Bill Nichols

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Texas State Open leader Stefani's dream is a journey, man

TYLER _ With all the Monday qualifiers and mini tour road trips, Shawn Stefani sometimes struggles to stay in the moment.

One moment he’s trying to Monday qualify for a Nationwide Tour event; the next he's playing in another tournament, in another town, on another tour.

When the journeyman pro teed off in Saturday’s third round of the Chesapeake Energy Texas State Open, he clung to the goal of focusing on each shot. He simplified the process by taking only 60.

Stefani’s 10-under round at The Cascades Club put him in the lead at 16 under, three strokes ahead of Randy Lowry of Spring, and five clear of Michael Whitehead of Sugar Land. Kolton Crawford of Mansfield, the low amateur, is in fourth at 8 under.

Stefani, 29, has been chasing the dream, like most in the field, since he graduated from Lamar in 2005.

``I’m almost 30 years old. I’m tired of playing on the mini tours,’’ he said, laughing. ``I’ve got a lot of friends out here but I want to be on the PGA Tour. That’s what we all want.’’

The road has been long and bumpy. Stefani has advanced to the second stage of the PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament four times, but never made finals. He once came within one stroke.

He knows he can play at the top level, and his scores show that he’s capable. But he has not been able to play his best through the six-round torture that is Q-School.

``The only thing that’s prevented me from being there is not playing well at the right times,’’ he said. ``It’s not because I don’t’ feel I’m good enough, it’s because I haven’t played well enough at the right times.’’

Stefani, a powerful 6-3, probably played the best round of his life on Saturday. He made 10 birdies and no bogeys. And, as they say, he left a couple out there.

He hit inside eight feet for birdies on 2 and 3. He made a 15-foot putt for birdie on 6, a 20-footer for birdie on 7, and then just missed a 20-footer for eagle on 8. He made the turn at 29.

After being lulled by five straight pars, Stefani finished with a flourish. On the par-5 14th, he drove into the 18th fairway, but recovered with a 3-iron to 20 feet and a two-putt birdie. He got up and down from the greenside bunker on 15, making a five-foot putt for birdie. Then after making birdie on 17, he rolled in a 22-foot downhill putt for eagle on 18.

``I’ve shot 10-under one other time, in a winter series event,’’ Stefani said. ``But to shoot 10 under in this event means more to me than any other round that I’ve ever played. This is probably my favorite tournament to come to each year. I’ve got good memories of the golf course.’’

Crawford, who finished third at the Texas State Amateur, is getting his game ready for his first year at Arkansas.

Crawford was 3-over through the first 10 holes of the tournament. Since then, he has made 13 birdies and two bogeys, carving out rounds of 68-67-67.

``I’ve been hitting my long irons great,’’ Crawford said. ``I’m playing solid, but I’d like to make a few more putts.’’

Stefani tied for second in 2008, and was seventh last year.

On Sunday, he will get one step closer to his dream, regardless of where he finishes.

``It’s good to be in the final group. That’s what we play for,’’ he said. ``The more we challenge ourselves, the more we eventually are going to get out of ourselves. From every experience, whether you win or lose, you always learn. It’s a process of learning the game.’’

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