Former Oakland University golfer Brian Stuard ranks 10th on the PGA Tour money list this season, mostly because he's 25th in putting average. (Eugene Tanner / Associated Press)
Even on the challenging, 7,000-yard courses PGA golfers play, the last few feet often matter most.
Thanks in part to a new putter, Jackson native Brian Stuard has used success with the flat stick to win a career-best $1.2 million in earnings early in the 2014 season.
Already with three top-six finishes since October, when this year’s season began, the former Oakland University standout currently ranks 10th on the PGA Tour money list, and he credits his improved putting and familiarity with the courses for the strong start.
At the OHL Classic at Mayakoba in Riviera Maya, Mexico, in November, Stuard finished second after going 72 holes without a three-putt. After a two-month vacation, including a six-week stretch when he didn’t pick up a club, Stuard came in sixth at the Sony Open in Honolulu last month and went 35 straight holes without a three-putt. A week later, he finished fifth at the Humana Challenge in La Quinta, Calif., and had a 43-hole streak without a three-putt.
“I think the putting has been the key,” said Stuard, who ranks 25th in putting average this season. “I feel like if you putt well out here, then you’re going to finish well in the tournament. Everybody hits the ball well. It’s just the guys that putt well that week finish in first or second.”
Stuard, who now lives in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., has two second-place finishes in his three seasons on the PGA Tour, and after accomplishing his goal of retaining his Tour card in 2013, the humble 31-year-old is shooting for that first victory.
“The first (goal) is just feel like I’m getting better each week,” he said. “Hopefully I can play well enough to get into the PGA Championship and other things, and then, obviously, I feel like I want to win a tournament this year.”
Sure, Stuard would like to qualify for the Master’s, and he currently ranks 12th in the U.S. Ryder Cup standings. But he’s not thinking about either possibility right now.
“I think I’m just trying to focus on each tournament and play the best I can,” he said.
Better every year
One reason Stuard is optimistic for the future is he’s still improving.
In his final season at Oakland before turning pro in 2005, Stuard was the Mid-Continent Conference Player of the Year and won the conference tournament, helping convince him to take a shot at professional golf.
“Every year I felt like I got a little better. I wasn’t sure if I could do it, but I wanted to try,” he said.
After playing on the NGA Tour in 2006 and 2007, Stuard moved up to the Web.com Tour and earned a PGA card for the 2010 season.
Stuard’s first PGA stint started well with a 25th-place finish in his first event, the Sony Open, and three tournaments later, he finished second at the Mayakoba Golf Classic in Cancun, Mexico. Although he made more than $536,000, Stuard missed the cut in 15 of 28 tournaments and was bumped back down to the Web.com Tour after finishing 164th in the FedEx Cup standings. Golfers who finish in the top 125 automatically stay on the PGA Tour for the next season.
After two more seasons on Web.com, Stuard qualified for the PGA Tour again in 2013 and started even better than in 2010, with three top-10 finishes in the first six tournaments. By the end of the season, he earned more than $1 million and finished 78th on the FedEx Cup leaderboard, helping him remain on Tour for 2014.
Even though he’s making big bucks this season, Stuard said most of his impressive earnings have gone straight to the bank, and he spends much of his off time with family either in Michigan or Texas.
Not much has changed in Stuard’s game over the years, and he still works with Jackson-based PGA professional instructor Gary Robinson, with whom he’s worked since he went to Napoleon High.
One difference, though, is Stuard said he changed how he practiced a few years ago. Whether he’s playing in a practice round or just on the practice range, Stuard said he puts himself in real situations as opposed to simply working on his form.
He also switched to an Odyssey 2-Ball putter with counter-balanced weight last fall.
“I just feel like I can read it, then just make a stroke and it’s going to be a good putt,” he said.
Playing some of these courses multiple times has helped, too. Stuard has played in the Sony Open three times, finishing in the top 25 each year.
This was Stuard’s second time playing in the Humana Challenge at La Quinta Country Club in California. After tying for 10th in 2013, Stuard finished fifth there last month.
“I think it’s just a comfort level for me,” he said. “I feel like I know the golf courses a lot better, and I just feel like I belong out here, rather than just getting my feet wet.”
And Stuard’s comfort level should only continue to improve as he golfs at more courses he played in 2010 and 2013.
Stuard won’t be playing this weekend at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, instead taking the week off after playing four tournaments in a row, but he plans to return next week for the Northern Trust Open at Riviera Country Club just outside Los Angeles.
When he returns to action, Stuard said he’ll try to keep improving on little aspects of the game, and he hopes his putter stays hot.
“I’ve been pretty fortunate to get to do this,” he said. “I’ve gone to a lot of cool places and gotten to play some amazing courses, and I’ve been pretty lucky.”