CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Chris Stroud was done. Checked out. Finished.
He’d arrived to a place, at age 35, where most golfers don’t allow themselves to arrive until much further down the road, because most golfers hang on until they no longer have any fingernails left.
Stroud had become a realist, understanding his own mortality in the game.
Thirteen years into a professional golf career that had had gone 289 PGA Tour starts without yielding a single moment in the victory circle and Stroud decided it was never going to happen.
Make no mistake: He wasn’t happy about it. But he’d accepted it.
And then Reno happened.
In his 290th career start on the PGA Tour, Stroud won the Barracuda Championship in Reno, Nevada, an opposite-field event while the game’s big guns were playing for the bigger money and prestige at the WGC-Bridgestone.
That win, the first of Stroud’s career, qualified him for the PGA Championship this week at Quail Hollow, where he began the third round Saturday just two shots off the lead at 6-under par, playing in the second-to-last group.
The fact that Stroud, a quintessential PGA Tour journeyman grinder, would finally strike it rich in Reno after all those years of toiling in the back woods of the tour, was beautifully poetic. He was golf’s version of that down-on-his luck guy pulling the one-armed bandit in the dusty casino finally hitting a jackpot.
The difference between Stroud and the cigarette-tugging, Jack Daniels-chugging casino dweller was this: His jackpot was less about the $594,000 winner’s check he received for the win and more that the victory secured his playing status on the PGA Tour for the next two years.
And it happened to get him into the PGA Championship this week, which, pending the proper end result, could change his life a lot more dramatically than the victory last week did, which changed his PGA Tour status from conditional to a full two-year exemption.
“All these years, I kept telling myself, ‘You’re going to win. You’re great,’ being super positive to myself,’’ Stroud said before playing his third round Saturday at Quail Hollow. “Then, I gave up on it. About six months ago, I said, ‘I’ve had 10 years of good run out here (on the PGA Tour). I’ve played well. I don’t care if I win anymore. I’m going to play the best I can and let’s just ride this out. I don’t know if I’m good enough to win or keep my card.’
“Since I surrendered to that it’s like all of a sudden the weight was off my shoulders. All these people told me this for years, but I had to get to the bottom to figure it out. I literally said, ‘I’m done. I’m just going to do the best I can and have as much fun as I can.’ All of a sudden it falls in my lap.”
In, of all places, run-down casino-town Reno, ultimate home to the Boulevard of Broken Dreams.
He won the Barracuda in a three-man playoff against Greg Owen and Richy Werenski.
Stroud’s plan after Reno was a flight home to Houston for a week off after playing in five consecutive tournaments. Those plans were hastily changed to a two-hour drive to Sacramento, Calif., to board a flight to Atlanta for a connector to Charlotte, were he arrived at about 2 a.m. Monday.
Three days later, Stroud was shooting a 3-under-par 68 to stand one shot off the lead.
Stroud followed that magic with another 68 in his second round, which he was forced to complete Saturday morning after play was suspended Friday night because of darkness. He played his final four holes in 1-under Saturday morning and began the third round just two shots behind leaders Kevin Kisner and Hideki Matsuyama.
Stroud has never played in a Masters. He’s played in four U.S. Opens, missing the cut in three of them and finishing tied for 47th in 2010, the last time he played in one. He’s played in one British Open, in 2014, and missed the cut. And, before this week, he’d played in three PGAs, missing the cut in two and finishing tied for 64th in 2014, which was the last time he played in a major.
“When I was 9 years old, I knew I wanted to be on the PGA Tour,’’ Stroud said. “It was a dream. When I got out here, my dream was to win. It’s at least a 20-year dream come true.”
Crazy thing is this: It can get even better if things fall right this weekend.