Former Oakland University standout Brian Stuard’s version of the 2020 Rocket Mortgage Classic is going to look much different this time around.
Encompassed by the COVID-19 pandemic, his new normal isn’t just social distancing, extra hand sanitizer and wearing a face mask — it’s playing in his home state without family and friends cheering for him.
The PGA Tour’s Rocket Mortgage Classic, which begins Thursday at the Detroit Golf Club, isn’t allowing spectators, meaning Stuard’s girlfriend, parents and close pals won’t be able to walk the course, embrace him when his round is complete or take him out for dinner afterward.
“It’s definitely the biggest difference,” the Jackson native said. “I mean, last year was something that I never really experienced before, having that many friends and family be able to watch and support me. It’s going to be a little bit different this year, a little quieter, but it’s still great to be back.”
Stuard, 37, tied for fifth at last year’s event by shooting 17-under-par 271 alongside Patrick Reed and four others. He was given about 100 tickets for his inner circle but, despite the added noise, never felt preoccupied.
This year, he didn’t get any tickets and won’t have the masses shouting his name when he tees off at noon. He’d rather have his family and friends around but also understands there will be fewer personal influences.
“I’m not sure if it will be better or worse for me this week, but last year was something that, like I said, I’ve never experienced that before playing a tournament in Michigan, having that many friends and family there,” Stuard said. “It’s just going to be tough to duplicate that obviously, but that’s kind of the goal, just to hopefully play well again.”
Since golf returned from its COVID-19 pause, Stuard has played in all three Tour events: Charles Schwab Challenge (tied for 43rd), RBC Heritage (tied for 52nd) and Travelers Championship (tied for 20th).
To succeed at the Rocket Mortgage Classic, he’s focused on accuracy rather than distance off the tee box. He averages 281.4 yards per drive, ranking him No. 215 among his competitors.
“Every fairway’s pretty much tree-lined,” he said. “You would rather be 150 in the fairway than 100 in the trees. I think accuracy is important every week, (but) I think this week is a little more important than some.”
He’s placing value on controlling the ball entering the greens because the surrounding grass is thicker than most courses.
At the 2019 Rocket Mortgage Classic, Stuard’s four-round scores were 66, 72, 65, 68. Nate Lashley won the inaugural event with a 25-under-par 263 to collect $1.3 million.
Stuard’s only Tour victory came in 2016 at the Zurich Classic of New Orleans. In 243 career events, he has two second-place finishes and 19 in the top 10. Three of his top-10 finishes came last season.
He has two top-10 finishes this season, tying for fourth in the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open and tying for 10th in The RSM Classic. He holds 100-1 odds to win this week.
And if Stuard is going to pull off an upset and notch his first victory in four years, he’ll have to do it without family and friends by his side.
“There’s definitely a desire to win again,” he said, “but I’m just trying to do as well as I can each week and hopefully I get a couple more chances to close the deal. But like you said, there’s always that desire to get back in the winner’s circle.”
Evan Petzold is a sports reporting intern at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold.