When Russell Henley won the PGA Tour’s second tournament of the season, the Sony Open in Hawaii, he not only signaled his own stellar presence in the golf world, but established a trend that continued briskly right through July. The Sony was Henley’s first PGA Tour victory and was mightily impressive. He was only 23 and playing in his first PGA Tour event as a pro. He shot three rounds of 63 at the Waialea Country Club and made birdie on the final five holes on Sunday. Just like that, after one tournament, he was a first-time winner.
At the John Deere Classic in July, 19-year-old Jordan Spieth emphatically announced himself as a winner and potential superstar when he outlasted Zach Johnson and David Hearn in a five-hole playoff. He is the first teenager to win on the PGA Tour since Ralph Guldahl at the 1931 Santa Monica Open.
In late June, 44-year-old Ken Duke broke through in his 187th PGA Tour event at the Travelers Championship. In between Henley and Spieth, nine players won for the first time on the PGA Tour, a total of 11 in all. Considering the John Deere was the 30th event of the season, first-timers had won more than a third of tournaments.
Hey, Tiger Woods had won four tournaments himself and as always was the Tour’s media lightning rod. But the big under story to the season was the steady stream of first-time victors.
From the time a young player is bitten with the PGA Tour bug there is a recurring dream—to win. At first, that dream focuses on lifting the big trophy and collecting the big check. But for the precious few who realize the dream and make it to the Tour, the consequences of winning are about a lot more than a million dollar prize.
Winning comes with a two-year exemption on the Tour, which can be worth millions in itself. Winning gets players into more tournaments, better tournaments (think: “I’m going to the Masters!”). The exemption allows a player to plan a schedule and to play free of the pressure of having to finish in the top 125 on the money list to keep his Tour card. Winning effectively eliminates the need to grind, to play tournament after tournament just to make a check.
A win can go a long way toward moving a player up the Official World Rankings and inside the top 50, which can get him entry into the majors and the highly lucrative World Golf Championship events. On top of those perks, there are the endorsement possibilities, corporate outings, and a significant rise in the public’s awareness. Of all the benefits that derive from a single victory, nothing is more important than the enormous psychological boost, the ego shot that confirms to a player that he belongs at the highest level of the game. For so long he has been saying to himself, “I’ve got what it takes.” Now, he knows.
“The game can beat you down, and sometimes you just don’t know whether you belong out here,” says Kevin Streelman, who won for the first time at the Tampa Bay Championship in March. “If you play decent you can make a living, but it’s the win you want more than anything. It’s just the best feeling.” First-time winners can take advantage of those tournaments that fall before and after the majors and during the World Golf Championship events when many of the top-20 players in the world take a break or are in the bigger competition. But others, like Michael Thompson at this year’s Honda Classic, won with Tiger, Rory and a host of other world-class players in the field.
All the first-time winners made their own journey to victory lane. Their paths may have been similar, but never quite the same. Henley, Duke, Streelman, Spieth, Michael Thompson, Scott Brown, Billy Horschel, Derek Ernst, Sang-Moon Bae, John Merrick and Harris English all have one thing in common—the shared passion to win. Kevin Streelman was a good player for Duke University when he graduated in 2001, but in professional golf success wasn’t immediate; failure sat on his doorstep. He didn’t qualify for the PGA Tour until the 2007 Q-School. He had won four times on the mini-tours, but that was barely enough to keep going. To make ends meet he caddied two winters at the Whisper Rock Club near Scottsdale, where several PGA Tour players are members. In a cool side note, he’s now a member himself.
Streelman’s seminal moment came when he qualified for the old Western Open in 2004. There he played a practice round with Mike Weir, who at that point had won seven times on the Tour, including the Masters.
“He wouldn’t even remember this, but I played a practice round with him, and watched how he and his caddie analyzed the golf course,” says Streelman. “It wasn’t just rip it as far as you can, knock it as close as you can. It was more like planning how far off the tee you want to hit it, planning on which side of the fairway you want to be in order to attack the pin. Where you can and can’t miss it. Just so much more thought to the game than I had put in previously. It really intrigued me, to be honest. It was a turning point in my professional career, to watch him make a chess game of the golf course.”
From the time Streelman qualified for his rookie season in 2008 he had held onto his Tour card by finishing inside the top 125 on the money list. That first season he had his biggest rush playing with Tiger Woods in the Buick Invitational at Torrey Pines. “Playing with Tiger in my rookie year of 2008 was a great experience, getting used to the crowds, the cameras, the big announcers, the circus of the final group of a PGA Tour event,” says Streelman.
He continued to cash enough checks and pop up on the leaderboards in early rounds, but he wasn’t a winner. Two years ago, he changed his strategy and his outlook. “Mostly it’s a maturity thing,” says Streelman. “Trusting in the routine I put in place to become a world-class golfer. It’s a routine that my coach and my caddie set down two years ago. Changed my practice, changed my outlook on the year, changed my outlook on tournaments. It helped me have direction, purpose to my practice. The results have sort of taken care of themselves.
