KORN FERRY TOUR INSIDER
All-time leading money winner Stiles recalls two Visit Knoxville Open wins
May 15, 2020
By Preston Smith, PGATOUR.COM
- May 15, 2020
- Darron Stiles has recorded five Korn Ferry Tour titles, plus a 36-hole win, and stands atop the Tour's all-time money list. (Stan Badz/PGA TOUR)
Darron Stiles used to have a running deal with Golf Channel analyst Jerry Foltz. For every hole-out from the fairway during the year, he would sign and date the ball and send it to Foltz as a gift for his son, Jackson.
Eventually Foltz told Stiles not to send any more golf balls unless it was with an 8-iron or better. It had gotten to the point where Stiles was just sending too many.
Entering the 2002 Visit Knoxville Open, Stiles was halfway through his fifth full season on the Korn Ferry Tour. His season had been feast or famine to that point, making only four of 11 cuts but finishing top-15 in all four. Making his fifth start at the tournament, Stiles made the cut on the number and played in one of the early groups on Moving Day. Then came an 8-under 64, and Stiles went from one of the first groups out on Saturday to the final group on Sunday.
“It was a very decent moving day,” laughed Stiles.
During the final round, Stiles had a signature eagle hole-out with a pitching wedge at the par-4 third hole to build a lead, but mostly held serve over the next 11 holes. Walking to No. 15, he knew he was somewhere around the lead. He split the fairway with a perfect drive and remembered waiting for the group ahead to clear the green at the par-4.
“I hit a perfect 8-iron into the hole and it spun to the left and in for my second hole-out eagle of the day,” said Stiles. “It was perfect timing, I remember Sonny (Skinner) had to back off his tee shot (at 16) because of the crowd noise. I’ve only done that maybe one other time in my life, holing out twice from the fairway in one round. I’ve holed a lot of shots from fairways, but two in a final round when I’m in contention was pretty special.”
His second eagle of the final round – both on par-4s – was enough to propel him to his third Korn Ferry Tour victory. Later that season, a runner-up finish in Chicago led to his first PGA TOUR card and the fulfillment of a childhood dream.
“I set a goal when I was 12 years old that I wanted to play on the PGA TOUR,” said Stiles. “I stopped playing baseball to attain that goal. From 1985 to 2003, I worked to make that goal happen, 18 years.”Darron Stiles poses with former Korn Ferry Tour President Bill Calfee after securing his 2013 PGA TOUR card. (Chris Condon/PGA TOUR)
And thus began a roller-coaster streak of pro golf for Stiles. He competed full time on the PGA TOUR for seven seasons between 2003 and 2016, but never kept his TOUR card. He bounced back and forth to the Korn Ferry Tour, where he continued to have success in regaining his PGA TOUR membership. Overall, Stiles competed in 348 Korn Ferry Tour events and 154 PGA TOUR events across 21 years.
While it never fully clicked at the highest level (Stiles had a top finish of T9 on TOUR on three separate occasions), his longevity is impressive. At over $2.1 million, Stiles is the all-time leading money winner on the Korn Ferry Tour and the only player to cross the $2 million mark. He’s also tied for sixth all-time with five career wins.
In 2012, Stiles returned to the Visit Knoxville Open a decade removed from the victory that would earn him his first TOUR card. And as destiny would have it, he won again.
“The spark that got me going that final round in 2012 was a chip-in eagle on No. 10,” remarked Stiles of his fifth and final victory. “That was a common theme in four out of my five wins on the Korn Ferry Tour, making an eagle during the final round.”
By 2012, the unique tradition of an orange jacket had been introduced to the Visit Knoxville Open and Stiles was fitted.
“If you squint a little bit, it can look like (University of) Miami orange,” said Stiles, a longtime Miami Hurricane fan and Florida Southern College alum. “It’s a little lighter, but closer to Miami orange than the burnt orange of Texas would be.”
Five years after his win at the 2012 Visit Knoxville Open, Stiles made his 348th and final Korn Ferry Tour start at the 2017 Visit Knoxville Open. While he missed the cut, a second-round 69 left him at peace with his final round on Tour.
Perhaps more significantly that week, Jeff “Goose” Thomas and Chuck Walker from the Tour’s Operations Truck wanted to talk to him after his round. They went on to give him the full pitch on a role with the Operations Truck and as a Scoring Official on the Korn Ferry Tour.
“Ironically the talk about potentially coming to work on the Truck came in Knoxville in 2017, my last start,” said Stiles. “It was a fitting way to end my golf career and start my new career all in one spot … But I was 100 percent on board. At the time, I was actually working at UPS and totally out of golf other than goofing off here at home. To have that opportunity put down in front of me was awesome.”Darron Stiles poses with the trophy after winning the 2008 HSBC New Zealand PGA Championship (unofficial win). (Robert Cianflone/Getty Images)
After a few months of waiting, Goose called Stiles and asked him to meet for lunch before eventually sliding a piece of paper across the table, like in an old gangster movie.
“So we’re sitting in the restaurant and he slid the contract over to me on the table and asked if I was ready to officially be a part of The Truck,” said Stiles. “I had brought a pen with me and I couldn’t click that pen open to sign fast enough.”
Over the next few months, Stiles completed all of the normal paperwork and new-hire training typical of joining an organization. But as a former player, one experience during his onboarding differentiated him from a typical new hire.
“I remember going through orientation down at the PGA TOUR Headquarters and walking through the office with a few fellow new hires and seeing the Commissioner (Jay Monahan),” said Stiles. “He said hello and welcome to the group as a whole and then turned to me and said, ‘So Darron, how do you like it so far?’ I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, the Commissioner knows my name.’”
After two years of working on the Korn Ferry Tour – and the 21 years prior in pro golf – Stiles looks back fondly on the journey.
“Overall, I’m happy with what I accomplished as a pro,” said Stiles, the owner of 502 career starts across the Korn Ferry Tour and the PGA TOUR. “Of all the guys that play golf for a living, the vast majority never make it to the PGA TOUR. Even in other sports, the vast majority of athletes never reach the pinnacle of the sport. It’s something I’m very proud to have been a part of it.
“My only regret is never keeping my card on the PGA TOUR, but the fact that I played seven years out there is awesome. I’m not ashamed of it at all. It’s something that allowed me to travel the country and the world, which is something a lot of people never get to do. Now working for the Tour, I still get to be involved in the process. I can share my experiences with the guys and now share even a different perspective working for the Tour. It’s been a fantastic few years and I’m ready to get back out there.”