May 27, 1996
May 27, 1996

Table of Contents
May 27, 1996

Pro Basketball [bonus Piece]


While Tommy Tolles is explaining how the cops love to set traps
for speeders on certain steep and winding sections of these
narrow mountain roads near Flat Rock, N.C., his right foot is
heedless. This despite the fact that he has a costly history
with patrolmen and their ticket books and has spent the
afternoon sampling the lager in a bar. Inside the speeding
lavender Toyota 4-Runner--a loaner for the day; he owns a pickup
truck--Tolles's passenger is wearing a seat belt. Tolles is not.
He never does. "Not while I'm driving," he says. "Nothing's
going to happen when I drive. I wish I had that much confidence
on the golf course."

This is an article from the May 27, 1996 issue Original Layout

The PGA Tour often serves as the wall that sends wide-eyed
golfers, like crash-test dummies, through the windshield, but
with his confidence trebling over the last two months, Tolles is
finally starting to feel as if he belongs. In his second season
on the Tour, Tolles, 29, has been one of the spring's most
consistent performers, surging to prominence from a position
that was as close to nowhere as tiny Flat Rock.

Beginning in the Freeport-McDermott Classic in New Orleans in
late March, Tolles was part of Sunday's final pairing for three
successive weeks, and in five starts he accumulated four
top-five finishes, including a second at the Players
Championship. Although he was the only one of the five new faces
that burst onto the scene in March and April who failed to snag
a trophy, he has earned more than half a million dollars this
year and is seventh on the money list, well ahead of that
foursome of first-time winners, Tim Herron, Paul Goydos, Scott
McCarron and Paul Stankowski. And, as a result of his standing
on the money list, he will likely be the only one of that group
to have earned an exemption into next month's U.S. Open. Yet the
sole material change in his life is the pickup, which shortly
after the Players replaced the dusty white van that had hauled
Tolles and his wife, Ilse, around the Nike tour for four long
years. He told the local newspaper that now he's like everyone
else in North Carolina: "I can get around with a pinch between
my cheek and gum, driving my 4x4." His mother worried that the
locals might feel he was mocking them, but Tolles denies the
intent. "Hey, I've got a can of Skoal in my back pocket," he
says, "and I really wanted a truck. Trucks are awesome."

A Florida native who was raised in Fort Myers and later in Cape
Coral, Tolles was introduced to Flat Rock when his father, Tom
Sr., bought a second home there after selling the family
concrete business and retiring on the proceeds, at age 35. For
the first two years of their marriage, Tommy and Ilse shuttled
between Cape Coral and Flat Rock, living in whichever house the
senior Tolleses did not occupy. They finally bought a home in
1993, shortly before their son, Wiekus (pronounced VICK-us) was

But for all his recent success Tolles is still not the most
famous person in Flat Rock. If Burt and Loni hadn't split up,
causing their planned real estate purchase to fall through,
Tolles wouldn't even make the top five. Flat Rock, a scenic
one-road town in the foothills of the Appalachians in western
North Carolina, has an antique shop, an Exxon station with a
small restaurant, a book exchange, a couple of B&Bs, a national
historic site, a respected theater, zero traffic lights and
1,200 residents. The historic site was the home of poet Carl
Sandburg, who died there in 1967. Howdy Doody's pal Buffalo Bob
Smith lives in Flat Rock, as does former CBS announcer Ben
Wright and former Redskins running back Charlie (Choo Choo)

Tolles doesn't mind playing second fiddle to Buffalo Bob, but
after a lifetime of anonymity he is enjoying the novelty of
being recognized. For him the high point came on the putting
green in the BellSouth Classic in Atlanta when Seve Ballesteros
complimented him on his good play. "He said it in that Spanish
accent, and something went straight up my spine," Tolles says.
"My man knows who I am." Ballesteros was Tolles's idol when he
was growing up, and he gets excited describing Ballesteros's
shotmaking skills. "I'd hate to play video games with the guy,
because he's got an imagination beyond anybody else's," Tolles

He is more self-effacing about his own game, speaking of it with
humor and humility, as if taking preemptive measures against the
humbling nature of golf. When he's back in Cape Coral, he
studies the names of junior players who get written up in the
paper "so if I bump into any of them I won't look like a
stuck-up person," he says.

There seems little danger of that happening, at least until he
can produce a subpar round while in the hunt on Sunday. In the
four events in which he has contended--New Orleans, the Players,
Atlanta and Houston--Tolles's final-round average is 73.75. In
the other five events in which he made the cut, his Sunday
average is 69.40. Tolles readily admits that he still gets the
shakes when the tournament is on the line. "I'm just getting to
a point where I'm not that nervous when I tee it up on
Thursday," he says. "I still have to get accustomed to being in
contention. When I have a hard shot or a hard hole, I freeze up.
Others do too, but I may do it more than anyone else. It seems
like every time I get into a situation I'm not familiar with, I
try to downplay it or I screw it up."

Part of the problem may be attributed to "being a Tolles," he
says. Being a Tolles means being stubborn and resistant to
change. "We have one-track minds," Tolles says. "It's like when
you're doing your job, you learn shortcuts and tricks of the
trade. Not us. We're by the book." This literal-mindedness does
seem to have had an impact on his game. For example, Tolles was
taught that to hit a ball out of a buried lie in a bunker, the
club face, without exception, had to be closed. It was not until
his third year on the Nike tour that, despite having been shown
other ways to play the shot, he would try another approach.

