Tolles takes roundabout journey back to success in pro golf
November 16, 2019
By Jim McCabe, PGATOUR.COM
- Tommy Tolles recorded two top-3 finishes in a row to qualify for the Charles Schwab Cup Championship. (Ralph Freso/Getty Images)
PHOENIX – Were you partial to metaphors, perhaps you’d have settled on Greek folklore to explain Tommy Tolles’ re-entry into the pro golf spotlight being in this desert city last week. Phoenix, as in rising from the ashes as a competitive golfer.
But mythology is better suited for Hollywood and cartoons. Tolles, on the other hand, is real life, a walking, talking study of what makes pro golf compelling. He’s the epitome of the competitor who accepts that the game owes you nothing, that you embrace the good times with humility and the bad with dignity, that you appreciate you play in a world of constant attrition that can swallow you up.
It cannot, however, extinguish the competitive flame that burns within, so you can always accept the challenge.
At 54, Tolles was not only up for the PGA TOUR Champions challenge, he was, to use a more wonderous and real-life metaphor, a veritable Halley’s Comet in the 2019 playoffs after spending most of the season on the alternate’s list.
Sitting 59th in the Charles Schwab Cup standings to start the playoffs, Tolles finished second at the first playoff, the Dominion Energy Classic, then was third at the Invesco QQQ to easily qualify for the 36-player field at the Charles Schwab Cup Championship.
Unlike Halley’s Comet, however, we hadn’t waited more than seven decades between these brilliant stretches by Tolles; more like 23 years from the first sighting, as a 29-year-old knocking on the door in New Orleans, Ponte Vedra Beach, and Atlanta on consecutive weeks.
He didn’t win any of those golden chances early in 1996, nor any of his other PGA TOUR starts, in fact, and colleagues file that away as a mystery.
“He always had the game to be one of the best; heck, he was one of the best,” said PGA TOUR veteran George McNeill, one of Tolles’ friends from Fort Myers, Fla.
“He got into contention so many times. If he had won one, who knows? He might have gotten five or six.”
Another close friend from the Fort Myers area, Nolan Henke, a three-time PGA TOUR winner, agrees with McNeill. “I had a feeling it was going to be in Atlanta (at the 1996 BellSouth), so after I played that morning, I went out to watch him.”
It didn’t happen for his friend that day, but Henke offers this as a reminder. “His game didn’t deteriorate. His back did.”
But now that Tolles has come back – at least to the point of having full status for 2020, the first time he’s had security under the PGA TOUR umbrella since 2009 on the Korn Ferry Tour – his is a story that reminds us of the unique and brilliant nature of pro golf.
Before he burst into view
You could say it started where it usually does, in junior golf, and you’d be partly right. Tolles and Henke, who was two years older, were chauffeured around by their mothers to various junior tournaments in South Florida. Henke eventually played at Florida State, Tolles was a walk-on freshman at the University of Georgia, his passion for golf admittedly lukewarm.
Until, that is, the 1986 Masters, “the first professional golf tournament I had been to,” said Tolles.
But it wasn’t the magic of Jack Nicklaus, who won at age 46, that impacted Tolles. “It was the beauty of the place and the whole golf stage that overwhelmed me,” he said. “That’s when the flame (for golf) became really big.”
A freshman, Tolles kicked his regimen into overdrive, and by his senior year, he was focused on being a pro golfer.
He qualified for the U.S. Open at Brookline, then was runner-up in medal play at the Western Amateur where he joined Steve Stricker as first-round losers in match play. Tolles qualified for match play at the U.S. Amateur in Hot Springs, Va., but lost to Danny Yates in the second round.
None of it added up to phenom status, but all of it encouraged Tolles to stick at it. He did, mostly on minitours like the Space Coast Tour, until Henke suggested Tolles broaden his horizons.
“I had bought one of those packages to play in South Africa for another year,” said Henke. “But then I got through Q School.”
Henke sold his Sunshine Tour package to Tolles, who would compete against youngsters named Ernie Els and Retief Goosen, veterans such as Nick Price and Mark McNulty, and unheralded golfers from exotic locales as Fiji’s Vijay Singh.
Overall, South Africa toughened Tolles as a competitor. Personally, it enriched him fabulously because that is where he met Ilse Posthumus, whom he would marry in May of 1990 in Florida.
She caddied for him a few seasons on the Korn Ferry Tour and celebrated in December of 1994 when on his fifth trip to the final stage, Tolles made it through. In 1995, the year he turned 29, Tolles finished 116th on the money list.
Now in this generation of 20-and-21-year-olds winning PGA TOUR tournaments just weeks out of college, 116th on the money list doesn’t sound impressive, but it was.
Hardly did Tolles know it would get exponentially better.
That spring of 1996 . . . and Augusta a year later
After a rough start to his sophomore season, Tolles caught fire.
At the Freeport-McDermott in New Orleans, Tolles was second through 54 holes, just one behind Scott McCarron.
Two weeks later in Atlanta, he was again second, this time two behind David Duval entering the fourth round.
But it was the tournament sandwiched between that ushered Tolles into the PGA TOUR spotlight. At THE PLAYERS Championship, rounds of 69-64-69 had Tolles in the lead by two over Duval, and as he stood on the 14th green Sunday, he was the leader by one.
