For Toms, view is different from top

Defending PGA champion starts play with Woods, Els

PGA Championship

August 15, 2002|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

CHASKA, Minn. -- David Toms had spent more than a decade chasing the two-headed monster that most golfers try to conquer, but no matter what he did, obscurity and normality kept getting in the way of fame and fortune.

That all changed last summer at the Atlanta Athletic Club in the PGA Championship, with one mighty swing on Saturday and one questionable decision on Sunday. They led to Toms, now 35, winning his first major championship and losing a good part of his anonymity.

Asked yesterday how his one-stroke victory over Phil Mickelson changed his life, Toms said, "It's really hard to explain unless you were inside my body."

Today, when the 84th PGA Championship begins at Hazeltine National Golf Club, Toms will have something of an out-of-body experience. How he handles playing with Tiger Woods and Ernie Els for the first two rounds could determine whether he gets into contention this year.

Though his world ranking has soared to No. 6 and he has backed up last year's performance with a solid but unspectacular season in 2002, Toms will certainly still be viewed as an outsider in this elite threesome.

And Toms doesn't mind playing the role of extra in a show headlined by Woods.

"I still have a life, I can come and go as I please," said Toms. "There are certain things that he can't do. I really don't see how he can get in a car at home and go see a movie. I'm not sure I can deal with it any other way."

While his victory in Georgia gave Toms certain perks such as making the U.S Ryder Cup team and bringing a number of endorsement contracts, he still can tailgate at LSU football games and go food shopping at the local supermarket.

Not that Toms is totally faceless.

Just last week, he was riding an escalator at Dallas-Fort Worth Airport when he found himself being stared at by a man going in the opposite direction.

"When somebody is doing that, I just kind of look the other way or reach down and grab my phone like I'm talking because it makes me kind of uncomfortable," Toms recalled. "I got up to the top of the escalator, and I probably walked about eight gates."

As he stopped to look at a newspaper, Toms was still being followed.

"He was just right on top of me, and he was scared to even say something to me," said Toms. "Finally, I said, `Is there something you want to say?' And he said, `You know, you're my favorite player. I can't believe I'm actually meeting you.' "

Toms admitted that he was a little spooked by the incident, but the man left after Toms autographed a picture.

"You could tell it made his day, so it made me feel good, also," said Toms. "Just little things like that, you know, there's no way that I thought that would ever happen to me, and it has. It's been fun. The neatest thing about winning is the fact that you have the power to touch a lot of people."

How Toms won the PGA Championship didn't hurt.

After making a 240-yard hole in one on Saturday to vault into the lead, Toms held on after being chased the entire final round by Mickelson, his playing partner. Leading by a stroke going into the par-4 18th hole, Toms hit his drive into the short rough and decided to lay up.

While some in the gallery were heard to second-guess Toms for playing short of the green -- and the pond in front of it -- and others remembered another journeyman named Chip Beck doing the same thing in losing the 1993 Masters -- Toms never wavered.

"The final decision was the fact that if I laid up, I didn't think I was going to lose the golf tournament on that hole," said Toms, who wound up making an 8-footer to save par. "Maybe there would be a playoff if I wasn't able to get up-and-down for par, but I knew I had come a long way and played smart golf the whole week and I just didn't want to lose it on that hole."

The decision Toms made has been debated ever since. Asked how many times the subject of his now famous lay-up has been raised with him, Toms said, `I can't count that high, to be honest with you.'

"It's been well-received, whether people agree with me -- obviously they agree now, just because the way it turned out, but whether they were second-guessing me at the time or not, it's just been something that so many people have commented on."

What still surprises Toms isn't that he made the putt on 18, but that he kept his emotions in check so well with Mickelson and others breathing down his neck. His five previous victories didn't prepare him totally for what he faced that afternoon.

"It seemed like every time I was able to get into trouble, I was able to recover or I was able to capitalize," said Toms.

If anything, what he experienced in last year's final round might help him here the next two days. It's always a carnival atmosphere playing with Woods, whether it's the first round of a major or the second round of a regular tour event.

"Maybe just give me a bigger set of blinders," said Toms. "There's going to be a lot of things going on, a lot of people out there. Just because of their physical talent, they are going to be able to hit a lot of shots that I just can't hit, so I'm going to have to play my own game.

"You hear that a lot, but that's what I'm going to have to do. I know some guys go as far as not watching what their playing partner does, but I enjoy watching great golf and I think I will see a lot of that. It will give me something to shoot for."

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