Stallings' return to health on display at Humana

January 19, 2013
Helen Ross

LA QUINTA, Calif. -- Ironically, his troubles started a year ago this week. Scott Stallings was having therapy on his back and in what he now ruefully calls a "comedy of errors" he emerged with torn cartilage in five ribs.

"It was a good attempt to try to make a sore back feel better, and it did not go well," Stallings says. "I felt really good for about an hour, and then I woke up the next day, and I could barely swing."

Twelve months and one day after that therapy session went wrong, though, Stallings is a new man. And unlike last year, the golf he's playing in the desert is well worth watching.

Stallings, who has not made a bogey in 54 holes, fired a 63 on the Nicklaus Private course at PGA West Saturday to move to 22 under and open up a five-stroke lead entering the final round of the Humana Challenge. He pulled away from what was a tightly-bunched pack with a brilliant 31 on his second nine that included three straight birdies and his second eagle of the day, this one on a 37-foot putt.

Stallings' nearest competitors are Roberto Castro, Stewart Cink, Charles Howell III, John Rollins and Charley Hoffman -- four of whom are looking to end lengthy victory droughts while the fifth's best finish is a tie for fifth in Puerto Rico last year. Howell's last victory came in 2007, Cink and Rollins last won in 2009 and Hoffman is seeking his first since the 2010 FedExCup Playoffs.

Everyone will play on the Palmer Private course on Sunday so the playing field will be level. Or, will it? After all, this is a course that has been very generous this week -- playing nearly two-and-a-half strokes under par -- and it famously gave up a 59 to David Duval when he won here in 1999.

Small wonder Rollins felt like the 70 he shot in the opening round at the Palmer Course "kind of put me a little behind." But he has a chance to atone on Sunday. Stallings and Cink both shot 66s there while Howell and Castro had 67s in their first tours.

Cink, who lives in Atlanta, used the Falcons' NFL playoff game with San Francisco to put things into perspective.  

"The Falcons are about a four-and-a-half point underdog, and does that translate into a five-shot deficit?" he said. "I'm probably a 14-point underdog tomorrow with a five-shot deficit. So I think I have a bigger challenge than they do. 

"They have Matt Ryan. I don't have another person to be my quarterback tomorrow. I have to be my own quarterback and receiver."

Cink, who won the 2009 British Open, is on the comeback trail after slipping to 333rd in the world rankings. Stallings, on the other hand, is trending up after recovering from his rib injury and the two herniated disks that also developed to win his second PGA TOUR event in as many years last summer.

Granted, Stallings hasn't had a lot of luck on the West Coast prior to this week. He missed the cut in his first five events as a rookie in 2011, then limped home to Tennessee for a month's layoff after last year's rib injury contributed to missed cuts in Phoenix and at Pebble Beach.

"I got to Riviera in the pro-am, and I hit it in the left rough on 11, Stallings recalled. "... It was some pretty deep, wet rough, and I hit it and I went down to my knees. My caddie was like, 'We're done. We're not trying anymore.' Went home and had a bone scan and come to find out the doctor is like, 'Man, you shouldn't have been playing at all.'"

That's in the past, though, even if the return to the Cocachella Valley brings back those memories.

Stallings diligently worked on his fitness and dropped the weight he'd gained while he was fighting through the injury. He hired a new caddie, too, and in Sunday's final pairing that man, Frank Williams -- who Stallings says has helped him "leaps and bounds" -- will be reunited with Cink, the man he worked for about 15 years. But his loyalties are elsewhere now.

"Obviously, being on the outside looking in at this point last year, you learn a lot," Stallings said. "I'm not really a golf watcher, but a lot of my friends played really well. Watched Mark Wilson win, watched Brandt Snedeker win. And you get an opportunity to appreciate how to win and put yourself in that position to be able to take advantage of it when you do. Because those come so few and far between."

Stallings, who is looking forward to the birth of his first child in a month, plans to continue to play “conservatively aggressive” in the final round. On the rare occasions he got in trouble off the tee, he played smart and accepted par. When he got the chance, though, Stallings went for it and the rewards have been many.

"The same thing goes tomorrow," he said. "Obviously, a lot can happen coming down the back nine, especially with all the birdie holes coming in, but it is what it is, and (I'll) go out there and try to be aggressive early and go from there."

Regardless of what happens, Stallings knows how lucky he is to be doing what he loves.

"To come back healthy and with strong work ethic and doing everything you're supposed to do, definitely makes it all worthwhile," he said.