Making It A tough choice made long ago by Tim Petrovic has only recently paid off

April 11, 2004

Tim Petrovic, who came in 11th at last week's BellSouth Classic,
will probably never be a celebrity on the PGA Tour. He's a quiet,
sarcastic guy who likes Mozart and practices with Vijay Singh.
Petrovic's not a bomber; he's a plodder and a terrific putter. An
altar boy growing up in Glastonbury, Conn., he's the doting
father of two girls, Mackenzie, two, and Bayleigh, five. When
he's not on Tour, Petrovic's idea of a big day is a Cuban
sandwich from the Subs-n-Such near his home in Dade City, Fla.,
followed by a visit to Wal-Mart to peruse the latest fishing
gear. Nevertheless, I root for him every week, and I'll be
pulling especially hard this week when Petrovic tries to become
the first player since Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979 to win the Masters on
his first try.

My cheerleading is highly personal, sort of like rooting for
myself, because Petrovic is the PGA Tour player I used to feel I
could be. Back in the 1980s Petrovic and I stood on the same
tees, hit pretty much the same shots and made comparable
scores--O.K., his were usually a tiny bit lower. That was when we
were in college. Petrovic played for the University of Hartford.
I played for Cornell. We didn't face off very often--a couple of
times a year in big tournaments at places like West Point and
Yale--but often enough to get a feel for each other's game.

Cornell and Hartford are hardly golf factories. Neither school
had spawned a single Tour player when Petrovic and I were there,
but we believed that with a lot of hard work maybe we could
change that. Petrovic made big strides, winning six individual
titles and leading the Hawks to the NCAA finals four times. My
accomplishments were more modest, although I did lead the Big Red
in scoring for two seasons and, as a sophomore, was the team's
MVP.

As graduation approached, Petrovic and I both knew that our games
were less than Tour quality. We faced the same tough decision:
Get a real job or turn pro? The real-job route was practical and
relatively risk-free. Going for the Tour was like trying to win
the lottery. Thousands of guys buy a ticket every year, and
almost all of them wind up as roadkill. In the end I chickened
out, fearing that I might wallow on the mini-tours forever.
Petrovic was nothing if not self-confident and devoted to his
goal. He turned pro in 1988 and never looked back.

It's 9:30 on a sunny winter morning. I'm on Tradition Drive in
Lake Jovita, a swanky gated community 30 miles north of Tampa.
I've come to see Petrovic for the first time since college. I
want to learn about his improbable journey to the Tour--and what
my life might have been like.

"It's amazing how fast things have changed," says Petrovic. We're
in the sprawling kitchen on the first floor of his house,
standing on opposite sides of an island counter and overlooking a
plush green backyard that contains a pool with a Jacuzzi.
Petrovic hasn't changed much. He's still tall (6'2") and skinny
(195 pounds) with light-red curly hair and arms that seem to
stretch past his knees. He is sifting through a plastic tackle
box.

"What's in there?" I ask.

"Vitamins," he says before popping the first of about 20 pills of
various sizes and colors. "My trainer has me on the VitaCube
system."

"We used that at Cornell," I reply. "That's why we were so good."

Petrovic gives me a wry smile and then tops my lame joke: "We
were smarter at Hartford. We took steroids."

The doorbell rings and Petrovic goes to answer it. "The lawn
man," he says when he returns a moment later. "Heck, we never
used to have a lawn. Now we have lawn guys, shrub guys, pool
guys, cleaning women, nannies...."

Not long ago Petrovic's lifestyle was drastically different.
After Hartford he moved to Tampa in 1992 and played--with little
success and no sponsor--mini-tours in the U.S., Canada and
Australia. To pay the bills he worked as a bartender, as a
delivery man and night manager at a Pizza Hut and as a counselor
at a day-care center. He also delivered newspapers and sold
cellphones. Meanwhile, his girlfriend and wife-to-be, Julie,
waitressed at the Pizza Hut and sold Avon products.

