And on Saturday at Torrey Pines, a place that once was the personal playground of the former world No. 1, a place where Woods won seven times, counting the 2008 U.S. Open, Stanley was doing his best imitation of his childhood idol.
He matched Woods’ 54-hole record of 18-under 198, which gave Stanley a five-stroke lead he modestly called “nice-sized” entering Sunday’s final round. Granted, Tiger’s was bigger in 2008, eight strokes to be exact, but who’s counting?
What’s important is that Stanley has a chance to win his first PGA TOUR event just 41 starts into that career. One stroke, five strokes, eight strokes, it doesn’t matter. What does is what happens on Sunday afternoon and whether he’s the one hoisting that trophy on the 18th green.
The last time a player made the Farmers Insurance Open his first win was more than two decades ago in 1991 when Jay Don Blake shot 20 under to beat Bill Sander by two strokes. Blake started the final round two strokes off the pace but closed with a 67 to seal the deal.
Stanley, on the other hand, has held at least a share of the lead since Thursday when he opened with a 62 on the North Course. He got to that position by playing what he calls “boring” golf — and don’t expect any changes on Sunday.
“I think the biggest thing is you can’t necessarily go out there and try to protect (the lead),” Stanley said. “You’ve got to really just keep doing what got you to this point. I’m not going to be anymore conservative tomorrow. I’ll stick to my game plan off the tee and hopefully just continue to give myself a lot of chances.”
John Rollins, who is tied for second with TOUR rookie John Huh, said the key will be getting off to a fast start and putting some pressure on Stanley. Rollins, Bill Haas and Brandt Snedeker are the only players among the eight within seven strokes of the lead who have won a PGA TOUR event before, and two of the others are rookies like Huh.
“If a guy had a 10- or 12-shot lead, you’d feel pretty comfortable,” Rollins said. “But when you’re four or five shots, sometimes it’s hard to play with a big lead because you get kind of relaxed and everything else.
“Then next thing you know, a bad drive here and there leads to some bogeys, and birdie-bogey on the same hole and two shots could happen pretty quick.”
Stanley learned that first-hand at last year’s John Deere Classic — only he was the pursuer that day at TPC Deere Run. Steve Stricker had taken a five-stroke lead into the final round but Stanley doggedly gave chase, even seizing the lead on the back nine before Stricker birdied the last two holes for the one-stroke win.
“I wasn’t very discouraged,” Stanley recalled earlier in the week. Not even after he closed with a 66 but missed a 9-footer for par on the 72nd hole to force the playoff. “I think if anything I took some positives from it. …
“It was nice to really get in contention with a few holes left. That’s kind of the goal for this year is to just keep working hard and keep trying to get myself back there.”
Turns out, that goal was realized quicker than he thought.
Stanley has been extremely solid in all phases of the game this week at Torrey Pines. He ranks first in greens in regulation and second in driving distance with an average of 311.5 yards and one in the books Saturday that measured 341 — of course, “it was just downwind and I hit that as good as I can possibly hit it,” Stanley, not one to boast, was quick to point out. He has owned the par 5s, too, playing them in 10 under.
As impressive as Stanley is off the tee, though, he’s also tied for first in approach shot distance to pin and distance of putts made so his irons are precise and his putter cooperative. And maybe most importantly through the first three rounds, the Clemson product has looked like he has ice water in his veins.
“I’m kind of an internal guy, I guess,” Stanley, shrugging and flashing a shy smile, said in understatement.
On Sunday, he’ll test himself at Torrey Pines, just like the man whose poster the teenager looked at every morning has done so many times before. Even with the prodigious lead, Stanley refuses to get ahead of himself, though.
“Winning on TOUR is something that you dream about as a kid, so it would be certainly nice for it to happen,” Stanley said. “But like I said, I still have one round left and we’ll see.”