Monday, August 01, 2011

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Stallings is a humble winner in an unpretentious tournament

WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. -- He was excited, sure. That was part of it.

But the real motivation for Scott Stallings to run from the 18th green back to the 18th tee, the real reason he was in such a hurry to get into that three-man playoff at The Greenbrier Classic on Sunday, was something much simpler than that.

He wanted to be polite.

"I kind of felt bad that those guys had been waiting on me forever," he said.

Thoughtful young man, Stallings. And now a worthy, humbled, first-time winner on the PGA Tour.

After getting into that playoff with an icy-veined birdie putt on No. 18, then winning that playoff with a another birdie from almost the same spot, Stallings was in no hurry to brag. He must have mentioned his caddie, Josh Graham, five times in a 12-minute post-tournament interview. He talked about how Graham kept him thinking positively after an "abysmal" front nine. How Graham had been shouting louder than anybody for that first shot on 18 to snuggle up close to the hole.

He talked about how instrumental tour veteran and practice partner Kenny Perry has been in his development. How Perry had used sponsor connections to get him into the Transitions Championship back in March, how his third-place finish there had jump-started his rookie season on tour, how he'd never forget Perry's kindness and faith in a young player.

There's more. Stallings showed us his left ring finger, where he's tattooed his wife's initials. He has a normal wedding ring, you see, but it's too big for him to wear on the course. So about three years ago, on their first anniversary, he got the ink so he could keep a piece of her with him.

All his talking points were so sweet, so selfless. There's almost a charming naivete to the 26-year-old rookie. He even made a point to thank CBS Sports announcer David Feherty for giving him a few chin-up words when Stallings made the turn at 4-over and looked nothing like a contender.

"It felt incredible to have a guy like that pump you up when you're out on the course," Stallings said.

Feherty's great, no doubt. But come on. Who thanks an announcer after they've just gotten their first win?

This guy does. A guy who spent the past two nights not tossing and turning in bed, fretting about being in contention, but having a blast with his wife near the stage at the Black Eyed Peas and Keith Urban concerts.

Stallings is an unpretentious winner in an unpretentious tournament. It's an event that tied Phil Mickelson in knots and sent him home after two days, an event that saw Stuart Appleby shoot a final-round 59 to win last year -- and then miss the cut in his encore.

Stallings won it with a fabulous back nine -- six birdies, one bogey -- and a scorching 9-iron that he used both to get into the playoff and to settle it.

If Stallings is anything like Bob Estes, one of the other playoff participants, he'll remember those 9-iron shots as long as he lives. Estes, 45, got his first tour victory way back in 1994, and he can still tell you the club he used (5-iron) to knock it close and clinch the Texas Open.

"Special moment when you get that first win," Estes said. "Everybody'll tell you that. It's got to be so tough for so many guys that play out here for so long, they work so hard at it, and just can't get that one victory for whatever reason. I kind of feel for those guys -- at least the ones that work really hard at it."

Stallings has worked really hard at it. A two-time Ohio Valley Conference Player of the Year at Tennessee Tech, he battled his way through the Tarheel Tour, the Hooters Tour, the Nationwide Tour. In 2009, he missed earning a PGA Tour card at Q-school by a single stroke.

And now he's staring at a $1.08 million paycheck and exemptions galore.

"All the money and everything takes care of itself," Stallings said. "I mean, the money's great and it's a huge bonus, but I've wanted to do this since I was a little kid. I was that little boy running around chasing autographs and yelling at guys if they wouldn't stop and sign my golf balls."

Now they'll be chasing him, a PGA Tour winner.

He's far too polite to tell them no.

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