Kemper provides a course for starts

This week's tourney chance for unknowns to find winning stroke


May 23, 2001|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

POTOMAC -- Paul Stankowski can pinpoint the moment when his life on the PGA Tour changed dramatically, when the success he found during a two-year period began to fade.

It was a few days before the start of the 1997 PGA Championship at Winged Foot. Stankowski, then considered one of the tour's rising stars, needed to finish in the top three to make the Ryder Cup team.

"I started changing my swing, from being very steep to being flat," Stankowski said yesterday. "I didn't like the way I looked on videotape. The next two weeks, I hit probably 30 percent of the fairways. It took me a couple of years to get out of that."

Once ranked among the top 30 players in the world, Stankowski is 105th going into this week's $3.5 million Kemper Insurance Open, which begins tomorrow at the Tournament Players Club at Avenel.

But Stankowski is now closer to where he was than at any other time in the past four years, when he saw himself free fall from 21st on the tour money list in 1997 to 113th in 1999.

After moving up to 70th last year, Stankowski is ranked 49th in earnings this year, with a good chunk of it coming from a second-place check for $378,000 he took home from the Bob Hope Classic in February.

That week, too, Stankowski worked hard on changing his swing. He is nearly back to the swing he used during his two tour victories, in the 1996 BellSouth Classic and the 1997 Hawaiian Open.

"Change is definitely good," said Stankowski, 31. "But sometimes you hope you don't play that good right after you make some changes, because it all can be a big tease."

The field for this year's Kemper is filled with many stories similar to Stankowski's. Most of the 156 players are looking to recapture the magic that was lost somewhere along the way.

The Kemper's biggest name, Phil Mickelson, is trying to find the putting stroke that helped him win four times last year and move up to second in the world behind Tiger Woods.

Former major champions such as Justin Leonard, Lee Janzen, John Daly, Mark O'Meara and Corey Pavin are trying to win again, while other former major winners such as Curtis Strange, Ben Crenshaw, Scott Simpson and Larry Mize are looking for one last blast from the past.

And then there are the players who are hoping to find their way out of oblivion, if only for a week.

One of them might become another Rich Beem, who won here for the first (and only) time two years ago, or Tom Scherrer, who did the same thing last year. One of them might also become Leonard, whose victory in 1997 was a launching pad for his British Open victory a couple of months later.

The list of potential champions this week is seemingly endless.

"A few years ago, there were a handful to 15 or 20 players who could actually win a tournament," said Tommy Tolles, in his seventh year on tour and still looking for his first tournament win. "A lot of people thought they could win. A lot of people believe they could win. But only 10 or 15 people knew they could win.

"In the last few years, the young players come up having absolutely no fear of any pin [placement], any course or any player. That changed the thinking of the way you went out. Every hole is a birdie hole, and that's the way you have to approach it. Nobody shows any fear anymore."

Tolles was once among the fearless, on the brink of the big time. A late bloomer who didn't make the tour until he was 28 in 1994, he led The Players Championship after the second and third rounds in 1996, and finished tied for second. He finished tied for third later that year in the PGA Championship.

Though he never won a tournament, Tolles ended the year 16th on the money list. The next year, he made the cut in 22 of 25 tournaments, finished tied for fifth in the U.S. Open and wound up 27th on the money list. By last year, Tolles was down to 180th and had lost his playing card.

"A couple of years ago when I had the success, I wasn't thinking about much; I just expected to play well," said Tolles, now 34. "The last few years have been kind of a struggle. This year has also been a struggle. Whether I'm getting in my own way, whether it's mechanical, there are a lot of variables. It's just a matter of finding the right one."

Tolles, who has missed the cut in eight of the 12 events in which he has played this year, is not alone in the quest. It's a virtual search party, joined weekly by players who only months before appeared to be at the top of their games.

A year ago, Kirk Triplett had reached the pinnacle of a rather nondescript 11-year PGA Tour career. He won his first tournament, the Nissan Open. He made the Presidents Cup team, and contributed to his team's one-sided victory. He finished 11th on the money list with more than $2 million in earnings.

Triplett is currently 48th, one spot ahead of Stankowski.

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