Joel’s golf life is captured nicely in this 2002 Sports Illustrated article written by John Garrity after Joel’s winning the 2001 Air Canada Classic in Vancouver, Canada.
Finally Arrived Joel Edwards made it to the Mercedes Championships later than most, which is precisely why he found the event so special
By John Garrity, Sports Illustrated Issue January 14, 2002
On a Dec. 30 flight from Dallas to Maui, 14-time Tour winner Hal Sutton reached around the seat in front of him and tapped Joel Edwards on the shoulder. “You been to Hawaii before?” Sutton asked.
Edwards twisted in his seat to answer. “Yeah, five years ago, but not for the Tournament of Champions.” Actually, the two golfers were on their way to play in the Mercedes Championships, the first Tour event of 2002, but if you’re a player of a certain age–Sutton is 43, Edwards 40–you call the tournament by the name it carried from 1953 until 1994:the T of C. For Edwards, a handsome but humble pro with a thrilled-to-be-here demeanor, the old name resonated like a gong: Tournament of Champions. Now, as before, the event’s field is limited to the 35 or so players who have won Tour events the previous year. Champions like Woods, Duval, Garcia, Furyk, Calcavecchia, Parnevik and, for the first time, Joel Edwards.
The world works better when you’re a champion. At Kahalui Airport, for example, all four of Edwards’s bags made it to the luggage carousel. “Wow, that’s a first,” said Joel’s delighted wife, Rhonda. “We’ve never arrived in Hawaii and had all our luggage.” Then, instead of waiting at the curb for the National Car Rental bus, the Edwardses were escorted to a white stretch limousine for the hour long trip to the Kapalua Bay Hotel. “I could get used to this,” Joel said, sinking into the rich upholstery and watching palm trees flash past the tinted windows. The limo reminded him of the time he and a friend shared a red Ferrari at the Hawaiian Open. “Rhonda thought it was a mistake when she opened the credit-card bill and saw ‘Ferrari rental.’ Had to be some other guy.”
When you’re 40, you know who you are, and Edwards is a Chinese-takeout kind of guy. “Joel is generous, courteous, quiet,” says Tour veteran Tom Pernice Jr. “He’s likable, smart, nice to play with and great to be around,” echoes Brad Faxon.
Look for a dark side, and Edwards will concede that he’s addicted to Dr. Pepper and can’t get enough of his four-year-old son, Tanner. Pry into his obsessions, and Edwards, a native Texan, will confess to a lifelong love affair with the New York Yankees. When he opened his locker before a practice round last week and found a baseball autographed by Yankees manager and pro-am participant Joe Torre, Edwards was almost speechless. “I’ve got to meet Torre,” he said. “I’ve got to meet Torre!”
First, though, Edwards had to process the loot that the Mercedes Championships lavishes on its invitees. Champagne. Chocolates. A beach bag, sandals and Tommy Bahama pajamas for Rhonda. Gift certificates to restaurants and boutiques. A sport shirt and swim trunks for Joel. Fruit baskets. Truffles. “Every time we come back to the room, there’s some new goody,” said Rhonda. All the players got courtesy cars, of course; Joel’s was a Mercedes SUV with enough cockpit gadgetry to satisfy his amateur pilot’s taste for toggles and gauges.
Cumulatively, the gifts made Edwards, if not wary, at least reflective. While driving to the Plantation course with Cameron Beckman, another first-time Tour winner, Edwards couldn’t suppress a smile. Sharing the mood, Beckman said, “I know why you’re smiling.”
That night, while a New Year’s Eve party rocked the ballroom at the Ritz-Carlton Kapalua, Edwards stood outside on a balcony and stared up at a full moon and drifting clouds. “Four years ago,” he said, “Cameron and I were in Dallas playing on the Lone Star tour. He had dropped off the Buy.com tour, and I’d had back surgery and was thinking that maybe my career was over. Now….” He shook his head. “Now we’re here at the Tournament of Champions. I still pinch myself.”
If Edwards seemed unusually appreciative of his good fortune, it was because it was so long in coming. After earning All-Southland Conference honors at North Texas State, he pursued pro golf with a doggedness that was impressive but not particularly rewarding. It took him six years to earn his first PGA Tour card, but he never finished higher than 90th on the money list between 1989 and ’96, and had to return to Q school five times. “We’ve been on the South African tour, the Dakota tour, and we’ve done tours where you run to the bank and hope the check clears,” says Rhonda. “It was sometimes hard to watch because Joel wanted to succeed so desperately and tried so hard, year after year.”
