Suddenly, scuffed-up career becomes manicured dream

April 12, 1996|By JOHN EISENBERG

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Masters plans? Sure, Paul Stankowski had 'em.

"I was planning on sitting in front of the TV all weekend, like I always do," he said yesterday. "I was looking forward to it."

Then he went out and won the PGA Tour's BellSouth Classic last weekend.

Change in plans, dude. Big-time.

The victory earned him the 93rd and last invitation to this year's Masters.

"Playing in the Masters, wow," Stankowski said yesterday. "Way cool."

He is 26 years old with a slacker's tongue, a blondish goatee, a linebacker's name and a long-shot story.

"I just didn't want to shoot 80," he said after beating that by six strokes in yesterday's first round at warm, sunny Augusta National.

He couldn't begin to envision this last week, last month, last year, last millennium.

He wasn't accomplished enough to play in the Masters, and he wasn't the kind of person who performed the stunning feats of derring-do needed to get him here.

"My life has been very mellow until now," he said. "I haven't had that much happen to me."

Much of what had happened recently had been unpleasant. A native of Oxnard, Calif., and a three-time All-American at Texas-El Paso, he lost his PGA Tour playing privileges last year after missing seven of the last nine cuts.

He got his privileges back at a qualifying school in December, but his career was so shaky that he chose to sell a new house he had built before he moved in. He and his wife rented a small apartment instead.

"I didn't want to get stuck with a big payment and no money coming in," he said.

Not exactly an advertisement for the power of positive thinking. But what was he supposed to think? He missed the first five cuts on the Tour this year, spraying the scoreboard with rounds in the high 70s.

He decided to drop down to the Nike Tour, golf's version of Triple-A ball. He made the cut at something called the Inland Empire Open, and then, glory be, strung together four straight rounds in the 60s to win the Louisiana Open two weeks ago.

Encouraged, he spent $500 to change his plane ticket and fly to Atlanta last week as an alternate for the BellSouth Classic. He was the last golfer to make the field when another pulled out with a bad back 12 hours before the tournament began.

By late Sunday afternoon he was in a playoff with another no-name player, Brandel Chamblee, who put a 1-iron in the water on the first hole. From nowhere, Stankowski suddenly was a Tour winner -- the first golfer ever to win on the Nike Tour one week and the PGA Tour the next.

He was invited to the Masters by fax late Sunday evening, got driving instructions from Atlanta to Augusta and took off. After a couple of breathless practice rounds, he teed off yesterday morning less than 100 hours after winning in Atlanta.

"I haven't begun to have time to let it all soak in," he said.

What did it feel like to stand on the first tee of the Masters with thousands of fans watching and applauding?

"Cool," he said. "Absolutely cool."

He claimed he wasn't awed, but his early play said otherwise. He bogeyed four of the first six holes, jabbing putts all over Augusta's famously slick greens.

"I couldn't get a putt close to the hole, much less in it," he said. "You hear about Augusta's greens, but you can't understand how tough they are until you play them. There are subtle breaks all over the place."

He was on the road to that 80 he had feared, but a birdie on No. 8 calmed him down, and birdies on the two par-5s on the back nine brought him back to within a stroke of par.

He gave back a stroke with "a silly bogey" at No. 17 and parred the last hole for a 74. It wasn't a terrific score on a day when the field skewered Augusta National and Greg Norman tied the course record, but Stankowski wasn't complaining.

"It's not bad considering how far behind I am as far as knowledge of the course," he said. "I made all sorts of mistakes of ignorance today that I won't make again, hopefully."

After signing his scorecard behind the 18th green, he hugged his wife and parents and did a long group interview.

"It seems like I've been talking to reporters nonstop for the last four days," he said. "I'm not complaining. I love the attention."

Someone asked if he would try to buy back that new house he had built and sold. A two-year Tour exemption, courtesy of his BellSouth victory, has provided stability in his career at last.

"My life has just changed completely," he said, "but I'm not going to think about any of that stuff yet. I'm just trying to get through the Masters."


Pub Date: 4/12/96

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