The crystal glass from the Masters Tournament that sits in the
antique curio cabinet in Paul and Regina Stankowski's dining
room is filled with sand, imported sand, actually, scooped from
one of the bunkers at Augusta National and brought home to
Irving, Texas, last year as a souvenir just in case Paul's first
Masters turned out to be his last. Atop the sand are the tee and
the ball Stankowski used to birdie the final hole, along with
his player's badge. "It's nothing fancy," he says.
The mementos serve as a reminder, not only of how far Stankowski
has come, but also of how far he dreams of going. He made it
back to Augusta this year and finished fifth despite struggling
with his driver. "That blew me away," he says. "If I drive it
well there, I'm going to do well." There's more. "I'm going to
win there," he says softly, as if telling a secret. "I am. I'm
going to win the Masters."
Stankowski pauses, then laughs. The idea of a green jacket on
his shoulders is simply too much, and yet also possible. Pardon
him for acting as if he's having a blast playing the Tour. He
is, especially after five wins and several near misses around
the world in the last 15 months. If Tiger Woods hadn't been
born, the 27-year-old Stankowski would probably be the hottest
young player in the game. "I'm living a dream," Stankowski says.
"I'll crack up sometimes just thinking about it." As he did at
the Hawaiian Open in February after holing a 30-foot putt for
birdie on the third extra hole to extend a dramatic playoff with
Jim Furyk. Stankowski won on the next hole. "I laughed all the
way to the airport," he says.
A little more than a year ago golf wasn't as funny. Stankowski
was just another Q school grad trying to scratch his way onto
the Tour. When he couldn't get into the Players Championship
last year, he dropped down to the Nike tour and won the
Louisiana Open. Back on the big Tour the next week for the
BellSouth Classic, he won again, beating Brandel Chamblee in a
playoff and claiming the last spot in the Masters. Before the
year was over, Stankowski had won twice more, at the unofficial
Kapalua International and the Casio World Open in Japan. This
year, including his win in Hawaii, Stankowski has finished no
worse than 14th in 10 of his 16 starts. How far has he come?
Last year Stankowski would have had to go through a 36-hole
qualifier to get into the U.S. Open, so he didn't even try. In
two weeks he'll go to the Open at Congressional Country Club in
Bethesda, Md., as one of the favorites.
Stankowski is seriously long, ranking ninth on the Tour in
driving distance (277.8 yards). He makes lots of birdies,
especially since switching from glasses to contact lenses before
the '95 Q school. Suddenly he could see the line on his putts,
and it's amazing how quickly a guy can become a force when his
putts start going in.
Maybe you caught his act on Sunday in Augusta, where he was
among the B-flighters battling for second. After nuke-hooking
his second shot at the 15th over the green and into the pond
near the 16th tee, Stankowski faced a no-win situation on his
chip back. Leave a bump-and-run or a spinning pitch short, and
he would have another delicate shot. Hit anything less than a
perfect flop, and his ball would likely run across the sloped
green and into the pond in front. Stankowski studied the
situation for about as long as it takes Fred Couples to switch
channels, then grabbed his sand wedge and casually lobbed a
high, soft shot that rolled over and played dead next to the
cup. "It was the hardest shot I've ever seen--you don't know how
hard that shot is," says Rich Mayo, Stankowski's caddie and a
former teammate at Texas-El Paso. Tom Watson, Stankowski's idol
and his playing partner that day, called him Mickelson-ski after
the shot. As the gallery's applause subsided, Stankowski turned
to Mayo with the enthusiasm of a child who has just seen his
first rainbow. "That was pretty cool, wasn't it?" he said.
Cool. It's Stankowski's word. "If he has a backup word," Mayo
says, "I haven't heard it." Cool describes Stankowski, who grew
up on the coast north of Los Angeles, in Oxnard, although this
son of an Air Force master sergeant was no beach boy. He tried
surfing exactly once. "I got up on my board for a split second,"
he says. "Then I crashed, fell down, wiped out--whatever you
call it. I said, 'O.K., that was fun.'"
The only place Stankowski shows some heat is on a basketball
court. There, Mr. Cool is transformed into Psycho, the name he
was given 30 minutes into his first pickup game with the other
members of the UTEP golf team as a freshman in the fall of 1987.
"He turned into another guy on the basketball court," says one
of those teammates, Cameron Doan, now the head pro at El Paso
Country Club. "If you got in the paint, you were not going to
get off a shot against Psycho. It was weird because he never
moved fast at anything else."
"You've got to see him play," Mayo says. "He's an absolute spaz.