After a dozen years of grinding, lightning struck. In 2000
Petrovic, who was then 34, was the player of the year on the
Golden Bear tour in Florida, winning four times and earning
$166,569. The following season he finished seventh on the Nike
(now Nationwide) tour's money list, which gave him his PGA Tour
card for 2002. It had taken Petrovic 15 years to reach the big
Tour, but he quickly made the most of the opportunity. After a
solid rookie year, during which he made $800,000 to wind up 86th
in earnings, Petrovic won $1.7 million and jumped to 36th on the
money list in 2003--high enough to make it into the Masters. His
best finishes were a tie for second at the 84 Lumber Classic and
a tie for third at the Phoenix Open. (This year Petrovic, who
battled the flu for a month on the West Coast, is 74th on the
money list.)

Petrovic's metamorphosis was noted with pride by the tight-knit
fraternity of mini-tour hopefuls. Gone almost overnight were the
couple's bug-infested, 600-square-foot apartment, the rickety '81
GMC conversion van and the need to steal extra ketchup from
McDonald's and to pawn the toaster oven. Today the Petrovics live
in a 5,800-square-foot white colonial abutting the 10th hole at
Lake Jovita Golf and Country Club. Tim wears an 18-karat Rolex,
has partial ownership of a Citation Bravo jet, and inside his
garage sit a Mercedes SUV, a restored '59 Chevy Apache pickup, a
14-foot fishing boat and a golf cart. "I really appreciate what
we have," he says, "but I've been on the other side. I know it
could all disappear tomorrow if I don't keep playing well."

"This is my room," Petrovic proudly says as we enter the
third-floor attic. Petrovic's 1,000-square-foot sanctuary has an
antique pool table, an old popcorn machine, a 61-inch TV, a
football autographed by Dan Marino and a Leroy Neiman original.
There are also four crystal trophies (one for each of his Golden
Bear victories), a collection of LIFE magazines with John F.
Kennedy on the cover and a Doors album autographed by Jim
Morrison.

Petrovic, slouching on a beige leather couch by the TV, picks up
an acoustic guitar and strums a few bars of Hotel California.
"What's the most fun thing about being a Tour player?" I ask.

"Playing in front of big crowds," he says. "Getting fan mail is
also pretty cool. I just got a letter from a guy at San Quentin.
I sent him an autographed picture. I hope it doesn't end up on
eBay."

"What's the worst thing about being a Tour player?" I say.

"I've had to become a lot more protective of my privacy and the
children," he says. "It's a whole new ball game since September
11. You have to be careful about exposing your family and your
home to the public because there are people who'll do crazy
things. Some guys won't even let their families be photographed."

Petrovic switches tunes and begins playing Break on Through by
the Doors, his favorite band. "That song could be the theme to
your life," I say.

"Yeah," says Petrovic, who gently croons the refrain: "Break on
through to the other side/Break on through to the other side." He
leans back and adds, "I've gotten my butt kicked over and over,
but it's made me tougher. That's why I'm so grateful every time I
show up at a Tour event. I know what the other side is like and
how hard it is to break through."

Petrovic has the pedal almost to the metal. He's behind the wheel
of the Mercedes, and we're going 85 mph, heading south on I-10.
Tim and Julie are giving me a tour of their old life in Tampa. We
get off about 15 miles north of downtown Tampa and stop at the
Palms of Living apartment complex, where the Petrovics lived for
several years in the '90s. Then we go to the nearby University of
South Florida, where Petrovic used to hit balls at the Pit, a
field that is now covered with fraternity houses.

We then spend about 10 minutes looking for the Tampa Flea Market,
but Petrovic can't find it. "A fan ran up to me during a practice
round at the Tampa Bay Classic last year," he says. "The guy was
panting. He said, 'Remember me? I bought the clubs you sold at
the flea market a long time ago. I still use those sticks.' I
laughed and gave him an autograph."

Julie, in the back seat, leans forward and says, "The thing I
hated most back then was having to caddie, but Tim couldn't
afford anybody else."

"You thought that was worse than sleeping in the car in the
Arizona desert with bugs crawling all over us?" Tim asks.

"So much worse!" Julie says. "I went from having a boyfriend who
courted me to a boss who barked, 'Stand over there' and 'Be
quiet.' We fought over everything at the course."

"I still don't know why you wouldn't let me have the rain suit,"
says Tim, alluding to some long-ago dustup.

