The PGA Tour has no soft spot for rookies. Every January the
Tour welcomes a fresh batch of about 25 starry-eyed dreamers,
and every October it spits out most of them. Tired and broke,
they head straight back to hell, a.k.a. qualifying school. It's
the exception, not the rule, when a rook--what the veterans call
a first-year player--wins enough cash to keep his playing card.
Paul Azinger didn't. Mark Calcavecchia didn't. Neither did Tom
Lehman, Loren Roberts, Jim Gallagher Jr. or Jeff Sluman. In
fact, over the last five years only 21% of the Tour's rookies
have earned enough to avoid a return trip to Q school the next
season. "Being a rookie out here can be demoralizing and
intimidating," says Gallagher, who in his inaugural year, 1984,
made just $22,249 and had to qualify all over again. "You have
to earn every inch of respect you get. There's no guarantee
you'll ever make a penny."
True to form, only six members of this year's 23-player rookie
class are among the top 125, the cutoff for keeping one's card.
But against all odds, three of them--Woody Austin, David Duval
and Justin Leonard--are doing so well that when the Tour
concludes in seven weeks at the Tour Championship, their
collective performance will go down as the greatest in Tour
history. It'll be better, far better, than that of rookies in
years such as 1977, when Jay Haas, Peter Jacobsen, Craig Stadler
and Curtis Strange played their first full seasons, or 1981,
when Calcavecchia, Fred Couples, Nick Faldo, Mark O'Meara and
Payne Stewart debuted.
Already Duval has earned $791,158 and broken the rookie
money-winning record by $100,000, while Austin ($593,457,
including a win at the Buick Open) and Leonard ($501,493) could
also break the old record--set last year by Ernie Els--with
another good finish or two. What's more, if Austin, Duval and
Leonard maintain their spots on the money list (24rd, 10th and
27th, respectively), 1995 will be the first year in which more
than one rookie has finished in the top 30, the benchmark for
qualification to the prestigious Tour Championship.
September 17, 1995
Their performances have created the most compelling race for
Rookie of the Year since the award was created in 1990. The
winner is determined by a players' vote after the Tour
Championship. Who wins will probably come down to how the
contenders perform in that final event. Even then, most of the
voters will probably still be scratching their heads.
The rap on Leonard's campaign for Rookie of the Year is simple:
He's not a rookie, a point with which even he agrees. "After
graduating from Texas, I played 13 events on the Tour last year,
and I was in eight the year before as an amateur," says Leonard,
the winner of the 1992 U.S. Amateur and the '94 NCAAs. "So, no,
I don't consider myself a rookie."
In any other year Leonard, 23, would not be. Last year the PGA
Tour ruled that a player's rookie season is the one in which he
plays his 10th tournament as a pro or finishes in the top 125 on
the money list. Last year not only did Leonard play in more than
10 events, but he also finished high enough on the money list to
be exempted onto the Tour this year. In March, however, Duval,
whose endorsement contracts contain incentives for winning
Rookie of the Year, successfully petitioned commissioner Tim
Finchem to delay the application of the rule until 1996. Duval
played 11 events last year but told Finchem that had he been
aware of the rookie rule, he would not have played so many.
Finchem and the Tour policy board sided with Duval, and he and
Leonard thus became eligible for this year's award.
As Leonard's pedigree suggests, he is a rookie only on paper. He
moves in Tour circles with such self-confidence that he seems as
much of a veteran as the players with whom he's chummy, guys
like Sluman, Davis Love III and Tom Kite. Leonard is already a
poster boy for Polo and a spokesman for Kiawah Island Golf Club.
And his home course, Royal Oaks in Dallas, will soon install a
bronze likeness of him on a brick wall behind the 1st tee.
Though it may be a bit premature, the superstar treatment is not
unwarranted. Leonard has made 21 cuts in 27 events. Five times
he has finished in the top 10, including a second-place tie at
the Western Open and a tie for eighth at the PGA. There he made
a 20-foot par putt on the 72nd green to qualify for the Masters
(the top eight finishers in each of the other majors get in). "I
knew what it meant, and I nailed it," Leonard says.
Leonard's biggest asset is a simple, efficient swing. He
doesn't produce much power (140th in driving distance), but he
has control and consistency, which is why he ranks 8th in the
If Leonard is to be Rookie of the Year, he needs to make up
ground fast. Would he choose himself for the award? "I wouldn't
vote for myself at this point," he says.
Fall is when most rookies are playing every week, desperately
trying to keep their Tour cards. Duval is not playing at all,
desperately trying to relax.
Duval has taken off the last three weeks and plans to play in
only two more events before the Tour Championship. He hasn't
touched a golf club since Aug. 20, the day he won $60,000 by
finishing fifth at the Sprint International.
