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Winning is Everything

The PGA Tour in 2004 welcomed ten first-time victors, from rookies to veterans who had toiled for years
Jeff Williams
From the Print Edition:
Jimmy Smits, May/June 2005

(continued from page 1)

"Do you watch golf?" asked Hamilton, at this time having at least extricated himself from the urinal.

"That's where I've seen you," exclaimed the man, who had watched Hamilton's stirring victory over Els in the British Open.

So, who knows Todd Hamilton now? Seemingly everybody.

To a man, the first-time winners will say that the first-place check is comforting, the two-year exemption is crucial and that trophy looks awfully nice on the mantle. But they are quick to add that there is something else that comes with winning, something that reaches deep down into the soul. "It tells you that you belong out here," says the Australian Hensby, who for a few weeks in 1994 slept in his car in the parking lot of the Cog Hill Golf & Country Club in Chicago. "There can be a lot of doubt about what you're doing out here when things aren't going well. You wonder if you belong alongside these guys. Winning tells you that you do. Look, you may not be a Tiger Woods or a Vijay Singh. There are only a handful of those guys. But winning on the PGA Tour, that means you beat the best, and that means a lot."

If there is any one aspect of the game that differentiates players at the highest level, it's the confidence factor. Those who win the six-inch game played between the ears often win the 7,000-yard game played over 72 holes. That six-inch game was Andre Stolz's biggest battle. The 35-year-old Australian qualified to play on the PGA Tour last year by finishing 13th on the money list on the Nationwide Tour, where he had won one tournament. But the money list qualification doesn't get you into every PGA Tour event, and often leaves you hanging until the last moment. Three times in 2004 Stolz flew to tournaments only to find out he wasn't going to get in. The man from Down Under was decidedly downcast.

Stolz left the Tour for a few weeks, but knew he had to come back. He came from a hardscrabble background in the game. He was no

silver-spoon amateur, no coddled collegian prepping for his slot on the PGA Tour. He had been an assistant club pro in Australia, earning his living primarily by playing in pro-am tournaments, where the first-place check is often less than $1,000. "I was out there trying to make a living for my family, playing against 60 or 80 guys in the same fix," says Stolz. "There's a lot of pressure in that kind of a situation. I won 45 of those tournaments, so you can imagine how many I played to win that many. So yes, there is pressure to win on the PGA Tour, but there is pressure at all levels of the game. It's what the game is about really."

When he returned to the Tour in the fall, things felt better. He had switched to a belly-style putter and the ball started falling in the hole more often. Until then, he had posted only six rounds in the 60s all year and his best finish had been a tie for 34th. Coming into the Michelin Championship at Las Vegas, he saw a glimmer of hope. Stolz posted four rounds in the 60s and overtook third-round leader Tom Lehman to win his first PGA Tour event. "You know, I had won all those pro-am tournaments, about six other four-round tournaments, so I had actually won a lot. It doesn't matter if it's a hard course or an easy course, you still have to play the shots coming down the line. I think because I'd done it so much, even on a much smaller scale, it's the same job. It's so much bigger on [the PGA Tour], but that's not what you are thinking about. You are thinking about what you need to do."

What rookies on the Tour need to do, rookies like Hamilton, Stolz, Taylor, Palmer and Johnson, is get used to playing in that supercharged environment. Until they get to the PGA Tour, most players have had to perform in front of more trees than people. "It's not about the courses or the other players," says Stolz. "It's about trying to play your own normal game and getting comfortable out here. When you come to a tournament out here, there is a buzz from the moment you drive through the gate. On the other tours you might not get that sort of buzz until the last two groups on Sunday, if that. You don't really play in a pressure-cooker kind of environment every week until you get to the PGA Tour."

There's a funny thing about pressure. It can be your enemy or it can be your friend. You can crumble under it or triumph over it. To learn how to handle pressure, it's popular among contemporary players to visit sports psychologists. When Stephen Ames went to see a psychologist early last year, he had been denying the responsibility of handling pressure. Ames had been content to be a top-50 player, collect a few six-figure checks each season and live a comfortable life. After a few talks with a psychologist, Ames decided to embrace pressure. "I had never pushed myself as if I expected to be No. 1 or anything like that," says Ames. "I was pretty content to just roll along. But when I made the decision to push myself, I started playing better instantly and I found myself No. 20 in the world. When I put the gun to my head, I performed, frankly speaking."

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