Stroud not looking like such a long shot

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The last man in the field could very well be the last man standing at the PGA Championship. Or perhaps Chris Stroud will just be floating.

The PGA Tour veteran has yet to really come down from the high altitude of Nevada after capturing his first title last Sunday at the Barracuda Championship in Reno, where he won a sudden-death playoff against Greg Owen and Richy Werenski.

If that doesn’t strike you as a world-class trio, it’s because they were toiling at the PGA Tour’s opposite-field event while Hideki Matsuyama was shooting a final-round 61 to capture the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational.

Stroud, 35, who has been playing as a pro for nearly 13 years, wasn’t about to get picky about his win and the stature of the tournament. And the good vibes have continued this week as he is a shot out of the lead at Quail Hollow, playing in just his ninth major championship.

“It’s at least a 20-year dream come true,” Stroud said.

Ranked 203rd in the world and fighting for his playing privileges a week ago, as he was outside of the top 150 in FedEx Cup points, Stroud is the epitome of the PGA Championship, the major that has the deepest field and often produces some surprising names on the leaderboard.

Kevin Kisner has led every day and stayed a shot out front Saturday with a 1-over-par 72 to finish at 206, 7 under par. The former University of Georgia golfer from South Carolina has two PGA Tour victories, including one earlier this year at the Colonial.

Stroud is a shot back, tied with Matsuyama, who is bidding to become the first Japanese male golfer to win a major championship. Two shots behind the leaders are Justin Thomas and Louis Oosthuizen.

Out of contention are tournament headliners Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy and Dustin Johnson. Jason Day, who played in the final group Saturday, shot himself out of the tournament with a 77.

Quail Hollow is proving to be quite the stern test, despite overnight rain that softened the fairways but did little to take the fire out of the greens. The course gave many players fits. Day made a quadruple-bogey 8 at the 18th and Rickie Fowler played the last three holes in 4 over par.

Stroud, despite his relative inexperience in major championships, managed to avoid disasters. He did bogey the last two holes, but the amazingly upbeat and positive golfer, who played collegiately at Lamar, hardly let it faze him.

“In college, my nickname was Mr. Positivity,” Stroud said. “It carried on playing golf. It definitely helped me early on in my career, just overcoming some very difficult situations. This is my 11th season, and to finally get a win is really magical.”

Stroud admitted there were some frustrations over the years, that it was tough to keep such a sunny outlook all of the time.

But his caddie, Casey Clendenon, said the key was taking his mind off the game. “When we play at home, he shoots 65 all the time,” he said. “Even out here today, the idea was to not think so much about it, not grind so much. He’s done a real nice job of trying to enjoy it.”

Stroud’s only way into the tournament came by winning last week, and a much-needed break was postponed by a shot at playing in a major.

Having competed in just eight majors and making only two cuts at the 2010 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach and the 2014 PGA at Valhalla, Stroud was hardly about to pass on this opportunity, despite looking forward to a trip home to Houston.

He scrambled to get a flight from Reno and didn’t make it to the course until Tuesday afternoon, exhausted.

And then there were all the notes of congratulations.

Stroud said he had “1,400 text messages, 55 voicemails and probably another 100 emails. I have replied to every single one of them. I’m a big believer in that. I told a few guys after golf is gone and done for me, all you have left is people and the relationships you have. I care more about people than I do about my golf. I was raised that way. I’m grateful. I’m grateful to have a chance to play on the tour and stay healthy.”

Now Stroud has a two-year PGA Tour exemption and true job security at age 35 for the first time in his career. He qualified for the Tournament of Champions in Hawaii. The opposite-field tournament doesn’t get him in the Masters, but a victory on Sunday at the PGA would get him to Augusta National for five years.

“I’ve dreamed about this for years, so it’s in there,” he said. “I know all these guys are going to be super nervous. I’m sure I will be, too. But like I said, last week just gave me an unbelievable sense of calm. I’ve never felt so relaxed on the golf course, and I think it’s a lot of reason why I’m playing so well.”

Prior to this tournament, Stroud had only 20 rounds in majors and had broken par just once with a scoring average of 75.1. He opened with consecutive 68s before his even-par third round.

Talk about a dream? If he wins, Stroud would become the second-lowest-ranked major champion since the Official World Golf Ranking was introduced in 1986. Only Ben Curtis — playing in his first major — was ranked lower at 396th when he won the 2003 Open.

“I’ve been out here a long time,” Stroud said. “I’ve got plenty of experience. Enjoy it. See what happens.”

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