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 Use 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, Use 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, Use 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."