By Dan Reardon
Last week at the Wyndham Championship players were tossing out rounds in the low 60s like explanations in a Ryan Lochte interview. Seven different players shot 63 or better over the four days. Forgive Brett Stegmaier if he wasn’t overly impressed. Been there. Done that. When the PGA Tour rookie was 16 growing up in Connecticut, he did a little showing off for his mother with a 63 at New Haven Country Club, equaling the course record.
Around the Constitution State, Stegmaier was known as a tall kid (6’3″) with an effortless swing and a growing hardware collection. As a high school senior, he came within two strokes of qualifying for the U.S. Open at Bethpage. Buddy Alexander promised him warm winters if he would join his Gator program at the University of Florida. Stegmaier rewarded him with two SEC titles and an All-American career.
Turning professional in 2006, Stegmaier became a migrant golfer, looking to tee it up on any mini-tour he could find, and always anticipating the end of the year when he would pay his entry to Tour school and try to make it through. And every year would end the same.
The journey continued over the next six years. At one point a serious wrist injury threatened to end his playing career, and he briefly dropped the road-warrior routine to be an assistant club professional. A second wrist surgery restored his swing, and as his game improved. The dream of playing the Tour, first considered as an eight-year-old, was revived.
Finally, after years of nomad golf, he made it to the final stage of Tour qualifying in 2012. No more one-day shootouts and back in the car. “I probably should have given it up sooner, and if I hadn’t gotten to the final stage of Q School I would have given up.” He was headed to the Web.com Tour. “It took me a while to figure everything out. I always thought I had the talent,” Stegmaier told the New Haven Register. “I definitely didn’t like the idea of working for a living. …I definitely wasn’t going to work in the golf business so maybe I would have gone back to school if I hadn’t gotten through in Q School. I really have no idea what I would have done, but I’m glad I didn’t have to make that choice.”
For the next two and a half seasons, he was good enough to return the following year but always finished short of the ultimate goal. Then, in late August of 2015, counting down to the Web.com Tour Championship, his game found another gear. Stegmaier came up with three consecutive top 10s in the three weeks leading into the season finale. His money total was well short of the cutline for a PGA tour card, but the momentum carried him to opening rounds of 67-66. He added a steady 141 total on the weekend to finish T18 and became a card-carrying member of the PGA Tour for 2016.
Getting a ticket to ride turns a dream into reality. Trying to make it a round-trip pass is an entirely different challenge. Stegmaier found early success in the wraparound schedule for 2016. He used his Web.com formula in only his second start, the Shriners Hospital for Children Open in Las Vegas. A pair of opening 66s, with two more rounds in the 60s on the weekend left him at 15-under in a five-way tie for second to Smylie Kaufman. The rookie had a chance to make it a playoff with a chip at the 18th with Kaufman posted for more than an hour, but he came up short with the putter. “I was probably a foot in the fringe, so I probably just held up that extra foot. I like to die my putts in the hole, and sometimes you run the risk of leaving it short when you’re putting to tie, but I would still hit the ball like that. Good day overall, good week.”
A top 20 in his next start, and Stegmaier was making it look easy. It wasn’t. Over the next six months his performance chart reflected a recession with only one top 20 and nine missed cuts. Memphis in June offered a resuscitation. It was the same Stegmaier equation with an opening 67 followed by consecutive rounds in the 60s for a tie for ninth.
Flatlining again over the summer, he racked up three additional MCs before showing up at Wyndham outside the safe zone for a last chance at a card renewal. This time it was a Route 66 opener and a 64 finish on Sunday for the required top 10. Stegmaier rode that T5 final event not only to status for 2017 but a spot in the FedExCup playoffs.
A relieved and weary rookie was satisfied afterwards. “I didn’t even want to come here, to be honest. I’ve been pretty beaten up and down on myself, but somebody talked me into playing so certainly glad I did, obviously.”
Dan Reardon has covered golf for radio station KMOX in St. Louis for 32 years. In that time, he has covered more than 100 events, including majors and other PGA, LPGA and Champions Tour tournaments. During his broadcast career, Reardon conducted one-on-one interviews with three dozen members of the World Golf of Fame. He has contributed to many publications over the years and co-authored the book Golf’s Greatest Eighteen from Random House. Reardon served as Director of Media relations for LPGA events in both St. Louis and Chicago for 10 years.