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Jeff Jacobs: Near-Perfect Homecoming Date For Madison’s Brett Stegmaier

The birthday boy from Madison was there that Sunday in 2000. Brett Stegmaier was in the gallery as Notah Begay dueled Mark Calcavecchia through the final holes, Begay ultimately staring down a 22-foot birdie putt to win the Canon Greater Hartford Open by one stroke with an eye-popping 20-under par.

"That was a moment where I thought, wow, I need to play in this tournament and play on the tour," Stegmaier said Thursday. "To be here now, it's almost a little surreal."

July 2, 2000, was his 17th birthday and if it seems like half a lifetime ago to Stegmaier, that's because it was. He will be 34 in a couple of weeks. If Stegmaier ranks 2000 as "my greatest memory" among his youthful trips to Connecticut's great summer sporting event, sitting one stroke behind Jordan Spieth for the first round lead at the Travelers Championship has to rank as his most unexpected.

"It feels great," Stegmaier said after his 6-under-par round of 64 tied with Johnson Wagner for second. "It's been a rough year obviously. It's been coming together even though the results haven't shown it. This is a big confidence boost.

"It's my fifth major like I tell everybody [about Travelers]. It's the one I want to win the most other than a major, but I'm not going to think about that."

Stegmaier, who left professional golf once, almost left it a second time, and continues his search for his first PGA Tour victory, has made it his business not to think much these days. After a nice 2015-2016 season, he has missed 13 of 20 cuts, 12 of 15 since the first of January. His one Top 25 finish, 21st at The RSM Classic, came last November, and the $172,731 he has earned has him 175th in the FedEx Cup standings. The top 125 keep their Tour playing privileges for next season.

"Just being on Tour, I realize it's not the greatest thing in the world because it's still a job," Stegmaier said. "You've still got to grind. There are low points. But with the right perspective, to be here now talking to you guys is pretty cool."

He is staying with his parents in Hamden this week. And standing near the press conference, Bruce and Cindy Stegmaier smiled about the string of seven birdies their son sank over a nine-hole stretch.

"He has put a lot of pressure on himself, this being his sophomore year on the tour," Bruce said. "He did well, very well, last year and kind of expected to keep it rolling, and it didn't."

Stegmaier has used a mental coach, Paul Doolan, the past three months to alleviate pressure.

"It's gone well," said Stegmaier, who now lives in Florida. "When I played poorly, it was pretty rough. I was pretty hard on myself and people around me. Probably wasn't fair to them. I feel a lot better off the golf course. It's taken a little while for the results to show on the golf course, but obviously today is another step in the right direction."

Starting on the 10th hole, Stegmaier made a terrific bunker shot on 13 to start his birdie streak. A strong up and down on No. 5 gave him momentum to finish off the round pockmarked only by a bogey on his last hole.

Three of the seven birdies were from between 13 and 16 feet, a fourth was from 10.

Asked if this was his first under-par round at Cromwell, Stegmaier smiled and said, "I think it is, which is kind of sad."

He loves the course. TPC River Highlands has not loved him back. Making his PGA Tour debut on a sponsor's exemption in the 2006 Buick Championship, he shot 73 and 76 and missed the cut. In 2010, he was a Monday qualifier for the Travelers, shot 72 and 74 and missed the cut. Last year, he shot 72 and 77 and missed the cut.

"It's like wanting to date a girl that hates you," Stegmaier said the other day to the New Haven Register about TPC River Highlands.

"I really like the course," Stegmaier said. "I don't have a whole lot of success on it, which is kind of weird. Probably just put too much pressure on myself coming here. This year was pretty low key, not expecting much and I think the results have shown that that's probably the best way to go."

The key to his round? He said it more than once:

"Low expectations."

The other key? He said it more than once:

"Not thinking too much."

If this sounds like a man who has endured golfing hardships, you are hearing right. Hand-Madison, Avon Old Farms, University of Florida, his young game ran through an upward trajectory. By August 2009, however, he had endured two surgeries on his left wrist and was scuffling in an eGolf Professional Tour event in South Carolina when he had enough. He quit. He took a job as an assistant pro at Silver Spring Country Club in Ridgefield. He qualified for the Travelers in 2010 and after that, he has said, "It was hard to go back to folding shirts and answering phones."

Stegmaier pushed his way to the final stage of the PGA Tour qualifying school and onto the Web.com Tour. He played well at times, but fell short of getting his PGA Tour card. Finally, after missing a handful of consecutive Web.com cuts, skipping meals to save cash, he came close to quitting again in 2015. He found some answers in his game. He rebounded. He finished ninth in the Web.com Tour finals to gain a spot on the PGA Tour.

"I've never really wanted to sit at a desk and work for a living, even though once you get out here, you realize this is work," Stegmaier said. "It's not just all fun. But yeah, the fact that the money is so good, it's hard to let go of that. There's such a big pot of gold at the end of the rainbow."

He had six PGA Tour Top 25 finishes in the 2015-2016 season, three in the top 10. In October of 2015, he took second at the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open in his second PGA Tour appearance of the season. He had a tie for ninth at the St. Jude Classic in June 2016, but by the time he got to the Travelers in August, he was slumping.

"I had a pretty poor attitude last year coming here," Stegmaier said. "You want to play well in front of the people that care about you obviously. This year, I certainly didn't expect to play poorly but it's almost like, 'I don't care how I play.'"

Beyond Bruce and Cindy, Stegmaier's sister, brother-in-law and a bunch of his parents' friends walked the course with him Thursday.

"I don't have a whole lot of connections here anymore because I've been gone for probably 15 years," Stegmaier said. "But certainly people yell out 'Madison, Connecticut!' from the crowd, which is pretty cool."

Spieth, Rory McIlroy and a big-name field also walk with him this week.

"It's nice the fact that it's my home event and a bunch of the top players have decided to play," Stegmaier said. "Let's you know how good the tournament is.

"I always seemed to play well when I really, really needed it, which is what I'm hoping I can do to finish off this year, since I'm pretty far behind the 8-ball [for his 2017-2018 PGA Tour card]. I can make some noise."

That's all out in front of the guy who grew up only about a half hour from the course. On Thursday, Stegmaier was only thinking about a good night's sleep, a nice warmup and a stress-free second round Friday.

"I'll definitely remember this round now and wipe away all the previous rounds here," he said. "It's nice to have some good images on holes. But I'm not going to overblow it. It's one round."

Yet here's the thing. TPC River Highlands, she wants another date with the kid from Madison. She doesn't hate him.

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