Edwards clawed his way back to the big Tour by winning the 1999 Buy.com Mississippi Gulf Coast Open and finishing second on that tour’s money list. In 2000 he broke into the top 75 for the first time, and last year he capped his comeback by winning the Air Canada Classic in Vancouver, firing a character-defining 65 in the final round to prevail by seven shots. In the car to the hotel afterward, Joel unfolded a piece of paper from his wallet and began to cry. “It’s my list of goals for the year,” he told Rhonda, “and I have achieved every one. Now what do I do?” The answer, as any mountain climber could have told him, was, “Don’t look down.”
Edwards is getting used to the heights. He shot a four-under-par 69 in the first round of the Mercedes, and that got him a second-round pairing with Tiger Woods. (The last time he had played a tournament round with Woods, Edwards was detained on his way to the 10th tee by marshals who mistook him for a brazen fan. “I guess I didn’t look like a professional,” he says. “Even my player badge didn’t persuade them.”) This time Edwards reached the tee without incident and shot a 71, three shots better than Woods, who struggled on the grainy greens. Asked if he’d had a good day, Edwards started ticking off items on his fingers: In the morning he’d agreed to endorsement deals with Precept and Descente; before his round he’d chatted for 30 minutes with Torre and received a Yankees World Series cap; in the afternoon he had played with Woods and beaten him; and after a sunset walk on the beach he and Rhonda were going to an Earth, Wind and Fire concert. “It’s unbelievable,” Edwards said. “A very good day.”
Staying humble at such times is difficult, but Edwards claims to be the only living Texan–he was born in Dallas and lives in Irving–without strong opinions or a crushing handshake. “I’m dull,” he says. “I don’t have a lot to say.”
For a dull guy, though, he has awfully interesting buddies. Country singer Vince Gill has had him backstage at dozens of concerts, and Fox Sports commentator Pat Summerall considers Edwards an indispensable member of his Dry Hole Gang, a small group of amateurs (Edwards is the only pro) who play regularly at Las Colinas Country Club in Irving. You’re not exactly colorless, either, when tournament directors on five continents know you’ll take Dr Pepper in lieu of cash. Edwards is so sensitive to the nuances of the soft drink that in a blind taste test, he can identify where a sample was bottled. (“Atlanta,” he says, taking a swig from a can handed to him. Holding the can up to read the small print, he nods. “Yep, Atlanta.”) He’s so fond of original recipe Dr Pepper from plants in Stephenville and Dublin, Texas, that he took two cases of the stuff with him to Scotland when he tried to qualify for the 2000 British Open. “I shouldn’t be telling you this,” he says. “You’ll question my sanity.”
If you don’t, Edwards will. Bob Rotella, the author and sports psychologist, asked him why he hadn’t won on Tour. Edwards’s reply: “I’m pretty hard on myself.”
“At least you know the answer,” Rotella said.
“I’m my own worst critic,” Edwards says, “but the only time I get really mad is when I don’t totally commit to a shot.” He cites an approach shot he bailed out on in the final round at Greensboro a few years ago. Fuzzy Zoeller, his playing partner, blistered Edwards for playing timidly when he had a chance to win. “If you ever do that again,” Zoeller scolded him, “I’ll rough you up.”
“Fuzzy was right,” Edwards said last week. “You can’t push that fear button. The great ones, like Tiger and Mickelson, are never afraid to hit a good shot–or a bad one.” Edwards’s margin of victory at Vancouver proved he had learned that lesson. The question is, Can he win again? “Definitely,” says his caddie, Eric Bajas. “The guy has lots of game, and he believes in himself. I wouldn’t be surprised if he won two or three times this year.” Even one win, of course, would earn Edwards a return trip to the Mercedes, at which he earned $89,000 for a 13th-place finish.
On New Year’s Eve, while Rhonda dressed for the party, Edwards wrote his goals for 2002 on a piece of hotel stationery. He then folded the paper and put it in his wallet. A few hours later he looked up at that Hawaiian moon from the balcony of the Ritz and
seemed to wonder how the tournament organizers had made it so big, so bright, so round. “I never wanted to conquer the world,” he said. “I only wanted to be part of it in my quiet way.”
A week into the new season, that’s one goal that Edwards can check off.