Then, a massive roar and Tolles knew it was Fred Couples. (This was pre-Tiger Woods; Fred was the crowd favorite.) “I thought 20,000 people had just won the lottery,” Tolles said, and he was correct.
Couples’ eagle at the par-5 16th put him one in front of Tolles.
Minutes later, as Tolles stood over a shot in the 15th fairway, roars again erupted. Couples had made birdie at the island-green 17th. “The same 20,000 people just won the lottery for the second time,” Tolles would later say, after bogeys at 15 and 18 left him tied for second, four behind Couples’ brilliant closing 64.
Disappointment all around, but still, finishing second, T-2 and T-5 in three straight weeks translated into $439,000 and confirmation that Tolles had arrived. He was targeted for stories by major publications and Tolles was accurately portrayed as the “small-town guy with big-time opportunity,” a reference to his fondness for Flat Rock, N.C., where he had settled.
“There’s nothing to do there,” he said about his love of Flat Rock. “I can go about my business.”
Nothing that happened in the spring of ’97 took the shine off Tolles’ story. When Woods lapped the field in winning the Masters by 12, it was Tolles who had Sunday’s best round, a 67, to finish third.
It remains his favorite PGA TOUR memory.
“To tee it up with Fuzzy (Zoeller) and play well, from the first tee shot to the minute I picked it up out of the cup at 18, it was a thrill,” said Tolles.
His crisp play continued into the U.S. Open at Congressional, where Tolles was joint fifth. At that point, he had compiled 13 top-10 finishes in 33 starts dating back to New Orleans in 1996.
“He had such an unbelievable skill set,” said Joe Durant. “He always swung it great and he could putt.”
Falling from view
How to explain what happened next? From back-to-back TOUR Championship berths, Tolles slumped to 115th on the money list in 1998, then 86th in 1999 and by 2003, he was on the Korn Ferry Tour. There was one last year on the PGA TOUR, 2004, but it would be his last. He was 38.
“The game,” said McNeill, “is very cut and dry. It’s a strong line and you’re either on one side or the other.”
Always, he had been a stand-up guy – “High class and low maintenance,” wrote Golf World’s Bob Verdi in 2004 – so never did Tolles blame back issues. He labored on the Korn Ferry Tour in 2006-09, then walked away from the game.
He brought his dignity and character with him, however, and that seamlessly moved him into the next chapter of his life – landscaping. Ben Hogan found his golf answers in the dirt; Tolles found a sense of joy and fulfillment there.
No surprise to Henke, who said: “He’d come down from North Carolina to stay at my house in the winter, give him a chance to work on his game, and you’d look outside and he’d always be doing something in my yard.”
With his wife running a successful consignment and antiques shop and him getting his hands dirty, Tommy and Ilse were in total of embrace of their Flat Rock life away from pro golf.
His golf was with friends, casual and fun, and he cautioned them on their exuberance when he played well.
“I never had had the ‘Can’t Miss’ tag, but I just loved the game,” he said. “A couple of friends got together and encouraged me to try (the PGA TOUR Champions). But I told them, ‘I just don’t have what it takes, I’m a good scramble player.’ ”
His return and another torrid stretch
The return to competitive golf was slow, but steady. At 50, he was T-41 in the qualifying tournament, which got him into five tournaments in 2017. That fall, he lost in a playoff for medalist honors in the Q School final to Tom Byrum, a finish that earned him 21 starts in 2018.
One of them was the Ally Challenge in Grand Blanc, Mich., where Tolles befriended one of his pro-am players, Greg Price. Turns out, Price and his wife, Tonya, had a son and a daughter who both attended Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers and that connected them to Tolles.
“He was very gracious, so humble,” said Greg, “and he was great in offering advice to our son Logan (who plays on the golf team).”
They agreed that Tolles would be their house guest at the 2019 Ally Challenge – and he was. Only Tolles arrived for the September tournament as an alternate and he never got in. He did, however, stick around to caddie for Greg in the pro-am.
“Basically,” laughed Tolles, “I was America’s guest.”
More than a month later, he was able to return the favor, which is a tribute to Tolles’ class and the uncanny ability of good pro golfers to dig deep and “find it” when they need it. Needing to do something special to earn his card for 2020, Tolles was runner-up in the first playoff tournament, then joint third in the next.
Alright, it didn’t rival the torrid stretch of 1996, but still, it powered Tolles into the Charles Schwab Cup Championship. Promptly, he rented a house and had Greg and Tonya Price as his guests in Phoenix.
“It says a lot about him,” said Tonya, and truth be told, they weren’t the only ones who took note of Tolles’ presence.
“I couldn’t be happier for him,” said Durant. “We’re all happy for him.”
For the first time in more than 10 years, Tolles can set his golf schedule. “But that isn’t very hard,” he said. “I play a lot, like every week.”
In the meantime, “get this, he has a few landscaping jobs to do,” said Durant. “Imagine that? It’s pretty cool.”
Tolles smiled, confirmed that he wasn’t quitting the day job, then pointed to the sloppy bogey at the par-5 72nd hole that left him 32nd at the Charles Schwab Cup finale.
“If I keep playing holes like that,” he laughed, “that day job will be what I rely on.”