Shawn Stefani doesn’t look like a rookie.
He doesn’t act or speak like one either, and the 31-year-old Texan probably has more grind-it-out tournament experience than most in the 156-player field at the Tampa Bay Championship.
“My experience is going to help me,” said Stefani, who played on the Web.com Tour last year, winning twice with two other top-10 finishes. “Obviously, this is the PGA Tour and no longer the Web.com Tour. No discount to those guys, but this a lot different out here.”
So far, Stefani has been showing the crowd gathered at the Copperhead course at Innisbrook what those former mini-tour players have to offer. Stefani is the two-day leader after shooting a 1-under 70 on Friday, and at 7 under he had a one-stroke lead on Adam Scott and K.J. Choi.
If Stefani keeps up this pace, he can become the first rookie winner in the tournament’s 13-year history.
“I just wanted to go out there and hit each shot the best I could and really have some fun,” said Stefani, who finished tied for 39th at the Puerto Rico Open last week. “That’s really what I did, and though I didn’t play my best, I scrambled well.”
Stefani has only two bogeys over the first 36 holes and joins a group of rookies who have succeeded this season. Russell Henley won the Sony Open in January, and four other rookies have played in a final group: Scott Langley at the Sony Open, Brad Fritsch at Torrey Pines, James Hahn at Pebble Beach and Luke Guthrie at the Honda Classic two weeks ago.
Stefani finished 16th on the Web.com Tour money list in 2012 to earn his PGA Tour card.
“Really, golf is rough,” Stefani said, “but all you can do is stay positive. Eventually, if you stay positive enough, it’s going to go positively.”
Choi, who won this tournament in 2002 and 2006, was able to pull into a tie with Stefani with a birdie at the 15th, but he was bitten once entering the Snake Pit. Choi’s approach shot left him in the front rough and after a chip, the 42-year-old South Korean missed an 8-foot putt, leaving him with a second-day 67.
“The back side (of the course) is very difficult on 16, 17, even 18,” Choi said. “So (the) thing is patience. All my focus (is) on the golf course. Every hole is a new day.”
Choi, making his 11th start at Copperhead, is a tournament-best 36 under par on the course. He is tied for second with Scott. The 32-year-old Australian had a bogey-free 66, birdieing all four of the par-5 holes.
“To go bogey-free anywhere is good, and I think here is particularly good,” said Scott. “It’s quite a tricky golf course, and mistakes are easily made. (I’m) very pleased that I chipped away (at the lead) and got myself right in contention for the weekend.”
Trailing Stefani by two are former University of Georgia teammates Harris English (69) and Brian Harman (70). Jason Dufner and Peter Tomasulo also sit at 5 under, while tied for seventh are Tag Ridings and Sergio Garcia at 4 under.
Dufner, the world’s No. 18 golfer, ripped off a 66 Friday after shooting a 71 on Thursday. Dufner grabbed three birdies apiece on the front and back nine, but he had one hiccup: a bogey on the par-4 16th when his approach shot sailed over the green and left him with a 46-foot chip. However, Dufner would tame the middle of The Snake Pit with a birdie on the par-3 17th after hitting his tee shot to 10 feet.
“I probably scored better than I played,” Dufner said. “It was a decent day, but was able to take advantage and make some birdies.”