The PGA Tour in 2004 welcomed ten first-time victors, from rookies to veterans who had toiled for years
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Who knew Todd Hamilton? / Hamilton's 14 victories in Asian Tour events did not make an indelible impression on the worldwide golf psyche. Winning the Asian Tour Order of Merit in 1992 (meaning he won the most yen) wasn't a signal that he was about to overtake a Greg Norman or a Nick Price or a Nick Faldo, all prominent on the PGA Tour at the time. As a winner of such tournaments as the Fujisankei Classic, the Maekyung Open and the Token Corporation Cup, Hamilton—a Galesburg, Illinois, native by way of the University of Oklahoma—had made a small place for himself in the game, a big-fish-in-a-small-water-hazard kind of place. / Then Hamilton, an All-American at Oklahoma whose golf game hadn't been up to PGA Tour caliber, finally secured that coveted Tour card when he finished 16th at the PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament in October 2003. He was 38 years old and had tried seven times before to earn the right to play with the big boys. Now, in 2004, he would get the chance to measure up. / But who knew?
The PGA Tour is where the best see if they truly are the best. Win all you want on tours around the world, in Australia, Japan, Europe or South America; it only means that you are good. If you want to be great, you have to win on the PGA Tour. Winning on the PGA Tour bestows upon its victors so much more than a trophy and a great big check. Most importantly, a victory in a regular PGA Tour event means an automatic two-year exemption to play the Tour. But along with it comes invitations to play in prestigious events like Jack Nicklaus's Memorial Tournament, Arnold Palmer's Bay Hill Invitational, and the Mercedes Championship at Kapalua. A PGA Tour win earns oodles of points in the World Golf Rankings that can qualify you for the four majors—the Masters, the U.S. and British Opens, and the PGA Championship. PGA Tour wins perk up the interest of golf manufacturers, who will give you clubs, balls, bags, shoes and gloves and pay you to play with them.
Hamilton, the multiple winner overseas but an alien to the winner's circle in his own country, made birdie on the final two holes of the Honda Classic in March of last year and nosed out Davis Love III for the trophy. A few months later, he beat Ernie Els in a four-hole playoff to win, of all things, the British Open, the oldest of the major championships. Though he may not yet be a household name, Hamilton's wins put him into a very exclusive club. By winning the British Open, Hamilton guaranteed himself a five-year exemption to play on the PGA Tour, a lifetime exemption into the British Open and five years of exemptions into the Masters, U.S. Open and PGA. As a first-time PGA Tour winner, he had struck the mother lode.
Hamilton wasn't the only first-time winner on the PGA circuit last year. There were nine other men at various stages in their careers who had paid their dues by playing hard-nosed amateur golf, by playing the backwater mini-tours, by playing around the world, by moving up and slugging it out on the Nationwide Tour, by getting through the gut-wrenching National Qualifying tournament. For them, it all came together in 2004. The days of doubt, the days of toil were rewarded by days of glory. Those who joined Hamilton in basking in that glory for the first time were Americans Ryan Palmer, Bart Bryant, Vaughn Taylor, Heath Slocum and Zach Johnson; Australians Rod Pampling, Mark Hensby and Andre Stolz, and Canadian Stephen Ames. (The Tour record for first-time winners was set in 2002, when 18 players cashed in for the first time.)
The win, or in Hamilton's case, the wins, altered his life beyond the course, too. Last fall, Hamilton returned to his alma mater in Norman, Oklahoma, to attend a football game. He had been a three-time All-American at Oklahoma in the late 1980s. This time, as a PGA Tour and major championship winner, Hamilton found a different reception, even as he stood in the bathroom.
"I should know you," said a young man standing at the urinal next to him.
"No, you probably don't know me," said Hamilton, in a recent interview. "I'll be 39 here in the next few weeks. I went to school here, but it's been a long, long time ago. You shouldn't know me."
"No, I should know you," said the young man. "For some reason, I think I've seen you before."
"No, you shouldn't know me," answered Hamilton. "Like I said, I graduated here in '87. You wouldn't know who I was."
"No, I should know you," insisted the man.
"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."
Holding that gun to his head, Ames won the Cialis Western Open and finished in the top 10 a total of 11 times. He won more than $3 million. "[If you are going to win], you have to find the button within you," says Ames. "When you make it out here on Tour, it's because you have talent. But to win, you have to make sure you maximize that talent. I finally decided to do that. That's why the other guys who won did. If you don't push yourself, you don't achieve."
Ryan Palmer had always pushed himself, but it was a case of finding the confidence to win. The 28-year-old Texan had the last name of a legend, but not the pedigree. He played his golf at Texas A & M, not exactly a collegiate hotbed of the game. Climbing his way up the professional golf ladder meant establishing a firm foothold on every rung, starting at the bottom. He played a bunch of low-level professional events after leaving college in 2000. In 2002 he was dominant on the Tight Lies Tour, winning four times. He qualified for the Nationwide Tour in 2003, capturing a tournament. His sixth-pace finish on the money list earned him a PGA Tour card. "Winning at one level let me know that I could win at the next," says Palmer. "You can't underestimate the importance of winning at any level."