He's the Tasmanian Devil. He spins off, runs around and is
always jumping. If we played with a five-foul limit, he'd be
gone in three minutes, tops."
At UTEP, Stankowski was wild off the court too. The whole golf
team was. The players lived in adjoining town houses; picture
Delta House with spikes. There were parties and lots of beer.
One night the golfers built a roaring fire--out of tables and
chairs from the town houses. Another time, "after about 20 beers
too many," Mayo says, some players took a joyride in
Stankowski's battered blue Volkswagen Bug, plowing over every
mailbox on the street.
Late one night in December of his senior year, on the way back
from celebrating his 21st birthday, Stankowski pulled up behind
another car and harassed the driver by swerving and flashing his
high beams. The angry driver spun his car around and took off
after Stankowski. After a wild chase through the streets of El
Paso, a policeman pulled Stankowski over. The cop bought
Stankowski's story--he said he was being chased, neglecting to
mention that he had precipitated the incident--and let him off
after spotting a UTEP golf bag on the backseat. Stankowski's
scholarship would have been revoked had he been convicted of
drunken driving. "All I wanted to do in college was have fun,"
he says, "and I was going to have it no matter what lines I
Nine months before the car chase Stankowski had become a
born-again Christian, but living with the golf team was too much
of a temptation. It wasn't until three months later, in March,
at his brother Tom's wedding--a year to the day after his first
religious experience--that Stankowski gathered in a prayer
circle, and when it was his turn to pray, he says, "I lost it, I
absolutely lost it." He dedicated his life to Christ and quit
drinking. Two months later he met Regina, spotting her in
church. "It's as if He had a plan," Stankowski says. "Our paths
had almost crossed before, in the bad years, call it B.C.,
before Christ. Her dad lived across the street from the team
house. If I had met her before, we wouldn't be married. She
wouldn't have had anything to do with me. When I tell her some
of the stupid things I did, she can't believe it."
Stankowski is a profoundly changed and happy man now. He bears
witness at Fellowship of Christian Athletes meetings and has
attended two rallies put on by the conservative men's Christian
movement called Promise Keepers. "He's a different Stanko," says
Mayo, "but then again, he's still the same. We still have fun,
but he's not Psycho anymore."
Looking back, Stankowski's not surprised that his college career
was disappointing. In his first year the Miners finished second
in the NCAA Championship. Despite having three freshmen on that
team, they never again even won a Western Athletic Conference
title, although Stankowski was the WAC medalist his junior
season, in 1990. "We had no discipline, and it showed," he says.
"Our priorities were hit it a long ways, rip on each other, make
fun of everybody and party. Every practice round was a total
bashfest. If we had encouraged each other, we'd have done a lot
Stankowski's talent was obvious. At a college tournament in
Tulsa he played a three-wood shot from under a tree while on his
knees. He cut his ball around the tree in front of him and made
it check up on the green, 20 feet from the hole. "It was
unbelievable," says Doan, who saw the shot. "He has a knack for
stuff like that. He has a whole lot of natural ability and no
fear. The physical tools were always there."
The highlight of Stankowski's stay in El Paso was the day he
left, in 1991. "My best view of college was driving away from
campus the last day and seeing it in my rearview mirror,"
Stankowski says. He didn't have anything against UTEP or his
teammates. He just didn't care for school. He majored in
kinesiology and sports studies and failed to graduate. "I was
banking on playing golf for a living," Stankowski says. "A
degree was never in my thoughts. I wish I'd done it differently."
He also felt inhibited by the team concept, wearing a uniform
and getting to the course 90 minutes before his tee time. As
soon as he turned pro, he could do as he pleased, like show up
40 minutes before the start of his round. He felt freer, and his
game improved. In his first tournament as a pro, in a mini-tour
event in Palm Springs, Calif., Stankowski hit his opening tee
shot out-of-bounds. He was five over par after 12 holes--but had
a hot finish that included a hole in one--and shot 73. He added
a 68 and 66 and finished eighth. "From then on, it was totally
different," Stankowski says. "A ton of bricks was lifted off me."
Stankowski served a 2 1/2-year sentence on the Golden State tour
before successfully making it through the Tour's Q school in
1993. He had to qualify again in '95 but since then has quickly
evolved into a formidable talent, someone capable of winning a
major. If not the Open, then at Augusta.
Imagine Stankowski hosting the Masters champions dinner. He
laughs at the thought. "I'd make tacos for everybody," he says.
"I make great tacos. I'd make them myself if they'd let me."
Care for any hot sauce, Mr. Sarazen? Stankowski laughs again.
"Now, that," he says, "would be very cool."