By Helen Ross, PGATOUR.COM
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- You've got to love Scott Gardiner's self-deprecating sense of humor.
The PGA TOUR rookie was talking about his debut at the Sony Open in Hawaii earlier this year. The Aussie shot three rounds in the 60s and found himself in the penultimate group on Sunday, eventually tying for 15th. He was understandably proud of himself and eager to see what the future held.
But it remains his best finish of the season.
"I got a false impression," Gardiner said, chuckling and no doubt thinking about the eight straight cuts he'd missed entering this week's Wells Fargo Championship. "These guys are good. I'm not going to lie."
Gardiner went on to say no one was more surprised than he was to see his name among the leaders after two rounds at Quail Hollow. When someone asked why, he deadpanned, "Have you seen my resume this year?"
The 37-year-old did make three cuts in his first four starts before the slide began. He ranks 112th in driving distance, 101st in driving accuracy, 164th in greens in regulation and 140th in strokes-gained putting this year.
So what gives? How did Gardiner conjure up that bogey-free 67 that landed him in a tie for second at 7 under, two strokes behind Phil Mickelson, when he hadn't broken 70 since Feburary?
Gardiner credits the turnaround in part to the work he did with Dave Stockton Sr. earlier this week. He first met the two-time PGA champ turned short-game guru in Houston earlier this year. Gardiner didn't even know who he was at the time.
When Gardiner saw Stockton again on Monday in the locker room at Quail Hollow, he re-introduced himself. Stockton asked how his game was and Gardiner was brutally honest. "No good," he said, and Stockton offered to take a look. Gardiner called him that night and asked if they could do some more work on Tuesday.
"It's turned out well so far," Gardiner said, adding he's also gone back to some old swing thoughts. "It's given me some structure, which I didn't have. When you're lacking in confidence, structure is something that helps you, because you sort of think about the process as opposed to all the bad shots you've hit."
Gardiner didn't have that many on Friday -- particularly not as he reeled off four birdies in a row to shoot 31 on the front nine. He only hit six fairways, after finding 10 in the first round, but managed 13 greens in regulation and used just 26 putts.
Not bad for a man who jokingly said he expected "agony" at the start of the week and now finds himself playing in Saturday's final group with Mickelson. Gardiner's one shot ahead of former world No. 1s Rory McIlroy and Lee Westwood, too.
And he's loving life right now.
"I just want to play two more good rounds," Gardiner said. "It's going to be a thrill. ... I'm doing what I love doing, and to do it with some of the best players in the world, generally you have a great atmosphere when that happens. It gets your adrenaline going.
"For me, playing in the last few groups, it's kind of like when you watch football in the finals, the adrenaline is pumping and you do things that you're not normally capable of doing. For me, most of the time, that's been positive. I would like to do it more."
Gardiner played eight years on the Web.com Tour before earning his TOUR card by finishing 15th on the money list last year. He met his wife Kristin at a concert during the tournament in Fort Smith, Ark., and the couple lives in nearby Farmington with their two children. He plays out of Blessing Golf Club, which is owned by John Tyson of chicken fame and is where the Arkansas Razorbacks practice.
Gardiner's father Tom, an elementary school teacher from Scotland who's about to retire because he wants to come watch his son play, is an avid sports fan. He steered his son toward soccer, cricket, athletics (where he threw the discus) and basketball before Gardiner gravitated toward golf when the family moved to Australia's Gold Coast.
Gardiner's mother Gloria, who also teaches in elementary school, is of Aboriginal descent. As a result, Gardiner was able to receive financial assistance The National Aboriginal Sports Corporation of Australia, as part of a program called the "Hunt for the Australian Tiger" -- as in, Tiger Woods.
"They gave a lot of kids scholarships to work in the golf industry, not just to try to play great golf, but in offices to be an assistant pro or try to become a pro," Gardiner said. "It was a great leg up for me to chase my dream."
Gardiner, who was also part of the Australian Institute of Sport in the mid-1990s, turned pro when he was 24. He's well-acquainted with the Adam Scotts, Geoff Ogilvys and Stuart Applebys of the world, even though his resume pales in comparison so far.
Scott's win at the Masters three weeks ago -- the first ever by an Australian at Augusta National -- was "incredible," Gardiner said. "... I don't think you could have had a more popular winner. He's so well-liked by everybody and such a humble guy."
At the same time, Gardiner candidly said he wasn't sure he could draw inspiration from that historic win.
"I know how good Adam Scott is," he explained. "I don't know. The things that he does don't apply to me."
Everyone has to start somewhere, though. And the well-traveled Gardiner has a golden opportunity this week in Charlotte as he goes head-to-head with some of the biggest names in the game.
"It's nice to be in the same tournament as they are," Gardiner said with a satisfied smile. "That's my first thought. If I'm playing well, I'm happy to look at them (on the leaderboard) because, yeah, it's much better to look at your name when it's 7 under as opposed to 7 over."
A guy could get used to that.