Scott Stallings returns to his roots
In the tiny town of Bolivar in west Tennessee, Scott Stallings got his start as a golfer on a small nine-hole course where his paternal grandmother was the office manager. His dad, Tim Stallings, would drop him off with his mother and let his son hit balls all day with a little sawn off 9-iron that he had made for him.
"He was a natural," remembers Tim, a 53-year-old Christian counselor.
At the Stallings residence one hot summer afternoon, little Scott announced to his grandfather that he had something to show him. Standing in the front of the story and a half house, Scott put down a ball and aimed his 9-iron at the front of the home.
"You're going to bust out a window," said his grandfather, Rob.
"I'm going to hit it over the house," Scott replied back.
Then the precocious boy hit his ball off the ground, over the house, and into the backyard pool. He ran around the house and dove into the water to retrieve the ball from the bottom.
For the Stallings clan, this amazing feat for a toddler was the first evidence that a golf star was in the making. That promise came fully realized at the Greenbrier Classic in late July, when the now 25-year-old made six birdies on the inward nine to get into a playoff, where he won on the first extra hole.
The PGA Tour rookie birdied the par-3 18th twice -- once to get in the playoff and the other to win it. He did it with the same shot off the tee -- a 169-yard 9-iron that stopped 7-feet from the hole.
The Greenbrier win ensured his place this week in the field at Deutsche Bank Championship in Norton, Mass, which is less than 40 miles from his birthplace of Worcester.
"Deutsche Bank was one of the tournaments that I circled as a goal to play in at the beginning of the year," said Stallings, who is ranked 38th in the FedEx Cup playoff standings. "It's going to be very exciting to play in front of so many friends and family."
Stallings earned his PGA Tour card through Q-School in 2010 where he finished in a tie for 11th, but missed his first five cuts on the big tour after playing a year on Nationwide circuit. The likelihood of him keeping his card at the end of 2011 was looking slim until Kenny Perry helped him get a sponsor's exemption in March to the Transitions Championship in Tampa, Fla.
A third-place finish paid Stallings $374,000, which got him into most fields for the remainder of the year.
"I was just looking forward to keeping my card," Stallings said. "I was just trying to make cuts at the beginning and learn as much as I could. It's such a huge learning process if you're not ready for it and I certainly wasn't ready for it."
Two encounters helped him jumpstart that week in Tampa. The first was with Jim Curran, his tour rep at Titleist, who took him aside early in the week and told him that he had the full support of his sponsor through this trying time.
"Jim just told me you're not in this alone," Stallings said. "He took me around and introduced me to all the different people at Titleist who could help me. Before then I had been pretty gun-shy about asking for things."
The other moment was with Perry during a practice round Tuesday of tournament week. The two southerners, who share an agent, were walking up the par-5 opening hole at the Copperhead course at the Innisbrook Resort, when Perry slapped Stallings on the back.
"I'm done with the excuses," Perry told Stallings. "You've played enough golf tournaments out here. Show me how good you are. I know that you can play out here. Show me that you know you can play out here."
Stallings shot 5-under 66 in the first round and never looked back. Prior to that, he had made only one PGA Tour cut: a tie for 42nd at the Puerto Rico Open, which was played opposite the WGC event at Doral.
Stallings' success this year is made all the more special because he doesn't have the great pedigree of some of the other 20-something players who attended Oklahoma State or Clemson. After his family moved from Bolivar to Oak Ridge, Tenn. when he was 5, he began to develop a passion for the game. But it wasn't until after he notched a hole-in-one on the eve of his 13th birthday that he decided he wanted to become a professional golfer.
"His entire life, I have never told him to go practice," Tim Stallings said. "He just loves the game and he plays every day."
Out of high school he was overlooked by Tennessee, his first choice, and instead went to Tennessee Tech, where he was an All-American at the Cookeville school. Stallings was the first player from the Ohio Valley Conference to make it to the NCAA Championship as an individual.
