BETHESDA, Md.: Kyle Stanley makes no secret of his admiration for workaholic Vijay Singh.
So as Stanley prepared to leave Gig Harbor, Wash., for college, it seems fitting that a brightly lit driving range that used to double as an RV lot during football season helped lure him across the country to Clemson.
Soon that illuminated practice area, open to him at all hours, became Stanley’s domain.
Stanley’s practice habits were legendary at a school that had already produced PGA Tour pros Lucas Glover, Jonathan Byrd and D.J. Trahan and Web.com Tour player Charles Warren. It was nothing to find Stanley at the range well into the night, perhaps even until 3 a.m.
“I didn’t stay much past 1, but he would,” Clemson golf coach Larry Penley said by phone earlier this month. “There were a lot of times I’d leave him down there and I know he’d practice for another hour or two.
“Without question he’s the hardest worker I ever had.”
That’s saying something since Penley will begin his 30th year at Clemson this fall.
“I never went out. I went to school and practiced golf for three years,” Stanley said last month during the AT&T National at Congressional Country Club.
Stanley developed a daily routine — attend class, go to golf practice for an hour, see his tutors, have dinner by 6:30, then head to the range.
“I’d practice six or seven hours a night,” he said. “I’ve never been a big sleeper. Four or five hours a night is pretty good for me.”
That dedication helped make Stanley a winner in his second year on the PGA Tour, capturing the Waste Management Phoenix Open on Feb. 5.
In stunning fashion, Stanley, 24, overcame an 8-shot deficit just a week after a blowing a 5-shot, 54-hole lead and losing to Brandt Snedeker in a playoff at the Farmers Insurance Open. His Torrey Pines disaster was 1 stroke shy of the largest final-round collapse in tour history when leading after three rounds, and he held a 7-shot edge at one point.
“It’s one of the greatest things I’ve ever seen in sports,” Penley said. “Not the fact that he won, but the fact he put himself back in position to win. A lesser man or a lesser player couldn’t have done that mentally.”
Stanley’s triumph earned him a spot in this week’s $8.5 million World Golf Championships-Bridgestone Invitational. He is among 21 rookies in the 77-man field that also includes first-timer Jason Dufner, a Cleveland native who has risen to eighth in the world rankings.
Stanley’s breakthrough victory didn’t surprise Penley, who raves about what Stanley has become, both mentally and physically. He talks frequently with Stanley, who lives near Hilton Head, S.C.
Penley said Stanley, now 5-foot-11, weighed 137 pounds when he arrived at Clemson in the fall of 2006. But he showed up in the weight room almost every morning at 6:30 a.m.
“After three years he weighed 171 pounds with 2 percent body fat,” Penley said. “He’s all muscle and gristle, I can assure you.”
Obviously that means his discipline extends beyond practice.
“He’ll eat a chicken wing every now and then, that’s about it,” Penley said.
Stanley told orangeandwhite.com, a Tigers web site, that he and caddie Brett Waldman celebrated his Phoenix triumph at In-N-Out Burger, ordering three double-doubles “animal style.”
Despite his stature, Penley knew Stanley had the talent to join Glover, the 2009 U.S. Open champion, and the other Tigers on the tour.
“He could hit shots as a 16-year-old that I hadn’t seen kids hit before,” Penley remembered. “The speed he had in his golf swing was incredible. He had incredible hands and incredible speed. All we really had to do was kind of fine-tune it and tighten it up a little bit.”
Stanley became a two-time NCAA runner-up in 2007 and 2009 and won the Ben Hogan Award as a junior. As a freshman, he played on the winning U.S. Walker Cup team with Rickie Fowler, Dustin Johnson and U.S. Open champion Webb Simpson. Stanley’s career average of 71.63 was second to Trahan’s (71.49) in Clemson’s record book.
“All we worked on for three years was getting his speed and ball flight under control,” Penley said. “He used to hit the ball so high and he still can. His biggest attribute today is his ability to flight the ball at different heights. When he’s at his best, he can get that golf ball to do anything he wants to do with his irons.”
Stanley turned pro after finishing 53rd at the 2009 U.S. Open at Bethpage Black. He earned his Nationwide Tour card in 2010 and moved up to the PGA Tour in 2011. He nearly won as a rookie at the John Deere Classic, beaten by a shot when Steve Stricker sank a 25-foot birdie from the fringe on the 72nd hole.
Stanley was finally rewarded for his incredible practice focus this year. He’s never liked people goofing off around him, like his Clemson teammates did when they were bored.
“I loved practicing by myself,” Stanley said of his college days. “If I went down to the range at night and saw somebody else there, I was like, ‘No.’
“Even out here I love practicing later in the day when it quiets down. It’s easier for me to focus and get my work done.”
This season, Stanley has bounced back from a bad stretch from March through June during which he missed six cuts in 12 events. In July, he has tied for 22nd, 19th and 39th at the AT&T National, John Deere Classic and the British Open, respectively. He’s had seven top 25s in 21 events and earned more than $2.1 million.
Blowing a huge lead like Stanley did at Torrey Pines might send some golfers into a funk for months, if not years. But because of how Stanley set his goals, he was not hurting for long, Penley said.
“His plan for this year is not number of wins, it’s ‘How many times can I put myself in position?’?” Penley said. “So he was able to draw a positive from Torrey Pines because he reached a goal. He knew he was playing well, so he said, ‘Why not? Let’s just do it again.’?”
The heartbreak of Torrey Pines “seems like a year ago,” Stanley said at Congressional. At the Phoenix Open, he quipped that he had gained “6,000 Facebook followers” and was cheered on by the gallery as “The Comeback Kid.” Aided by a huge collapse by Spencer Levin, Stanley choked back tears during the trophy presentation and dedicated the victory to his parents, who live in Tacoma, Wash., where his father Matt is a tax attorney.
It was a heart-to-heart talk with his dad after missing the cut at a state high school tournament in Washington that convinced Stanley to be more like Singh, whom he said he always watched on television.
“We had a four- or five-hour drive back,” Stanley said at the Masters Tournament. “I remember talking to my dad and he explained to me, ‘If you want to be really good, if you want to be one of the best players in the world, you know you’re going to have to work at it.’?”
That was the last time the issue came up.
“I’ve been kind of driven since then,” Stanley said at the AT&T National. “If anything it’s maybe the opposite, [they’re saying] relax a little bit. I’m overworking instead of underworking.”
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at https://ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ.