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Could veteran Chris Stroud go 2-for-291 at the PGA?

CHARLOTTE — Chris Stroud has a makeshift, 6-foot vision board in a spare garage that doubles as his gym back home in Houston. Pasted on it are magazine articles, a caricature of him, his wife and two daughters, and a bunch of pictures of a few things he wants in life, like jets and yachts and fancy cars.

Believe it or not, there’s even a picture of him holding aloft the PGA Championship’s shiny Wanamaker Trophy. He took a frame of Davis Love III holding up the trophy from the 1997 PGA Championship, did a little fancy work with scissors, and pasted his head atop Love’s body.

Be careful what you wish for, some say. Sunday at Quail Hollow, Stroud, 35 and only six days removed from his first PGA Tour victory (Barracuda Championship), will have a chance to replace that picture with a real one. Despite a bogey-bogey finish on Saturday, he played steadily on a tough day, shot even-par 71, and at 6-under 207, trails leader Kevin Kisner by only a shot. They’ll tee off in Sunday’s final group.

Suffice to say, Stroud’s life has changed dramatically in a week. Having lost his PGA Tour card a year ago, he was in a similar dire predicament a week ago in Reno, Nev., facing potentially the two final starts to his season pretty much aiming to make sure he didn’t fall outside the top 150 in FedEx Cup points. That’s the category (126-150) from which Stroud had to play this season, possessing limited access and starts.

But instead of just holding on in Reno, he took the dice, shook them, and let go. He rid himself of all pressures and expectations. Last Sunday morning, his caddie, Casey Clendenon, told Stroud to let the trophy come to him, the same advice that his pal Sergio Garcia told him at this spring’s AT&T Byron Nelson. So Stroud tried something different. He stepped out of his own way, and his reward was his first PGA Tour title in 290 starts.

And now that he’s in Charlotte, two for 291 sounds even better.

Despite playing in the second-to-last group on Saturday of a major championship, and playing in front of one of the biggest crowds he’s ever seen, Stroud didn’t glance at too many leaderboards at Quail Hollow. Clendenon gives Stroud about five seconds to talk about a shot, and then they’re on to discussing any variety of subjects, none of which pertain to golf.

Stroud’s motto for Sunday: Don’t change a thing. Just as Crash Davis, played by Kevin Costner, states in one of Stroud’s favorite movies, “Bull Durham,” “Don’t mess up the streak.”

“I have the same everything I have last week,” said Stroud, who was the last man to get into the PGA’s original field. “I have the same swing thoughts as last week, I have the same everything. I have the same routine warming up. I’m not going to change anything.”

Stroud was highly recruited out of high school in Texas, but bypassed such schools as Texas, Texas A&M and Baylor to go 30 minutes down the road, to Lamar, mostly to play for then-coach Brad McMakin. (McMakin now coaches at Arkansas; he and Stroud remain close, and they text about every day.)

Stroud’s nickname from his teammates at college? Mr. Positivity. No matter what was happening, he found a way to see things in a positive light. A glass always full kind of guy. On Tour, there exists a seemingly mythical tale about Stroud one year playing at the SMU tournament at Stonebridge Country Club in McKinney, Texas. As the story goes, Stroud, a sophomore at the time, lost seven or eight balls in a practice round, shooting in the 80s.

“Seven or eight balls?” McMakin said by phone late Saturday. He hardly could contain his laughter. “No, Chris lost not only all his golf balls that day, but lost all the balls belonging to everybody on our team.

“That next day, I walk to the first tee carrying about six dozen balls to give the players. Chris stood up and says to me, ‘Coach, this course sets up perfect for me.’ I didn’t know if he was joking or not. But he won that tournament.”

He did. Stroud played one of the rounds of his life on the final day, shot 65, caught Colt Knost, one of the top amateurs in the nation, and won.

Mr. Positivity.

