Brian Stuard’s alma mater inducted him into its athletic Hall of Honor last month.
Maybe they should have waited a bit.
He certainly had to wait — for big-time success, that is. The ultimate success of being a PGA Tour champion thanks to Monday’s much-delayed, rain-saturated Zurich Classic of New Orleans.
Stuard set men’s golf team records at Oakland University in his native Michigan before staking his claim in professional golf.
He spent the better part of a decade paying his dues, working his way up. He started with two seasons on the Hooters Tour, sort of the off, off Broadway of golf circuits. Then it was off to the Web.com Tour, the Triple-A minors to the PGA Tour’s majors.
Stuard had some good finishes on both tours and made a comfortable living — he’d earned just over $4.7 million on both tours combined before Monday’s $1.26 million giant check (seriously, it’s pro golf, they get a giant check).
But victory and true consistency eluded him. He got close to winning — with runner-up finishes in the Mayakoba Classic in Mexico in 2010 and 2014 — so he did what a lot of golfers do.
He changed his swing.
Stuard forced himself to start fading the ball left-to-right, abandoning the natural right-to-left draw he always played with. A fade typically means more control of the ball, and control is the professional golfer’s holy grail.
The results from Stuard’s swing changes weren’t disastrous, but they weren’t better. He finished 128th in FedEx Cup points and 133rd in earnings in 2014-15, a season after career bests of 51st in the FedEx Cup and 52nd in earnings with over $1.8 million.
“It didn’t really work,” Stuard said. “I just struggled all year finding any sort of control where the golf ball was doing. It’s not very fun to play that way.”
Finishing outside the 125 didn’t mean Stuard was relegated back to the Web.com Tour, but it did sort of leave him in limbo. Those who finish between Nos. 126-150 on the FedEx Cup points list are still on the PGA Tour but can’t always get into the tournaments they want to play because they rank down the priority list.
Once again, no control.
So Stuard went back to his right-to-left draw, though he did tinker with his putting game. Last week at the Texas Open in San Antonio, he took a flyer on a new putter, a “fang” styled stick with two wings sticking out the back of it.
If Dracula were on the PGA Tour, this is the putter he would use. And like Stuard on Monday, he’d wear all black.
The putter was a magic wand in the Zurich — Stuard was a remarkable 46-of-46 putting from 10 feet in at TPC Louisiana and didn’t make a single bogey in 54 holes.
Make that 56 holes, because there was a playoff between Stuard, Jamie Lovemark and Byeong-Hun An.
In the playoff, Stuard hooked his drive left of the 18th fairway on the second extra hole, leaving him with an awkward stance with his left foot in the bunker. If you hook into trouble, you have to hook out of trouble, and that’s what Stuard did, looping a shot out 171 yards short of the pin.
It set up the shot of his golfing life. Stuard drew a 7-iron, the ball flying low with a little right-to-left action, homing onto the pin like a heat-seeking missile. It checked up two feet short of the cup, while the poor unfortunate Lovemark was hacking his way to the green from a grassy gumbo way left by the grandstand. (An was eliminated the hole before.)
Two feet? Fang putter? Stuard could have made that one with a shovel — except for one detail.
His hands were shaking.
Those two feet changed the arc of Stuard’s career for the next two-plus seasons at least. He’s exempt on tour, meaning he can plan his schedule as he sees fit. A schedule that now includes invitations to The Players, the PGA Championship and next April’s Masters.
“He’s hard on himself,” fellow Michigander and touring pro Tom Gillis told The Detroit News after Stuard’s win. “Probably harder than he should be.
“He’s a good kid. All he ever wanted to do was this.”
Stuard was asked if his fellow pros will think of him differently when he finally shows up late to the next stop on the PGA Tour’s traveling road: the Wells Fargo Championship in Charlotte, North Carolina.
For certain he will think differently of himself.
“I’ve always been, I guess, a journeyman kind of player,” Stuard said. “Just always grinded it out. It’s just one of those things where you have the confidence to say, ‘One day, it’s going to be your time.’
“Fortunately, today was that day.”
A day, a win, Stuard couldn’t have drawn up any better.
Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter,@RabalaisAdv.