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Worth rooting for

A chance encounter with PGA Tour rookie Scott Stallings has given PGA.com Coordinating Producer John Kim someone special to cheer for this week – because Stallings is an even better person than a player.

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Scott Stallings is thrilled to be making his major championship debut this week. (Getty Images)

By John Kim, PGA.com Coordinating Producer

JOHNS CREEK, Ga. -- Golf writers, media members, journalists -- especially those who work with an official governing body -- aren’t supposed to "root" for players, they are to simply hope for good stories.

Scott Stallings, one of the new young stars of the PGA Tour and popular winner of the recent Greenbrier Classic, is now a very much a good story.

But I was rooting for him first. And I'm quite proud of it. And as he makes his major championship debut this week at the PGA Championship, you should get to know his story. Because if you do, you’ll root for the guy too.

***


Every December, the one month that isn't overly golf-centric, my wife and I take a warm-weather vacation. Last year, it was Jamaica. At the airport for the return trip home, we sat next to a lovely young couple at the terminal. We had a couple of hours before our flight took off and I couldn't help but notice the Titleist bookbags that the couple had. I was certain he noticed my Ryder Cup bookbag. Any golfer is a friend, so a conversation naturally followed.

"Do you guys work for Titleist?" I asked. "Or work in the golf industry?"

"Sort of," he replied. "I play on tour."

"Really?  Where? What tour?"

"The PGA Tour."

I don't spend too much time at PGA Tour stops but I feel like I have a pretty good handle on many of the players, and this young man wasn't familiar to me.

"Scott Stallings," I repeated after he introduced himself. "I’m really sorry,” I admitted in sheepish fashion, “I feel bad because I'm not familiar with your name."

"It's going to be my rookie year," he smiled.

And with that, a conversation about life on tour, challenges and dreams, the importance of family and friends and even the state of Tennessee (we both went to school there) ensued until we boarded.

“What are his chances?” my wife asked me when we took our seats.

“It’s really hard out there,” I said to her.

***


I've managed to stay in touch with Scott throughout the year, mainly through a few Facebook posts and our favored medium of Twitter. Even more, Scott has kept a running documentation of his year via a blog he writes for BNET, the CBS Interactive Network. 
To be honest, when I first heard about his plans to blog, I had some misgivings. Golfers golf. Writers write. Every hour you spend writing, that's an hour you're not practicing, I thought. As a rookie, the margin for error is so slim. And do you want to tell the world how you feel when you might be missing cuts?

"That could be really great," I cautioned, "but don't let it interfere with your main job."

Turns out, he does both pretty well.  Darn well.

Scott's blog has been widely lauded by fans, media and players as the most insightful and accurate depiction of life on tour. Through the joys and triumphs to the frustrations and drudgery, he's shared a first-person account of a life most people can't begin to imagine. And it’s created an ever-growing following that recognizes him as more than a golfer -- as an earnest, sincere, intelligent and dedicated persona in a world where players often keep the populace at arm’s length.

The story of his year between the ropes is well-documented; many know it well. He missed cuts early, had a great Transitions Champonship, did okay, and then “came out of nowhere” and won the Greenbrier Classic. His playing record speaks for itself. But of more interest to me was his personal demeanor. It hasn’t changed.

"As a rookie, your first goal is to keep your job," he told me during a recent phone call.  "It's a huge relief to know that I have exemption status. And the new attention from fans and media, that's pretty cool too. But there's been something even more special to be honest with you. When I'm on the range hitting balls between the world No. 1 and No. 2 players, and both of them take time to approach me and congratulate me, that's just really great.

"When Stewart Cink (Stallings’ playing partner for the first two rounds at last week's WGC-Bridgestone Invitational) talks to me about golf, my year, life -- it's kind of amazing. So many players, my peers, but at the same time, guys I've looked up to and admired and tried to emulate in many ways, when they share their time and thoughts with me like they've been doing -- it's not bad for a kid from East Tennesse, you know?"

***


One comment in particular I told him back in Jamaica stands out this week. 

"I don't really attend too many Tour events," I told him. "So if I see you this year, it will either be at the PGA Championship or perhaps the Tour Championship (both in Atlanta) and that will mean you've had a pretty good year."

We both grinned at the thought.  Was it possible? Sure. Was it likely? You can't really say that, can you?

So I see him on TV last week tossing golf balls to fans as he leaves his final round at the Bridgestone Invitational. He smiles a lot, signs a ton of autographs. He tweets to fans. He is open about his strong faith.  Every interview he does, he chooses his words carefully but is so enthusiastically grateful and appreciative to be playing a game he loves for a living.  He’s earned his way on Tour, knows the hard life of the mini-tour player and it’s obviously made him more cognizant of how good life is at this time. 

***


So here we are, our paths crossing once again at my biggest week of the year and his first major championship as a competitor.

“It’s a major championship,” Stallings gushed over the phone. “What else can you say? It’s one of the four biggest events all year, the way you become a part of history.  And it’s my first major. I’m not sure what to expect, but whatever it is, I’ll enjoy it. I’ll be ready.”

And if there are any questions about his comfort level in such a pressure packed setting, he’s not showing it. In fact, it’s pratically a home game.

“It’s about three hours from home (Knoxville, Tenn.) so I’ll have a lot of friends and family there,” he said. “It’s exciting to say the least.”

***


I’ve enjoyed meeting and talking to scores of golfers, from random guys that love golf who I’m paired with at a random muni -- to major championship winners who will endure in golf history forever. But one random chance encounter in the Caribbean put me in contact with a guy who could be both.  And I hope will be.

So appropriate or not, I root for some players. No, I never pull against a player, but some guys you just want to see do well.  Mr. Stallings is a case in point.

By the way, Scott, the major champions convene in Bermuda in October for the PGA Grand Slam of Golf. I mean, it’s not Jamaica, but it’s still pretty nice. I know, the odds are long … I mean, if I see you there, it means you’ve had a pretty good year, right?

You can follow Scott Stallings via his website (http://stallingsgolf.com/), his BNET blog (http://www.bnet.com/blog/business-golf) or on Twitter (http://twitter.com/stallingsgolf)