'It means a lot': Michigan’s Stuard gets first win

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
Brian Stuard holds up the winner's trophy after taking the PGA Tour's Zurich Classic on Monday.

A few hours after he had hit the shot of his life, the one that would lead him to his first career PGA Tour victory, Brian Stuard had hardly had a chance to sit down and process what he’d just done.

The 33-year-old native of Jackson and Oakland University alum won the Zurich Classic in a playoff on Monday, with a birdie on the par-5 18th hole at TPC Louisiana, as Jamie Lovemark made par, on the second playoff hole. The third man in the playoff, Byeong-Hun An of Korea, was eliminated on the first playoff hole, also No. 18 at the 7,341-yard course in Avondale, La.

Stuard calmed his nerves long enough to stroke in his final putt of just a little more than 2 feet, which came after a 7-iron from 171 yards that was nearly perfect.

The celebration ensued. A goal almost 12 years in the making had finally come to fruition for Stuard, and a couple of hours later, he finally grabbed his phone – one jam-packed full of messages.

“The first person I called was my dad,” Stuard said. “It was pretty emotional, but that’s to be expected. I think he’s a pretty proud dad today.”

Stuard had rounds of 64, 68 and 69 for a 15-under total of 201 and pocketed a winner’s check for a cool $1.26 million. The tournament was shortened to 54 holes due to rain.

That probably goes without saying considering the journey Stuard has taken since turning pro in 2005. He played on the Hooters Tour in 2006 and 2007 before making it to the Web.com Tour – the PGA’s top developmental tour – in 2008. From there it’s been plenty of back and forth.

Watch: Brian Stuard press conference after win

Stuard played mostly on the PGA Tour in 2010, as well as 2013-15. There have been close calls. In his rookie season on Tour in 2010, he finished second at the Mayakoba Golf Classic and had another runner-up finish at the same event in 2014, a season that included three top-10 finishes.

But the consistency was hard to find, and for most of the 2015 season, as Stuard tried to adjust his swing, the results were far from what he’d hoped. It led to conditional status on the PGA Tour this season, something he won’t have to worry about for a while.

The win gives him a two-year exemption on Tour and allows him to play in next year’s Masters.

“I think it’s pretty rewarding,” Stuard said. “I’ve been playing professionally since 2005 and there’s a lot of ups and downs. It’s a tough game to master, I guess, and golf is one where it can always be better. To finally think to yourself, ‘Man, that was pretty good.’ Even if you finish top 10 you think, ‘Man, if I could have been a couple better here or there.’ But it’s pretty rewarding to think about all the hard work and all the sweat and tears and ups and downs. It’s a pretty cool feeling.”

Stuard likely would have been no one’s pick to win coming into the week in New Orleans. He was ranked No. 513 in world and had earned $70,095 to rank No. 188 on the money list going into this week’s tournament, with one top-25 finish, in seven starts.

But things started to turn around last week with 55th place finish at the Valero Texas Open, something Stuard credits to a trip back to Michigan to work with his coach, Gary Robinson.

“Last year we kind of tinkered with a few things and didn’t really work out too well and I just didn’t get comfortable with it,” Stuard said. “So this time it was trying to go back to what I feel comfortable with and what works for me. When I was up there it was just kind of a few days of just kind of going over that and trying to find that groove that it seems like I used to have.

“Last week I thought it was a little better and then practice this week leading up to the tournament was pretty good and I felt pretty confident.”

Brian Stuard hits his tee shot on the ninth hole Monday morning.

It also helped that Stuard stared using a new Odyssey Fang putter this week. He finished the tournament without a bogey and made 46 of 46 putts from inside 10 feet.

“I just picked it up last week and for whatever reason it felt really good in my hands,” Stuard said. “I feel like I can line it up really well, really easy, and it’s been great.”

It helped him line up the last putt just fine, one that was far more nerve-racking than most 2-footers.

“I was pretty nervous,” Stuard said. “It was all I could do to stop the shaking and put a good stroke on it.”

He put it in the center of the cup, tipped his cap and shook hands with his caddie.

Stuard was reserved, not yet able to process the accomplishment. Back in Michigan, the praise was already pouring in, including from Oakland University, where he was just inducted in late April into the school’s Hall of Honor.

“This is just awesome,” Oakland men’s basketball coach Greg Kampe said. “Brian was just on campus last week as we inducted him into our hall of fame. A great young man who has worked his tail off all of Grizz nation is happy for Brian.”

Added athletic director Jeff Konya: “We are proud of our recent Oakland University Athletics Hall of Honor inductee for his first PGA victory. I hope it is the first of many because it couldn't happen to a nicer or more humble person.”

Fellow PGA Tour member Tom Gillis, a Lake Orion native who attended Oakland Community College, first met Stuard when he was a freshman at Oakland University. Then-golf coach Dave DeWulf saw something special in Stuard, so he invited Gillis to come to campus so Stuard could caddy for him for nine holes and they could get to know each other.

DeWulf passed away in October at the age of 66.

“I'm sure Dave was shining down on him today," Gillis said.

Gillis and Stuard's paths have crossed plenty since that day in Rochester, including on the PGA Tour and Web.com Tour, and even locally, in the 2008 Michigan Open, which Gillis won by three shots over runner-up Stuard.

"He's hard on himself, I've seen that. Probably harder than he should be," said Gillis, 47, who came close to his first PGA Tour victory last July, losing the John Deere Classic to red-hot Jordan Spieth in a playoff. "I'm so happy for him.

"He's a good kid. It's all he ever wanted to do, was this.”

Now he’s done it.

“To finally kind of get over the top, that’s a really great feeling and I just, I don’t know,” Stuard said. “It’s hard to put into words what all this support from everybody means. It really means a lot.”

mcharboneau@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/mattcharboneau

Tony Paul contributed to this report.