Paul Stankowski won the Hawaiian Open in 1997 and thought he was on top of the world. He was wrong
POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, Jan 13, 2011
LAST UPDATED: 01:36 p.m. HST, Jan 13, 2011
Back in a remarkable few months of another golf life, Paul Stankowski won on the Nike (now Nationwide) and PGA tours on consecutive weeks. Then he held off David Ishii in Japan and Fred Couples at Kapalua and out-birdied Jim Furyk to capture the 1997 United Airlines Hawaiian Open.
Stankowski, now 41 and with a rebuilt swing, left wrist and right shoulder, has not won since.
"It's been a long time since the Hawaiian Open in 1997," says Stankowski, who tees off today in the first round of the Sony Open in Hawaii. "I haven't won. Well, I won on the Gateway Tour two years ago, but there were only 11 people playing. It felt good to hoist the trophy. I never thought I'd get back to that place again after so long."
He is not the first or last golfer who will lose his game to injuries and doubt. But Stankowski does have a thought-provoking take on the struggles that started when he felt a twinge in his wrist in 2002.
What followed was a test of faith he has come to celebrate. The man who won here 14 years ago, and spoke the next year of "stepping it up and taking it to the next level," is not the man now trying to make his first cut at Waialae Country Club since 1999.
"Professionally speaking I'd definitely say I'm more seasoned," Stankowski says. "It's like a cast-iron skillet. I was in the infancy of being made then, being planned out. Through all the injuries and bad golf ... those were the times I was on the fire and being beaten up and pounded and shaped. As I sit here today I feel like God has done an amazing job changing my heart."
He calls his 1998 comment about stepping it up the "moment my game tanked."
"We have praise heaped on us all the time because we're professional golfers," Stankowski says. "I look back on my career and see moments of humility and exultation. That comment I made to step it up, it really hit me like a ton of bricks. The statement within a statement was I've got the power to do whatever I want in my career and now it's time to take it deeper.
"I gave it my best before that so that was really an immature statement to make. I look back 11 years later and realize I had way too much faith in my ability to do things.
"I put my faith in the Lord and for me to believe I've got control over this I set myself up for epic failure and looking back that's exactly what happened. I believe God allowed me to go through some pretty crappy times professionally to eventually bring me back to him."
By 2003 he couldn't hold a club in front of him with his left hand and by 2005, playing on the power of anti-inflammatories, he figured his career was over. He found relief in physical therapy, then was shot down again in 2006 by a pain that felt like a "blow torch in my wrist."
On the golf course, the former UTEP All-American was stymied. He had kept his card fairly easily from 1996 to 2003, making the bulk of his $7 million in career earnings and reaching a high of No. 21 on the money list in 1997. But off the course, with two young children at home in Dallas, he was elated.
"As a dad, the injuries were a great thing for me," he says. "I got time to bond with my kids and wife."
There would ultimately be two wrist surgeries and a shoulder surgery. He has been pain-free since Dec. 20, 2007, but his swing was so bad by then he chose between clubs with graphite shafts and those with steel shafts each week.
Last year he looked to new coach Mike Abbott for a new swing that would allow him to draw the ball after years of playing a cut, and "take the flip out of my left hand."
He got his first two top-10 finishes in six years and his scoring average dropped below 70. Stankowski won $667,000, jumped 550 spots in the Golfweek rankings, to No. 143, and returned to Q-School for the fourth time in five years, tying for ninth to become fully exempt.
He tees off today at soggy Waialae, which took in 2 inches of rain yesterday morning, feeling like a "41-year-old rookie." He appreciates, of all things, how little power he actually holds.
"I've learned I am powerless and that's such a freeing position to be in," he says. "I'm very thankful to know I don't have control.
"Having everything taken away was one of the best things that could have happened professionally. I don't know what will happen beyond here, but I did learn a ton through those times. I learned to not hold golf with closed hands too tightly. I've got to hold everything I love dear in the palm of my hand, open. If God chooses to take it from me I don't want to fight him for it. ... It's a gift."
The Sony Open in Hawaii pro-am at Waialae Country Club and satellite event at Mid-Pacific Country Club were canceled before 9 a.m. yesterday due to the driving rains that swamped the courses.
The pro-ams will not be made up as the four-day, $5.5 million Sony Open is scheduled to tee off at 7:10 a.m. today when the first groups of pros begin competition.
The pro-am is a major charity fundraiser worth more than $500,000. Instead of golf, the players were treated to time with the pros at a nearby hotel, a PGA Tour spokesman said.