What followed was a tutorial that lasted several minutes, incorporated the use of several training gadgets and represented a significant step in Stanley’s continuing education.
“That was really cool,” Stanley said.
After spending five weeks atop the FedEx Cup standings early in the season, Stanley arrives at this week’s BMW Championship on the playoff bubble, at No. 30 in the standings. The golfers ranked in the top 30 at the conclusion of the competition, at Crooked Stick Golf Club, will advance to the Tour Championship in Atlanta in two weeks.
It is target golf at its most trying for Stanley, a fourth-year pro who is aiming for high finishes while not focusing on the results. This process-oriented, holistic approach is the hardest lesson Stanley has had to absorb this year, and it came in a crash course this winter when, in an eight-day span, he lost a tournament and won sympathy and then won a tournament and lost some long-held illusions.
“I’ve always been a guy who felt I was a better man if I played well as opposed to if I didn’t,” said Stanley, who is in his second full year on the tour. “If I play well, I’ve had a strong history of liking myself better and thinking other people did, too.”
Stanley’s accelerated education began at the Farmers Insurance Open in January when he stepped to the 72nd tee with a three-stroke lead and walked off the green, after a triple-bogey 8, tied with Brandt Snedeker. Snedeker prevailed on the second hole of sudden death.
In the days after his disheartening defeat, Stanley, 24, was surprised by how much encouragement he received from both his peers and people he did not know. The support buoyed him and allowed him to lighten up a little.
“I can be very, very, very hard on myself,” Stanley said. “It’s kind of funny. The one time this year where I had every excuse in the world to be like that, I wasn’t.”
The next week Stanley rallied from eight strokes back to secure his first PGA Tour victory, at the Waste Management Phoenix Open. In the days after his win, he was surprised by how empty he felt.
The title did not make all his problems fade away, as he had long imagined success on the PGA Tour would. If anything, the victory stoked Stanley’s perfectionist impulses.
“You can have all the success in the world,” he said. “But if you can’t shut it down at the end of the night and be happy with yourself, it doesn’t mean a whole lot.”
It is not unusual for a player to take one lap in victory lane and become like a driver stuck in speeding traffic, accelerating beyond what feels comfortable to try to stay up.
“You think winning will make your life easier, but it just starts your problems,” Stricker said with a laugh. “Because then you feel you need to win again to validate it, back it up. It’s a continuous battle out here to get better. You feel this constant pressure to improve.”
In 22 starts since his victory, Stanley, a long hitter and streaky putter, has missed nine cuts, three of them in majors. He has not posted another top-10 finish. The closest he has come is a tie for 16th last month at the World Golf Championships-Bridgestone Invitational.
“Once you win, you kind of feel that high,” Stanley said. “When you’re not playing as well, you get caught in that trap of not liking yourself. I’m getting better at being comfortable with myself whether I finish first or miss nine cuts.”
He added: “It’s always going to be a work in progress. If I commit myself to getting better each day, the results will come.”
In the spring Stanley began working with Julie Elion, a mental coach with a holistic approach. He said his game was close to clicking, an assessment seconded by Robert Garrigus, who was paired with him in three of the four rounds of the Deutsche Bank Championship.
Garrigus sounds like “gregarious,” which is fitting because he is one of the more talkative players on the tour. He said he took it as a challenge to draw out Stanley, who is one of the quietest.
“He kind of gets misunderstood as being a little ornery, not talking to people,” Garrigus said. “That’s not the case. He’s a great kid.”
Stanley favors black attire, as if to keep the focus on his clubs and not his clothing, and he is seldom seen without his wraparound sunglasses. They are protection, but not from the sun’s rays.
“They are more to block out distractions,” he said. “They are kind of a mental thing.”
Stricker said, “At first glance, you’re not sure if you can actually approach him.” He added, “Once you get in there, he’s rather funny.”
At the 2011 John Deere Classic, Stricker made a memorable bunker shot and a 25-foot birdie putt on the last hole to beat Stanley by one stroke.
“I ended up having a special place for him just because I kind of took one away from him,” Stricker said.
Stricker’s putting lesson earned him a special place with Stanley, who said, “I was kind of blown away by it, actually.”
He added: “I feel like this has been a successful year, even though I haven’t played as well the past few months as I’ve wanted to, because I’ve learned so much. I think down the road I’ll look back at this as one of the most important stretches of my career.”