"It was heavy, and it wasn't going to keep me dry!" says Julie.

Back on I-10 we continue south for a few more miles, exiting near
a small strip mall. We drive to the far end of the lot and stop
by an empty, dilapidated store. The glass is cracked in many of
the windows, and a FOR RENT sign is taped to the inside of the
door. "This was where we spent our glory days," says Petrovic.
"This was the Pizza Hut where we worked."

Petrovic toiled there for five years, mostly working on the night
shift, closing the restaurant at 1 a.m. "During breaks I used to
come out here to the parking lot, take out my three-wood and hit
balls," Petrovic says. "I'd blast them right off the pavement."

"Didn't you smash a lot of windows in those apartment buildings?"
I ask, pointing at the apartment complex 100 yards away.

"No," Petrovic says. "That used to be a big swamp. No matter how
bad things got, I was always happy when I was hitting a golf
ball."

The look on his face made me realize that physical skills aren't
what really separates pros from amateurs. True, I can't hit the
shots that Petrovic hits today, but I might have developed
comparable skills had I spent eons in the minors. The difference
is that, as much as I love the game, it has never been my only
passion. Successful Tour players might have other interests, too,
but they seldom take the time to pursue them in earnest.

A Tour player's devotion to the game is deep and intense. Golf is
first and everything else is second, even family. As much as
Petrovic loves his wife and children, he's apart from them for at
least four months every year. Julie and the kids accompany him
about half the time he plays, but the road is no place for kids.
"Traveling is really disruptive for the children," says Julie.
"Things like potty training and getting the kids to sleep through
the night are very hard when you're always moving around."

Petrovic first visited Augusta National in 1991. He was taking
I-20 through Georgia, on the way to a mini-tour event, in a
beat-up Ford Tempo with all his worldly possessions stuffed in
the trunk. Passing through Augusta, he perked up when he saw the
exit for Washington Road. "I only wanted a peek," says Petrovic,
who pulled over at the entrance to Magnolia Lane. "I told myself
that I wouldn't return until I was playing in the Masters."

He finally played his way in last November by finishing among the
top 40 on the Tour money list. One of the perks of making the
field is that invitees can play an unlimited number of practice
rounds. Petrovic brought his father, Robert, with him on the
first of his three trips to Augusta National. Turned out Robert
couldn't play that day. (Family members can play with a Tour pro,
but only if a club member is in the group.) No problem. After
Tim's practice round father and son staged an 18-hole putting
contest on the practice green.

Can Petrovic win this week? "Yes," he says without hesitation.
"It won't be easy, but it's a realistic goal."

"A lot of people would say you're nuts," I reply.

"All that matters is what I think," Petrovic says. "You have to
believe things will happen, and that belief has to be genuine."

If he could pull it off, a little part of me would feel like a
winner too.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BILL FRAKES THE GOOD LIFE Petrovic relaxes at home with (clockwise from top left) Mackenzie, Julie and Bayleigh. B/W PHOTO: UNIVERSITY OF HARTFORD LONG SHOT Petrovic led Hartford, which had never had a player on Tour, to the NCAAs four times. B/W PHOTO: CORNELL UNIVERSITY THE ROAD NOT TAKEN The author (back row, far left) decided to write about pro golfers rather than try to become one. COLOR PHOTO: DARREN CARROLL/ICON SMI BREAKOUT In 2003, his 16th year as a pro, Petrovic leaped to 36th on the money list and into this year's Masters. COLOR PHOTO: HARRY HOW/GETTY IMAGES PIE IN THE SKY Even when he was hitting three-woods off the pavement at the Pizza Hut, Petrovic could see a future on Tour. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BILL FRAKES HOMEBODY During breaks from a 30-event schedule, Petrovic divides his time between family and fishing.

"I've gotten my butt kicked over and over," says Petrovic, "but
it's made me tougher. That's why I'm so grateful."

Says Julie, "I went from having a boyfriend who courted me to a
boss who barked, 'stand over there' and 'be quiet.'"

Can Petrovic win this week? "Yes," he says without hesitation.
"It won't be easy, but it's a realistic goal."

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)