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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

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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.

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