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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

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.

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