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Scott Stallings offers best defense but falls short at Torrey Pines

Scott Stallings makes a run at second straight Farmers Insurance Open title but misses by inches

The drama began in earnest for Scott Stallings on the 17th hole here Sunday.

All the elements were laid out before him. Much of it is unavoidable stuff that comes with being the defending champion of a PGA Tour event. For Stallings, or any defending champion, it is all welcomed.

This one was the Farmers Insurance Open, and it is a bit more than just another tour stop.

First, the best players tend to come here.

Then, there is the Torrey Pines course setting, along some of Southern California's most scenic ocean cliffs, which is made for television and, correspondingly, for larger audiences. Ratings show that sunshine and ocean views in February are somehow soothing for those in parts of the country with snow banks up to window sills.

There is also the tough-course syndrome, kind of a macho response to a golf course that the players said was set up comparably to a U.S. Open tournament. If you follow golf closely, you know that you'd rather wrestle alligators than play those.

Players say there is a testosterone rush from dealing with courses such as Torrey Pines South, and it appeals to the best in the game.

For Stallings, and any defending champion, there is the warm memory of good things in familiar settings. Last year, he made a clutch birdie on the legendary 18th hole after hitting a gutsy second shot 221 yards over water and into a sloping green, instead of laying up to the usual 70.

He finished early then, and when nobody topped his score, he had two years of tour exemptions and a check for $1,098,000.

Defending champions seldom defend successfully. Just winning is tough enough. Doing so at the same place a year later really challenges the odds. Especially doing so in the same manner.

But there was Stallings, standing over a putt on the 17th green and deja vu enveloping him. He had gotten himself near the top of the leaderboard with a chip-in for eagle at No. 13. Now, he was in a trophy dash with Harris English, J.B. Holmes and Jason Day.

There was no question he was thinking about it. Anybody would.

"It's a nice week as defending champion," he said afterward, "to have a chance to win again."

He was at nine under par, his putt was tough but makeable, and he had the birdie-possible, par-five 18th ahead. Were his putt on 17 to roll in, along with another birdie on 18, he could post an 11-under-par score and lounge around in the clubhouse for the second straight year until the trophy presentation.

At the back of the 17th green, a roving reporter for the Sirius satellite radio network set it up perfectly, making sure it was clearly understood that this putt was downhill and lightning fast.

"It's the kind of putt where you just need to blow on it," he reported. "This one is more like a breather than a blower."

Stallings stroked it carefully, gauging the speed perfectly. But it settled an inch from the cup. Instead of taking the lead, he stayed in the group pressure cooker at the top of the leaderboard.

Still, there was No. 18, scene of his 2014 heroics. Drive it far and safe and pull out your 220-yard club and the other leaders, all playing behind him, would surely feel the jolt.

But Stallings' drive drifted right into a trap, right near a scoreboard that showed him as one of four players at nine under. There would be no heroic second shot, either, just a careful lay-up.

"We hit the spot we wanted to hit," Stalling said of his 120-yard approach.

But it still left him with another 20-footer for birdie, another "breather." And when it missed, this time by three inches, the only question left was how many would join him in a playoff.

A difference of four inches would have made him a clear winner. The headline writers would have called it a two-stroke victory, a dominant-sounding performance. It would have been a rare, and impressive, title defense.

It also would have been a perfect occasion for reporters to resurrect his 2014 victory scene, with his wife, Jennifer, chasing his 10-month-old son, Finn, around the 18th green during the trophy presentation. They could retell, with smiles all around, the story of his trip home that night, his long drive on Interstate 8 to his Arizona home with his $1,098,000 check in his pocket and his suddenly ailing wife and son throwing up in the car.

Maybe even his great quote from that night would be reprised, when he described stopping the car in the darkest desert to clean it up.

"I could feel the coyotes," he said.

But that was then, and this turned out to be a four-man playoff from which Stallings departed after he settled for par on the first extra hole. Holmes and Day survived to the next hole and Day won it, and the title, with a great iron shot to the par-three green and a short par putt.

Stallings' defense had fallen short. Specifically, four inches short. Which is the life of a pro golfer.

The rest of us would measure this in normal tangibles. Day won $1,134,000. For sharing second, Stallings won $470,400. Four inches had cost him $663,600, or $165,900 an inch.

But Stallings and his peers don't think that way. They can't afford to, or there would be an overflow of tour players in the looney bin.

Instead, he found the positives, as they all do. He said afterward that he hadn't had a top-10 finish since the Farmers last year.

"I definitely look forward to building on this," he said. "I put myself in that position [to win]. That's all you want as a tour player."

That, and a chance to be a defending champion again.

bill.dwyre@latimes.com

Twitter: @DwyreLATimes

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