“More deliberate practice, dialing in distance for every single shot I hit rather than just rifling through a large bucket of balls of six-irons hit the same distance. I might look at hitting shots from 75 to 150 yards in three-yard increments, going up and down. Putting with one ball and not just throwing three balls on the green, trying to hit purposeful putts like I would on the golf course. Chipping into three-foot circles. Realistic practice.”
His coach Darren May had him working on a cut shot this season, a shot that would ultimately pay off in the Tampa Bay Championship. Streelman came to the long par-3 13th hole at Innisbrook with the lead. The 13th is a dangerous one-shotter with water on the right. The pin was all the way back right, a position that called for a cut shot. But any sort of mis-hit with that left-to-right shot would be disastrous. Streelman carved his 4-iron to six feet and made birdie.
“The cool thing about that shot is that I worked so hard on it,” says Streelman. “My coach and I had worked on that hold-cut pretty regularly. I hit it in practice and would say ‘that’s it, that’s it,’ and then he would say it’s nothing until you hit it on Sunday. To hit that shot and convert the birdie was pretty cool.”
Billy Horschel had been strutting his cool in late March and early April. The former University of Florida All-American, who had come back from wrist surgery to regain his playing status, had thrown out a couple of hints of his pending success with 10th- and 11th-place finishes early in the season. Then at the Shell Houston Open he finished second, followed by third at the Valero Texas Open and ninth at the RBC Heritage. At the Zurich Classic of New Orleans, he shot 64 in the final round, finished 20-under-par and had his first PGA Tour win.
There has always been a cockiness to Horschel’s demeanor, but also impatience and frustration that often got the best of him, no more so than at the 2011 McGladrey Classic at Sea Island, Georgia, during his rookie season. He was in contention on Sunday, then after a bad shot threw a profane temper tantrum. His coach Todd Anderson upbraided him for it, and the PGA Tour fined him. He knew he had to work on his head as much as his swing, and with the help of sports psychologist Fran Pirozzollo, he did.
“I’ve acquired some patience, not as much as I wish I had,” says Horschel. “But I just think that the older I get, the more mature I get on the golf course, the more understanding that if I do have a bad stretch of holes, it’s not that I don’t hit the panic button, I just don’t press right away. You’re going to have a couple of bad holes, but if you get in a flow you can sort of get something going. Patience is always something that has been a struggle for me. I’m doing a really good job this week [at U.S. Open], staying patient and just taking what’s in front of me. I’m trying to keep a smile on my face and be happy with anything I do.”
Says Pirozzollo: “You give him stuff and he does it. He should get all the credit for making the changes that he’s made. He just works on stuff he likes, then goes out and does it. He’s fascinated by his training. Too many players are too self-satisfied and scared to death about failure. Billy isn’t that kind of guy.”
Like Streelman, Horschel changed his practice routine with a focus on pressure putting. “I had always known that I had the ability,” says Horschel. “I was a good ballstriker and had good course management skills. My main thing was the putting, making putts that would keep my momentum going. You have to make them when they count. I changed my putting practice. Now, it’s about a challenge, making a certain amount of putts from a certain range before I can leave [the practice green] for the day.
“I feel like I’m never going to hit it bad, but the short game is the key for me. Last year was top 10 in driving, top 10 in ballstriking. I’m just putting it better now.” Horschel was doing enough things better to be tied for the lead after 36 holes in the U.S. Open at brutally tough Merion. He shot 67 in the second round and hit all 18 greens in regulation. He went on to finish tied for fourth. And he wasn’t afraid to make a fashion statement on Sunday. Those octopus print pants were a first, by anyone’s recollection.
Horschel was still strutting his stuff at Merion. He played a practice round with Woods, had been paired in the Players Championship with Ernie Els. His Zurich victory told him his head was in the right place and that he had to be realistic about his game. “I knew a victory could come at any time,” says Horschel. “At Zurich I told myself you are not going to stay on this roll forever, so I need to take advantage of this now, and I did.”
For Scott Brown, taking advantage meant deciding to stop off in Puerto Rico on his way back from two Web.com tournaments in Latin America. In his rookie season in 2012 he finished 163rd on the money list to lose his full PGA Tour exemption, but he could still get into a tournament here and there. The Puerto Rican Open was opposite the WCG event at Doral that week, so there was a spot for him. Puerto Rico turned out to be the place for him. In contention all week, he came to the final hole trailing Fabian Gomez by a shot. He knew he had to make birdie on the par 5 to have any chance. Brown did just that, and when Gomez made a mess of the hole to make bogey, Brown had his first PGA Tour win.
Brown had toiled on the mini-tours since he had turned pro out of the University of South Carolina-Aiken in 2006. He’d been the eGolf Tour player of the year, but that wasn’t the PGA. He qualified for the Web.com Tour, and qualified for the PGA Tour off that money list. Those were building blocks for victory, but the biggest factor was a significant swing change at the start of this season. From a hooker he became a fader, and with a few putts dropping, he became a winner.
