that's what I want to go do and every one of my friends thought I was crazy," Stallings said.

Seven birdies in the final round is the kind of stuff that would make Woods proud. Stallings, despite struggling with the driver, pulled it out of the bag at the par-5 18th, knowing he needed a birdie. He pumped his drive, knocked a 4-iron on the front of the green, then two-putted for the birdie that nosed him out front.

And there was no thought of laying up on a hole where water fronts the green.

"You don't get very many opportunities to win golf tournaments and I've been fortunate to come out ahead three times," Stallings said. "As a player, all you ever want is chances. I didn't necessarily understand the situation I was in as far as the score and so on and so forth, but I did know I had an opportunity.

"I think any player out here would tell you they would do the same thing in the same situation, and knowing that you have an opportunity to win a golf tournament, you have to hit a 4 iron on the green and two putt to win, every person on the PGA [Tour] would tell you the same thing."

Stallings' birdie knocked out K.J. Choi (-8), who is an eight-time winner looking for his first victory since the 2011 Players Championship. Graham DeLaet, looking for his first win and also at 8 under, was now out of contention. Jason Day and Pat Perez came up a shot short, too.

Also making a run was Japanese star Ryo Ishikawa, Aussie Marc Leishman and former Masters champion Trevor Immelman -- who has no tour victories since his 2008 Masters triumph.

Long-hitting Gary Woodland was in contention most of the day, getting up and down from all over San Diego to hold a share of the lead as late as the 16th hole. But then he hit his tee shot into a hazard on No. 17, made a double-bogey and ended up dropping into a tie for 10th.

Jordan Spieth, the 20-year-old phenom who is the reigning PGA Tour Rookie of the Year, was unable to capture his second title. He played beautifully on Friday, shooting 63 playing alongside Woods to take the 36-hole lead. A 75-75 weekend dropped him to a tie for 19th.

None of the players in the mix Sunday was a prolific winner, and each one showed how difficult it is to emerge on top. Only two players -- Immelman and Keegan Bradley -- who have won a major finished among the top 20 on Sunday.

And this, basically, is what the PGA Tour looks like without its stars. For the first time since 1992, the final round at Torrey Pines didn't have either Phil Mickelson or Woods -- players who have combined to win 121 times on the PGA Tour.

Mickelson made the cut but withdrew due to a bad back and his status for this week's Waste Management Phoenix Open is uncertain. Woods missed the secondary cut made after 54 holes because he had slumped to the bottom of the leaderboard due to his 79.

Their struggles seem tame compared to the kind of ups and downs experienced by a player such as Stallings, who coming into this week had played five events in the 2013-14 season and made just two cuts, with his best finish a tie for 47th.

Imagine if Woods did that?

But Stallings had been working through a swing change -- Woods has been down that road a few times -- after realizing what he was doing would not work for the long haul. He expected growing pains.

"We've still got some work to do, but it was nice to see it coming down the stretch this week," Stallings said.

The victory gets Stallings in the Masters -- he is the first winner in 2014 who had not already been invited -- and gives him a nice boost in the FedEx cup standings as well as $1,098,000.

Bob Harig | email

Golf Writer, ESPN.com

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