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 ID 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 ever)' mailbox on the street.