by Garrett Johnston
Kyle Stanley enters his second Masters this week playing some very good golf.
Though he missed the cut in two of his three West Coast swing events, Stanley posted a top 25 in Mexico, a tie for 14th at Bay Hill, and made it to the World Golf Championships Dell Technologies Match Play quarterfinals in Austin two weeks ago, beating reigning Masters champion Sergio Garcia along the way.
The Gig Harbor, Wash. native feels his game is much different and improved this time around the lush ground of Augusta National versus during his maiden Masters in 2012.
“I predominantly play a fade now versus a draw back then,” Stanley said. “In terms of overall game, I definitely feel like it’s across the board better now than in 2012. Obviously you need to have the full package when you play each round at Augusta.”
Stanley, a two-time winner on the PGA TOUR, was twice named the WSGA Men’s Player of the Year, in 2007 and 2008. He attended Bellarmine Prep in Tacoma, then Clemson University, where he was a two-time first team All-American. He was selected for Team USA in the ’07 Walker Cup, and in 2009 received the Ben Hogan Award for best collegiate golfer.
So what element specifically has improved the most in his game since he shot 75-76 to miss the cut in 2012?
“I’ve really improved my ball-striking and driving,” Stanley said. “My driving statistics are much better.”
The 30-year-old’s driving accuracy, which means the amount of fairways finds of the tee, was 124th on the PGA TOUR in 2012 at 59 percent.
This year is a completely different story as he’s ranked third at 71 percent.
The downside to his driving statistics is his distance has decreased significantly. In 2012 he ranked 8th on the PGA TOUR at 306.9 yards per drive. This year he ranks 140th at 291.2 yards per drive.
But Augusta National doesn’t necessarily favor short or long hitters. Both types have won here, including Trevor Immelman and Zach Johnson on the short side and Bubba Watson and Adam Scott on the longer side.
If anything, where Augusta often separates contenders from pretenders is on and around the greens.
Zach Johnson, the 2007 champion, knows how challenging the greens at Augusta can be, but he also understands that you can learn them over time.
“Augusta is the most predictable golf course we play all year, especially around the greens,” Johnson said. “The slopes are severe, but they don’t change. So you know exactly what to expect.”
Though Stanley may not know the greens as well as the former champ, he agrees that short-game prowess is a key component to success.
“My putting and short-game are starting to come around, but I think a course like Augusta fits for players who really hit those shorter shots well.”
In two rounds in 2012, what images stuck out most to Stanley?
“That year the golf course was so soft, you’d hit a five iron into the green and it would be a foot in front of your pitch-mark, so it was a little hard for me to get over the fact that when I think Augusta I think fast and firm golf,” Stanley said.
Ultimately, the conditions were so soft that Stanley felt it hurt his strengths.
“The course playing so soft was definitely not what I was expecting. I think this year I highly doubt it will play like that,” Stanley said. “I would rather see it firm and fast because I’m a high-ball hitter.
“The conditions that week were pretty unreasonable, tons of mud balls. It was a little bit hard for me to get over that. It was hard to get a good judgement of the course.”
What he did appreciate about the course however was the iconic Amen Corner from 11 green to 13 tee.
Like most golfers, that stretch was one of the most vivid from his memory.
“It’s really just so cool,” Stanley said. “Twelve is such a cool hole. Thirteen is really a fun par-5 with a risk-reward. If you hit a good drive you’re going to have some options.”
As golf fans, we all remember Ken Venturi’s famous quote that “The Masters doesn’t begin until the back nine on Sunday.”
For Stanley, what would it mean to be in that hunt late into Sunday afternoon.
“It would mean a lot,” Stanley said. “It’s really a position I haven’t been in. Maybe that’s the next step. I like where my game’s at, I’ve just got to keep doing what I’m doing and we’ll see what happens.”
It’s hard for any of us to not be excited to see what happens at this Masters.
Garrett Johnston is a writer and video producer. Follow him on Twitter @JohnstonGarrett