Don't underestimate the importance of finishing second, either. As Palmer's rookie year progressed in 2004, his play consistently improved. At the Southern Farm Bureau Classic in October, he finished second, giving him a shot of confidence at two levels. One, it showed him how competitive he could be on the Tour. Two, the $324,000 check meant that he would earn enough money in 2004 to be guaranteed his Tour card for 2005. With comfort and confidence, Palmer went on to defeat a stellar field just three weeks later at the Funai Classic. "When I knew I would have my card for 2005, there really was no more pressure," says Palmer. "From that point on, I can just go out and play my game, go for it. You've got a lot better chance to win if you can go for it."
For so long, Bart Bryant couldn't go for it all. Since he first qualified for the PGA Tour in 1991, Bryant had played only six full seasons. Just when he was getting up to speed in 1992, he suffered a rotator cuff injury that required surgery. He played virtually no golf in 1993 and 1994. He played so badly that he played no Tour golf from 1997 through 1999. When he qualified to get back on the Tour in 2000, he needed left elbow surgery. In 2002, he had right elbow surgery. Bryant played only six events in 2003, but received a major medical extension to play the Tour in 2004. Of all the first-time winners last season, Bryant's prospects were the dimmest. At the age of 41, he was just holding on. But he had two things going for him. His brother Brad was also a PGA Tour player and a source of inspiration, always telling him that he was better than he thought he was. And through all of his travails as a player, his wife, Cathy, never once told him to give up the ghost, not even when he was off the Tour in the late '90s and playing mini-tours to make a living.
"There were times, sure, when I thought I should be trying to do something else," says Bryant. "After the rotator cuff surgery in 1992, I was playing a Nike Tour event in 1993 and was leading after two rounds. Then I shot an 81 and ended up making about $550. I was pretty down on myself and wondered how I was going to support my family. Cathy went back to work and I kept plugging. I was netting maybe $60,000 a year playing the mini-tours."
Playing on the medical extension in 2004, Bryant wasn't doing much of anything as he teed it up in the Valero Texas Open in San Antonio. After opening with two rounds of 67 on the easy La Cantera course, he shot a shocking 60 in the third. Another 67 in the fourth round gave him his first PGA Tour victory in 187 starts.
After all he had been through, Bryant finally had latched on to his goal. "It was hard to believe sometimes that I could win out here," says Bryant. "I really hadn't been healthy enough to give myself a chance. You just start hoping you play well enough to keep your card.... But that last day [of the Texas Open], I looked up at the scoreboard and saw that Pat Sheehan was the player that was challenging me. I knew I had beaten him in mini-tour events. That was kind of a calming influence on me. Right then I knew my chances of winning were pretty good. What a feeling."
Bryant can now do something he's never been able to do. "I can pick my schedule for two years," he says. "That's just a huge deal for me, for any player really, who hasn't won before. It doesn't guarantee you a spot in the majors, but I hope I play well enough to get in some of them, and because I can play more now if I want to, it gives me that chance."
Mark Hensby had his chance once before. The Australian had qualified for the PGA Tour in 2001, but finished 186th on the money list and lost his card. It was discouraging, but Hensby is not easily discouraged. In 1994, he came from a rural Australian town to stay with friends of friends in Chicago for a few weeks. Somehow, he was going to find a place for himself on the PGA Tour, even though he was an amateur at the time. After Hensby won the 1994 Illinois State Amateur, he tried to get his PGA Tour card through the qualifying school, but fell short.
With his host family having left town, Hensby found himself with little money and temporarily without shelter. He slept in his car for a few weeks at the driving range of the Cog Hill Golf & Country Club in Chicago, the site of the Cialis Western Open. When it got cold at night, he would drive around for a few minutes with the heater blowing full blast. This scrappy little competitor (5 feet 8 and 150 pounds) never gave up on himself. Through Monday qualifying he was able to get into one PGA tournament a year from 1995 to 1997, making one cut. From 1997 through 2003 he played the Nationwide Tour, winning three times and finally earning a PGA Tour card for the 2001 season. When he lost that, he earned it back on the Nationwide Tour in 2003. Then in 2004, he broke through with a victory in the John Deere Classic.
"That first time around [in 2001], I didn't really expect that I could win, but I expected way too much of myself," says Hensby. "I was just trying to tread water. And I really didn't have the right attitude with myself. I was pretty hotheaded, impatient. I got in my way of my own ability to play. That changed for me by 2004. I learned that there are five or six players like Tiger and Vijay out here, and they are as good as it gets. Then there are the rest of us. They have special talents. I learned that it wouldn't matter how hard I practiced, I probably could never reach their level. But that didn't mean I couldn't compete. I just needed to be myself and let my game come out, and fortunately it did [in 2004]."
The same can be said for Rod Pampling, who won in his third full season on the Tour at the International, and Heath Slocum, who also won in his third full year, at the Chrysler Classic of Tucson. As rookies, Zach Johnson won the BellSouth Classic and Vaughn Taylor won the Reno-Tahoe Open. Like all the first-time winners on the PGA Tour, they joined a club whose dues are hard work and determination.
The week following his victory in Texas, Bryant sat in the lobby of the Nemacolin Woodlands Resort in Pennsylvania waiting to go out to dinner. Vijay Singh, who was tearing up the PGA Tour last year on his way to displacing Tiger Woods as the world's No. 1 player, came into the lobby with all his equipment and luggage on the way to checking in. He spotted Bryant, came over with that big, long stride and toothy grin, and congratulated him on his victory. "I didn't know if he really knew who I was," says Bryant. "I thought that was just great for him to do that. Gives you a really good feeling, like you've really made it."
With a PGA Tour victory, you have.
Jeff Williams is a sportswriter for Newsday on Long Island.
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