Finally Arrived Joel Edwards made it to the Mercedes Championships later than most, which is precisely why he found the event so special

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 hourlong 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.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY TODD BIGELOW/AURORA Big wheel A first-time winner at 40, Edwards was unaccustomed to such red-carpet perks as a limo ride from the airport. FOUR COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY TODD BIGELOW/AURORA Full schedule Early in the week, Rhonda joined Joel for whale-watching and a New Year's Eve party, but on Friday he went one-on-one with Torre in the morning and Tiger in the afternoon.

Joel unfolded the paper and began to cry. "It's my list of
goals," he told Rhonda, "and I've achieved every one."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)