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March 14 2013

9:24 PM

Rookie Stefani's patience has paid off

By Jeff Shain, PGATOUR.COM Correspondent

PALM HARBOR, Fla. -- Compared to the bios of PGA TOUR rookies who have commandeered the spotlight this season, you’d have to call Shawn Stefani a late bloomer.

He turned professional eight years ago, kicking around the lower tours for six seasons until finally landing a roster spot on the Web.com Tour last year. From there, he’s been making up for lost time.

Two wins last season earned him a PGA TOUR card, and Thursday’s 6-under-par 65 produced a two-shot lead after the first round of the Tampa Bay Championship presented by EverBank.

“I didn’t start learning the real important parts of the game until later in life,” said the 31-year-old Texan. “And I’m not talking about techniques or swings or whatever. I’m talking about the mental side of it.

“Everybody out here has the physical ability and at this level, (the difference) is mostly mental. The guys who are the best mentally are really the guys who are the best players.”

Stefani’s point rang through on Thursday. Though cold breezes later gave way to calmer conditions at Innisbrook Resort, he still finished with one of just two bogey-free rounds. He never had to sweat over a par save longer than 4-and-a-half feet.

“If you can hit some good shots into these greens and give yourself some good looks,” he said, “you’ll definitely be able to make a few putts.”

Stefani’s round matched a 65 last week at the Puerto Rico Open presented by seepuertorico.com as his lowest TOUR round. The week also produced his best finish to date, with a tie for 39th.

Rookies already have made quite a mark on the season, topped by Russell Henley’s triumph in at the Sony Open in Hawaii in his first PGA TOUR start. Scott Langley also played in the Sony Open’s final group, and Luke Guthrie finished third at The Honda Classic.

All of those, though, are in their early 20s.

“Everybody kind of goes and hits their stride differently,” Stefani said. “I’m more of a patient guy and just kind of wait for things to happen. I know eventually things will start clicking, and I’ve really been close to playing good all year.”

Stefani’s last name, by the way, is pronounced the same as “Stephanie.” It frequently gets mispronounced as “steff-AH-nee,” same as lead singer Gwen Stefani of the band No Doubt.

“Some people call me Gwen. I’ve never had a big issue with it,” said Stefani, whose own musical tastes run more toward George Strait. “It’s kind of fun.”

Stefani did admit that he has a few wedges stamped with either “No Doubt” or one of the group’s album titles “Hollaback.”

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