Stroud was challenged a year ago, though, when, after 10 seasons on Tour, he basically lost his job in the Tour’s regular-season finale in Greensboro. He went to the Web.com Finals trying to regain a card for 2016-17, but his attitude wasn’t good. He was feeling bitter, and questioning if he still could play.

“I was devastated,” Stroud said. “I went into a small depression. I didn’t really tell anybody that, but I was so depressed, so down on myself. And I was thinking, how did this happen? Am I not good anymore? You start doubting everything …”

A two-hour pep talk last autumn with one of his mentors, Houston instructor Kevin Kirk, got Stroud back on the right path.

“I told Kevin I felt like this big ship out in the middle of the ocean, headed nowhere,” Stroud said. “And in two hours, he had me pointed to where I needed to go. I give him a lot of credit for getting me started.”

Stroud also began working with Jordan Dempsey at TPC Sawgrass last year. Stroud always has been a quality ballstriker, so he and Dempsey decided to study Stroud’s putting stroke on video. Stroud’s longtime Achilles’ heel, says McMakin, has been the shortstick. Or, in his case, often the not-so-shortstick.

Stroud had used a belly putter for two years before anchoring was disallowed by the USGA and R&A in 2016, and since, he has experimented with a wide variety of putting styles and putters. He said he used 15 different putters in his last 15 events, messing around with long putters, counter-balanced, Kuchar-style (arm lock), left-hand low, Claw, standard grip, you name it. At Reno, he took an old belly putter his wife had mailed to him, cut an inch and a half off it, stuck a new grip on it and tried it standing almost straight up, counter-balance style.

It has worked incredibly well. Even his final miss – from 8 feet for par at 18 – felt as if it was a good stroke, Stroud said. The 29 putts he had on Saturday were the most he has needed all week.

“At the end of the day, it’s not about being flashy, it’s about being consistent out here,” he said. “That’s all I needed. One putt a day, basically.”

Add to that Stroud’s decision to cease all expectations, and to just freewheel it and enjoy himself, and he’s a dangerous man on Sunday at Quail Hollow, competing with house money. Remember, he wasn’t even supposed to be at this tournament.

After 289 PGA Tour events without a single victory, Stroud says there is a tangible difference this week teeing it up as a PGA Tour champion. He is carrying an attitude of gratitude, and took time to return the 1,400-plus congratulatory texts he received after winning Sunday, and dozens and dozens of voicemails.

Kimberly Gay, wife of PGA Tour player Brian Gay, texted Stroud to tell him that by winning in his 290th start, he beat her husband’s first victory by two starts. (Brian Gay has four career victories.) Zach Johnson told Stroud, “You wanted to win when you first got out here, but how thankful are you that you did win, and it made you tougher doing it?”

Stroud once had aspirations of being No. 1, and had to wait for his day. Now that he’s won, he cannot wait to taste victory again. That could happen as soon as Sunday, at a major championship, no less. Not bad for a man whose hourglass on the 2016-17 season was down to just a few grains of sand a week ago.

“There’s never been one time in the 20 years I’ve known Chris that he said he was struggling,” said McMakin, the Arkansas coach whom Stroud calls his big brother. “That’s hard to do when you’re out there trying to make a living for so long. I think you’re going to see a lot of Chris Stroud in the next 4-5 years. Winning, I think, that’s just what he needed.”

One final story on Chris Stroud, and the type of guy he is. The PGA, as unexpected as it was, marks his seventh consecutive week of competition. Now 74th in the FedEx Cup standings, a solid finish on Sunday means he could get into three or four playoff events. In between, before the playoffs start, one week off, right? Well, no. He’s actually playing the Wyndham Championship next week up the road in Greensboro because that tournament gave Stroud a sponsor exemption years ago, soon after he left Lamar.

“After the golf is done,” Stroud said, “all I’ll have left is the relationships that I have built in this game.”

Chris Stroud, PGA Tour winner, has built many. So maybe this winning late is a karma thing. After years of frequently fruitless toil, things are turning around for Mr. Positivity. Maybe his own picture with that Wanamaker trophy isn’t so far-fetched after all.

  

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