"I'd love to win the Rookie of the Year award," says Duval, who
earned his Tour exemption by finishing eighth on the '94 Nike
tour money list, "but I'm not going to play any extra to do it.
If it happens, great."
Duval has earned the right and the money to take it easy. He has
already stuffed nearly $800,000 and the richest rookie season in
history under his big belt. In 23 events Duval has made 18 cuts,
finished in the top 10 seven times and been runner-up three
times. He is also first in the all-around stat.
Most impressive, in less than a year on the Tour he has elbowed
his way into the select echelon of players who are considered
genuine contenders every time they play. "He's got total command
of his game," says Billy Andrade. "For a rookie to always seem
to be in the hunt, that's spectacular."
Duval's my-way-or-the-highway attitude rubs some the wrong way,
but the 24-year-old acts on his instincts, whether they're
telling him to swerve a golf ball under trees and around a
dogleg or to take time off from the Tour grind.
There are only two criticisms of Duval. One is his numbingly
slow pace of play. At the Tucson Open, Gary Koch suggested on
ESPN that Duval set up a fund to cover the fines he would surely
accrue. The other knock is that Duval still isn't a closer, a
reputation he has been trying to shed since college. At Georgia
Tech he was a four-time first-team All-America, yet he won only
five events, while placing second 11 times.
If Duval can notch a win down the stretch, he will not only
erase any doubts about being a complete player but will also
almost surely end the debate over who is Rookie of the Year.
By virtue of having played just one Tour event before 1995,
Albert Wood Austin is the truest rookie of the bunch. Austin,
31, graduated from Miami in 1986. He was a two-time All-America
focused on one thing: success on the PGA Tour. He never imagined
it would be so long in coming. "I always told people, 'When I
make it to the Tour, I'm going to stay,'" says Austin. "The hard
part, I found out, was getting here."
A big understatement. In 1987 Austin tore ligaments in his left
knee before the final stage of Q school. The injury necessitated
18 months of rehab and sent Austin's golf game into hibernation.
Gradually he began to practice and play the mini-tours, all the
while supporting himself by working as a teller at the GTE
Federal Credit Union, as a clerk on the graveyard shift at an
Eckerd Drugstore and as a bartender and pro-shop attendant. The
turning point came in 1992 when Austin was introduced to Shannon
Henderson, whom he married a year later. "She's my wife, my
agent, my best friend. I couldn't have made it without her," he
Last year Austin played the Nike tour. He finished 23rd on the
money list, good enough to send him to the Q school finals,
which he won. He has been cruising ever since.
At his first 1995 PGA Tour event, the Hawaiian Open, Austin
birdied three of the last four holes of the second round to make
the cut. In his second, at Tucson, he shot 13 under, finished
sixth and cashed a check for $37,813. Overall he has played in
30 events, made 19 cuts and finished in the top 10 six times,
including his win at the Buick Open last month.
Ball-striking is Austin's strength. He hits it crisp, long
(eighth in driving distance) and, more often than not, close to
the hole, a point proved by the fact that although he ranks
140th in putts per round, he's first in birdies, with 349. He's
also a solid closer, having shot par or better in 14 of 19 final
rounds. His weaknesses: putting and mental toughness.
"Skillswise, I'm on top of things right now," says Austin. "The
big difference between me and guys like Strange and Nick laus
and Kite is that they can hold it together when they're not
Austin's solid performance on the Tour has gained him the
respect of his peers, but he still gets little recognition
outside the ropes. "Who the hell is Woody Austin?" a reporter
for the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel wrote this spring.
Whether or not writers or fans recognize his accomplishments
doesn't bother Austin. He knows that unlike Leonard and Duval,
he has held it together down the stretch and won a tournament.
That feat outshines Duval's lead in earnings. In the end,
greatness is judged not by how much cash a golfer has in the
bank but by how many trophies he has on the shelf. That's why,
so far, Woody Austin is our Rookie of the Year.
SI asked 60 PGA Tour players which member of the class of '95
they would select as Rookie of the Year.
David Duval 30
Woody Austin 28
Justin Leonard 2
Players picking Duval were impressed by his consistent play and
big lead on the money list. "A shoo-in. He's close to one
million bucks, right?" said Nick Price. Glen Day added, "Woody
may have a win, but Duval's played great all year. It's Rookie
of the Year, not the week."
Austin's backers cited his win in the Buick Open and his stature
as the truest rookie. "Winning's what it's all about," said Mark
Calcavecchia. Added Bruce Fleisher, "Going through the Q school
and finishing first is impressive. The other guys had Tour
experience. Woody is the true Rookie of the Year."
Leonard's supporters showed more of a personal interest. "He's a
'Horn and a good guy," claimed fellow Texan Mark Brooks.