Masters a special place for Stallings

When Scott Stallings won the Greenbrier Classic in a playoff in July 2011, he recorded his scores with a green Masters pencil. As a kid growing up in Oak Ridge, Tenn., he dreamed of driving down Magnolia Lane. In 2009, when he was on the Hooters Tour, he made his first trip to the famous tournament as a spectator. The former Tennessee Tech star visited the driving range and walked all 18 holes, but he left after about four hours, vowing not to return to Augusta National until he was a player.

In December, he played the course for the first time with a member from Nashville who shared some local knowledge.

"I wanted to get the shock and awe of Augusta National out of my system," Stallings said. "I wanted to get over the fact that I'm actually playing in the tournament. So I went through that for a couple of days the first time. Then the second time I really concentrated on learning how to play the golf course."

Since then, the 27-year-old Knoxville resident has played more than a dozen rounds at Augusta National.

"That's one course that you go to that you learn something every single time you play it," he said.

Stallings is back in Augusta this week for a couple of days with his teacher, Brad Rose, sorting through the mysteries of those fast and tricky greens.

After tearing cartilage in his ribs during a freak accident on the trainer's table during his third tournament of the year at the Humana Challenge, Stallings has been living with pain that has at times made it difficult for him to breathe. He's made just two checks in seven events in 2012: a tie for 22nd at the season-opening Hyundai Tournament of Champions, a no-cut event and a tie for 48th at Bay Hill.

Stallings said he was home for only 43 days last year. If he didn't have the Masters in front of him, he probably would have taken his doctor's recommended 12 weeks to heal, but this could be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that he wasn't going to miss.

"Every golfer has an event or whatever that's special to them, and the Masters is definitely the one for me," Stallings said. "I love everything that goes along with it. To say that I have a love affair with the place is an understatement."

Yet the rib injury has threatened to derail those plans. After trying to play through the pain in Phoenix and Pebble Beach, Stallings decided to put the clubs away to let his body heal. He did nothing for a few weeks, but a conversation with his mentor, Kenny Perry, would get him off the couch and focused on preparing for the Masters.

Stallings told the 51-year-old, 14-time PGA Tour winner that it was very painful for him to make a full swing.

"Can you chip and putt?" Perry asked.

"Yes," Stallings said.

"Well get your butt down to Augusta and spend as much time as you can around those greens," Perry said.

On his first trip back to Augusta after that conversation, Stallings spent two full days with Rose on his short game.

"Augusta greens are incredibly fast and undulating, but they are fair," Stallings said. "Every green gives you the opportunity to hit different shots. I don't know if you're ever comfortable on the greens, but you can become educated about them."

On his trips to Augusta, Stallings has had to learn to temper his expectations. Any time tour players visit Augusta National prior to tournament week, they have to use the club caddies, whose knowledge of the intricacies of the Alister MacKenzie design are invaluable, especially their ability to read the greens.

"The biggest thing that I have learned about Augusta National is that you're going to have to accept that when you have a wedge you're not going to hit it to 5 feet every time," Stallings said. "One of those caddies out there told me that I needed to change my standards and that a 20-footer under the hole is often better than a 5-footer above the hole."

With Rose, Stallings has also spent a lot of time at Augusta plotting his way around the golf course. With slightly above average driving length for a tour player -- 294.1 yards in 2011 off the tee -- he should be able to take advantage of some of the holes where there is a premium on length. That's including the par 5s, which at Augusta are very susceptible to birdies.

"There are only a couple of tee shots out there where you really have to pay attention to," Stallings said. "For the most part, compared to the rest of the golf course, the tee shots are pretty forgiving.

"If you can get into a position where you're driving good, you're going to have a lot of good opportunities to use the slope and undulating greens to hit golf shots."

Stallings will have a lot of family at the Masters, which in terms of media, scale and grandeur is not unlike Super Bowl week. There are celebrities, lots of parties and a par-3 tournament on Wednesday. For both the players and patrons, there is simply a surreal feeling of being at the Masters.

"I'm going to get caught up in it," Stallings said. "There is no question about it. I'm going to love every minute of it. I'm going to have fun and laugh and take it all in.

"I'm not going to take for granted the opportunity, because nothing is guaranteed and just try to go out and enjoy what I consider the best golf course in the world and the best event in the world."

Farrell Evans covers golf for ESPN and can be contacted at evans.espn@gmail.com.