Kyle Stanley hits from the bunker to the 18th green on his way to a par to finish at 6-under for the early lead in the opening round of the Tour Championship on Thursday, September 21, 2017, at East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta. Curtis Compton/
Photo: Compton
Photo: Compton

Stanley’s career turnaround has him atop Tour Championship leaderboard

Kyle Stanley is not exactly sure what he was doing one year ago.

Maybe sitting at home.

He sure wasn’t playing in the Tour Championship and FedEx Cup playoff finale with more than $11 million at stake.

Stanley was once the nation’s best college golfer and an early success on the PGA Tour. Times changed. The past three years have been a struggle. Stanley was ranked 47th in the world after a win in the 2012 Phoenix Open. He declined – rather steadily – and bottomed out at 683rd in 2015.

Stanley’s career has taken a dramatic turn upward, especially this year. He won the 2017 Quicken Loans National, breaking a winless drought of five years and five months. He qualified for the FedEx Cup playoffs, advanced through the three playoff rounds and made it to East Lake Golf Club for the finale at the Tour Championship.

Jordan Spieth reflects on his opening round at the 2017 Tour Championship at East Lake Golf Club.

Now he stands alone atop the leaderboard after the opening round. Stanley shot a 6-under 64 on Thursday and is two shots clear of a group of four golfers. Paul Casey, Webb Simpson, Daniel Berger and Brooks Koepka all finished 4 under.

“It emotionally can be a bit of a roller coaster at times,” Stanley said. “Golf's unique in a sense to where if you're struggling, it may take quite a while to kind of get back into form. When things are going well, you can kind of put a year or two, several years, a few weeks together, and the opposite of that. So overall just try not to get too high or too low and yeah, but I mean, it’s sports, it’s golf.”

Stanley, 29, entered the Tour Championship 22nd in the point standings. He’ll need a victory and a lot of help to capture the FedEx Cup title and the $10 million prize. He currently projects to finish second in the playoffs behind points leader Jordan Spieth, who is part of a group of five tied for sixth at 3 under.

Stanley was 158th in 2014 (one top-10 finish, three top-25s), 181 in 2015 (three top-25s) and 116 in 2016 (five top-25s). Stanley turned his career around and it culminated, at least for now, with the victory in the Quicken Loans National in July. Now, he’s part of a group of the top 30 golfers in the world competing for a jackpot.

At Clemson, Stanley was the ACC Player of the Year in 2007. He was first-team All-American in 2007 and 2009, both years that he finished runner-up in the NCAA Individual Championships. In 2009, he was the winner of the Ben Hogan Award, given to the best college golfer. He turned pro and would get that first PGA Tour win three years later, missing the Tour Championship by one spot in 2012. The wait for the second win felt like an eternity.

“My ball striking’s been pretty solid all year long, so it’s really been nice to not have to mess with that a ton,” Stanley said. “My putting gets hot and cold from time to time, but I guess we’ve kept it somewhat warm this year, which is good.”

Of the top five players who entered the Tour Championship in control of their own fate, Spieth still projects in the top spot. Friend and playing partner Thursday and again Friday Justin Thomas and Jon Rahm also shot at 3 under par and are tied for sixth. Dustin Johnson finished at 2 under par and is tied for 11th.

“I felt like it was really a grind out there, and it's just because the first four, five holes of the round I was all over the place tee to green,” Spieth said. “And then my whole back nine I had a chance to birdie all but one of the holes and only made one of them.”

Justin Thomas reflects on his opening round of the 2017 Tour Championship at East Lake Golf Club.

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