After that, he played a year and a half on the Hooters Tour before landing on the Nationwide Tour in 2010.
"If you had told me out of high school that going to Tennessee Tech was the best thing for me," said Stallings, "I would have said that you were crazy. But I had a great time there."
Through the years, Brad Rose has been the one constant outside of his family and friends. Rose, who teaches at Willow Creek Golf Club in Knoxville, started working with Stallings when he was a freshman at Tennessee Tech.
"When I first met him, his bad shot was a hook and he drew everything," Rose said. "I told him then that if you want to play pro golf, you're not going to be able to do it playing a 15-yard draw with a pitching wedge."
While Stallings has learned to work the ball, his short game was still unrefined by tour standards. Over the winter, Rose went with Stallings to do some intense practice on that part of his game. For five straight days all they did was chip, fish and putt.
"His short game is where it needs to be now," Rose said. "To be honest, he probably hasn't played his best this year. He struggled some with his driving. But he's been able to make cuts even when he wasn't playing good.
"The main thing is that he was overwhelmed with being out there and that there are so many golf courses to play. Every week he's seeing all the courses for the first time."
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To fully understand how Stallings got to this point, you have to know something about his faith. Philippians 4:13 is stamped on his golf balls and his irons. The passage -- I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me -- is St. Paul's instructions for Christian maturity. Stallings takes them very seriously.
"I'm a huge fan of Philippians," said Stalling, who is active in the Wednesday Bible study on the PGA Tour and at his church in Knoxville where he lives with his wife, Jennifer. "The Bible can reach you in a lot of different ways. It's a huge testament of how you're not alone in whatever you do."
After he missed his fifth straight cut to start the year, tour chaplain Larry Moody sent him Philippians 3:13-14.
On Sunday afternoon at the Greenbrier Classic, when it looked like Stallings had played his way out of the tournament with a 4-over 38 on the outward nine, he used parts of that passage to stay focused -- Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead.
"I had read that passage so many times, but being human, you start feeling sorry for yourself," Stallings said. "Once I gave it over to God, it was amazing how things started to turn around."
After missing the cut last week at the Barclays, he might lean on that passage as he tries to keep pace in the playoffs. In 38th place, he is a lock to get into the BMW Championship in Chicago. But he's not looking past this week.
On Tuesday, two of his uncles from the Boston area took turns caddying for him at the Red Sox Legends & Friends Pro-am at TPC Boston. Stallings, a rabid Red Sox fan, planned to attend the Red Sox-Yankees games at Fenway Park on Tuesday and Wednesday night. On the bottom of his golf bag he has the Red Sox logo.
"When Scott was a little kid, he was a Braves fan because that was the closest team to us and David Justice was his favorite player," Tim Stallings said. "Then as he got a little older, he got connected to the Red Sox.
"He went to Fenway Park and just got hooked. The last 15 years he has gotten on the bandwagon and reclaimed some of his heritage in New England."
Although Stallings was born in Worcester, Mass., he was raised for most of his life in Oak Ridge, Tenn., near Knoxville, where he grew up playing Oak Ridge Country Club. In the summers, his parents sent him and his sister to Hampton, N.H., to stay with their maternal grandparents. Stallings played in many junior tournaments in the area. Now he has a chance to compete on the biggest stage before family and friends.
This second leg of the FedEx Cup playoffs on the outskirts of Beantown should be a spectacular showcase of birdies with a superstar leaderboard. In the eight previous years of the tournament, 14-under has been the highest winning total, with 22-under the lowest. Rain is in the forecast for Sunday and also for Monday's final round, but the weather should be good overall.
Regardless of the pressure of having all the familiar faces in the gallery and the lack of experience on the golf course, Stallings will have an easier time than some of the players vying to secure a place in the top 70 for the BMW Championship.
"It's going to be a fun week," Stallings said. "I just have to play like I know I can and enjoy the moment."
Farrell Evans covers golf for ESPN and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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