“I switched coaches at the beginning of the year, to John Tillery. He helped me a lot,” says Brown. “I started the year on Web.com and finished third in the first event and seventh in the second, so I had some momentum going into Puerto Rico. I knew if I putted well I was going to have a shot.
“He got my ball striking more consistent. I’ve always driven the ball well; my iron play has been down the last couple of years. Been more consistent, hitting more greens.
“I was basically swinging too much to the right, club too far inside, then hitting basically a hook. Worked on a swing more to the left, basically a cut golf swing. That made me more consistent.” Scott Brown had faded himself into existence and knows he’s got a free ride for two years to solidify his career.
“Winning gives you a lot of freedom for sure, for the next two years,” says Brown. “Being able to make a schedule is a big deal, knowing where you are going to be able to play, what tournaments you can take off. Gives you a lot of freedom to play more aggressive, play more for a win than play for a check. You’ve secured your job for the next two years so when you are coming down the stretch in a tournament with a chance to win you can think about that and not about just making a good check.”
Now that he’s a winner, there is a different sort of pressure. “You want to prove to everybody it wasn’t just a fluke,” says Brown. “I’d like to be in that group that’s won multiple times.” But winning has to start somewhere, and for Michael Thompson it was at the Honda Classic in March. Thompson had been a good college player, first at Tulane then at Alabama. He was the Hooters Tour player of the year in 2010 and later that year qualified for the PGA Tour in 2011. He showed up on golf’s biggest stage, finishing second at the U.S. Open in 2012. Thompson is a precise, deliberate, well-spoken man who understands that winning is a process.
“It all started in college, just learning how to practice, learning how to manage my game, learning how to be strong in course management. Learning how to win out there,” says Thompson. “Then going onto the Hooters Tour and learning how to win out there. It’s taken me a year, year and a half at each level I’ve been at to really get comfortable, to know I can compete, beat the guys I am playing against. The PGA Tour is the best competition in the world, so it took me a little over two years to get comfortable.”
But he knew he would get comfortable. “I always knew I could compete,” says Thompson. “Runner-up at U.S. Open, had three-shot lead with nine to go at McGladrey my rookie year and tied for lead after two rounds of the Canadian Open that year. All those experiences put together taught me how to handle the stress of playing in front of thousands of people and finishing off a tournament where there is a million dollars on the line.
“Each player has their own technique. For me, I’ve learned not to look at the leaderboards and just focus on what I’m doing, imagine myself in a bubble, that I’m the only one out there. Just playing golf and enjoy the experience. Tomorrow is another day and life will go on, it doesn’t matter how I finish. It’s just me trying to accomplish what I want to accomplish and not trying to satisfy anyone else’s expectations.”
You might scoff at the Hooters Tour, but plenty of players who are now on the PGA Tour spent time there, whether they wanted to or not. “Coming from college to the Hooters Tour, I like to describe it as all the All-Americans from college getting together again to play tournaments,” says Thompson. “There was one tournament I shot 20 under for four days and finished ninth. Teaches you to make birdies, be aggressive, but play smart. Winning out there is a huge achievement. It was a stepping stone in my career and where I needed to be even if maybe I didn’t want to be out there, but it taught me to play better golf.”
Thompson didn’t have to spend much time in the trenches of golf before making it to the PGA Tour. But Ken Duke did his time since turning pro in 1994. He played all over the place and was off and on the PGA Tour starting in 2004. He had some success, several top-10 finishes and in 2008 he won more than $2 million with a second-place finish in Milwaukee. But no victory.
Then, at the Travelers Championship, he won in a playoff with Chris Stroud at the age of 44. Duke had battled scoliosis as a child, was not a golf prodigy coming out of Henderson State University and had to fight just to make a living at the game. He did win here and there, just not on the PGA Tour.
“You’ve got to believe in yourself,” said Duke after his victory. “I’ve been on the Canadian tour, mini-tours, Asian tour, South America tour, all of them, the Web.com. You don’t know how it’s going to work out. Some people make it, some people don’t. I’ve always believed in myself.”
That self-belief was bolstered when he started working with teacher Bob Toski in 2006. Toski, in his gruff manner, asserts that Duke didn’t know much about how to play top-flight tour golf until he took him under his wing. “He didn’t know where to aim, he didn’t know where to swing,” says Toski.
Duke says his idol Larry Bird was inspirational. “Larry Legend, that’s my guy,” says Duke. “His work ethic, not growing up with a lot and always pushing yourself and always believing in yourself. And now I’ve got me a win. It’s really nice.”
Now 11 more players have got themselves a win, and everything that goes with it.
Michael Thompson sums it up for all the first-timers: “I feel I am part of the PGA Tour now,” he says. “It’s official. Winning is an elite group.”
Jeff Williams is a contributing editor for Cigar Aficionado.