That kind of rigidity cropped up again in New Orleans and might
have kept him from winning instead of finishing third. After the
final round Tolles said, "I had to be realistic. My first time
in that position, McCarron's first time, I figured both of us
would just balloon and that someone like Tom Watson or Davis
Love, guys who already know how to elevate their games under
pressure, would win. But Scott stayed in control and won by
three shots. It kind of left me shaking my head."

Tolles has not lacked for advice. Sports psychologists have been
recommended, as have relaxation techniques. He has been patted
on the back and told that he's on the cusp of victory and should
view the close calls as learning experiences. "Another learning
experience--I'm getting tired of hearing that," Tolles
complained after finishing fifth earlier this month in Houston.
Yet in a way Tolles's entire career in golf, despite what on the
surface seems to be instant success, has been a study in
building from the ground up.

As a child Tolles was no one's idea of a golf prodigy. His
parents wanted him to play baseball and football in order to
broaden his potential career choices. "But there I was at 12, a
little 4'2", 68-pound weakling looking at these 15-year-old
monsters with helmets and 36-inch bats," Tolles says. "I was
like, 'Dad, I want to do something else.' I kind of slid into
golf, but I wasn't very good."

Later he would dream of the Tour but wake up to the reality that
he needed to find a real career. At the University of Georgia,
where he was a walk-on on the golf team, Tolles tried several
paths. "Everything I touched turned to stone," he says. "I tried
landscape architecture for two years, but that wasn't me. When
computers started getting big, I went for computer science,
thinking I'd be a computer programmer. Wrong. I took math
education. Wrong. I even got into the craftsmanship part of
horticulture and agronomy."

The epiphany came, as so many in golf do, at Augusta National.
While still at Georgia he attended his first pro tournament, the
1986 Masters. It wasn't Jack Nicklaus's stirring victory that
made him decide to dedicate his life to the game, it was a small
bed of clover, perhaps a foot and a half in diameter, growing on
the 1st fairway. It was encircled in white paint. "I thought,
Man, they've marked a patch of clover as ground under repair,
and that's as good as the best spot in my dad's yard," Tolles
remembers. "That's when I went wild. I figured this is what they
play on every week, and I'd never even seen anything like it. I
thought, I want to play on the PGA Tour. That's when the flame
became really big. Even though my academics suffered, I decided
that this was what I wanted to give 100 percent of my effort to.
The school basically gave me the boot--a big hard boot with
steel toes--and I went from shooting in the mid-70s to breaking
par on a semiregular basis."

His first tournament as a pro, in 1989, was in South Africa, to
which he had flown on a plane ticket first purchased by Nolan
Henke, a friend from junior golf in Fort Myers. Henke didn't
think he would qualify for the PGA Tour and had arranged to play
the South African tour, but he passed Q school. "So then Nolan's
stuck with a $1,500 plane ticket," says Tolles, whose own
attempt at the December 1988 qualifier--he made seven tries
altogether--had been a bust, "and he's like, 'Dude, why don't
you go down to South Africa?' I was basically going fishing
every day, so I said sure, why not? I was only kidding, but it
worked out well."

In his first event, in Durban, Tolles played in the final group
on Sunday. Paired with Tony Johnstone and Alan Pate, players he
had actually heard of, Tolles was so intimidated that he shot
84. Then near the end of the season he met Ilse Posthumus, and
in her version of events asked her to marry him three days
afterward. He says he proposed almost a year later, and she is
willing to concede that he might have been drinking when he
first popped the question. It's a rare concession in the
affectionate burlesque of their squabbles over personal history.

Until she fired him, Ilse caddied for Tolles for a couple of
months on the Nike tour. He thinks he fired her. In Gulfport,
Miss., Tolles was three holes from missing the cut, hit a bad
shot and tossed a club in annoyance. On the next tee, a hole
where Tolles planned to hit driver, eight-iron, Ilse advised him
to use a three-wood. Why? Because his eight-iron was still back
on the previous hole, right where he had thrown it. She wasn't
going to pick it up.

In his first six years as a pro Tolles made steady but
unspectacular progress, playing the South Africa circuit for
five years and working his way up through the U.S. mini-tours
and then the Nike tour. At the end of 1994 he finally made it
through Q school and kept his card by finishing 116th on the
1995 money list. He's a bit staggered now when he realizes that
he'll be disappointed if he doesn't finish in the top 30 and
qualify for the season-ending Tour Championship. Although his
accomplishments have placed him among the elite on the Tour,
Tolles still admits to being intimidated by players he's not yet
ready to call peers.

One day after play in Atlanta last month Tolles found himself
sitting at a table with Ernie Els, Colin Montgomerie, Sam
Torrance and Ian Woosnam. He was as thrilled by that as he was
with any of his many successes. "All of a sudden, here are some
of the best players in the game--and then there's me," Tolles
says. "I kind of almost felt like a caddie, that I really
shouldn't have been in that crowd. But I'm here, so carpe diem."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY PATRICK MURPHY-RACEY Tolles is at home doing yard work in Flat Rock [Tommy Tolles raking leaves}COLOR PHOTO: J.D. CUBAN/ALLSPORT Although Tolles has four top-five finishes, final-round jitters have sent his Sunday scores soaring. [Tommy Tolles golfing]COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY PATRICK MURPHY-RACEY Ilse (left) and Wiekus have learned that it can be tough being a Tolles. [Ilse Tolles, Tommy Tolles and Wiekus Tolles]