While Tommy Tolles is explaining how the cops love to set traps for speeders on certain steep and winding sections of these narrow mountain roads near Flat Rock, N.C., his right foot is heedless. This despite the fact that he has a costly history with patrolmen and their ticket books and has spent the afternoon sampling the lager in a bar. Inside the speeding lavender Toyota 4-Runner—a loaner for the day; he owns a pickup truck—Tolles's passenger is wearing a seat belt. Tolles is not. I le never does. "Not while I'm driving," he says. "Nothing's going to happen when I drive. I wish I had that much confidence on the golf course."
The PGA Tour often serves as the wall that sends wide-eyed golfers, like crash-test dummies, through the windshield, but with his confidence trebling over the last two months, Tolles is finally starting to feel as if he belongs. In his second season on the Tour, Tolles, 29, has been one of the spring's most consistent performers, surging to prominence from a position that was as close to nowhere as tiny Flat Rock.
Beginning in the Freeport-McDermott Classic in New Orleans in late March, Tolles was part of Sunday's final pairing for three successive weeks, and in live starts he accumulated four top-five finishes, including a second at the Players Championship. Although he was the only one of the five new faces that burst onto the scene in March and April who failed to snag a trophy, he has earned more than half a million dollars this year and is seventh on the money list, well ahead of that foursome of first-time winners, Tim Herron, Paul Goydos, Scott McCarron and Paul Stankowski. And, as a result of his standing on the money list, he will likely be the only one of that group to have earned an exemption into next month's U.S. Open. Yet the sole material change in his life is the pickup, which shortly after the Players replaced the dusty white van that had hauled Tolles and his wife, Ilse, around the Nike tour for four long years. He told the local newspaper that now he's like everyone else in North Carolina: "I can get around with a pinch between my cheek and gum, driving my 4 X 4." His mother worried that the locals might feel he was mocking them, but Tolles denies the intent. "Hey, I've got a can of Skoal in my back pocket," he says, "and I really wanted a truck. Trucks are awesome."
A Florida native who was raised in Fort Myers and later in Cape Coral, Tolles was introduced to Flat Rock when his lather, Tom Sr., bought a second home there after selling the family concrete business and retiring on the proceeds, at age 35. For the first two years of their marriage, Tommy and Use shuttled between Cape Coral and Flat Rock, living in whichever house the senior Tolleses did not occupy. They finally bought a home in 1993, shortly before their son, Wiekus (pronounced VICK-us) was born.
But for all his recent success Tolles is still not the most famous person in Flat Rock. If Burt and Loni hadn't split up, causing their planned real estate purchase to fall through, Tolles wouldn't even make the top five. Flat Rock, a scenic one-road town in the foothills of the Appalachians in western North Carolina, has an antique shop, an Exxon station with a small restaurant, a book exchange, a couple of B&Bs, a national historic site, a respected theater, zero traffic lights and 1,200 residents. The historic site was the home of poet Carl Sandburg, who died there in 1967. Howdy Doody's pal Buffalo Bob Smith lives in Flat Rock, as does former CBS announcer Ben Wright and former Redskins running back Charlie (Choo Choo) Justice.
Tolles doesn't mind playing second fiddle to Buffalo Bob, but after a lifetime of anonymity he is enjoying the novelty of being recognized. For him the high point came on the putting green in the BellSouth Classic in Atlanta when Seve Ballesteros complimented him on his good play. "He said it in that Spanish accent, and something went straight up my spine," Tolles says. "My man knows who I am." Ballesteros was Tolles's idol when he was growing up, and he gets excited describing Ballesteros's shotmaking skills. "I'd hate to play video games with the guy, because he's got an imagination beyond anybody else's," Tolles says.
He is more self-effacing about his own game, speaking of it with humor and humility, as if taking preemptive measures against the humbling nature of golf. When he's back in Cape Coral, he studies the names of junior players who get written up in the paper "so if I bump into any of them I won't look like a stuck-up person," he says.
There seems little danger of that happening, at least until he can produce a subpar round while in the hunt on Sunday. In the four events in which he has contended—New Orleans, the Players, Atlanta and Houston—Tolles's final-round average is 73.75. In the other five events in which he made the cut, his Sunday average is 69.40. Tolles readily admits that he still gets the shakes when the tournament is on the line. "I'm just getting to a point where I'm not that nervous when I tee it up on Thursday," he says. "I still have to get accustomed to being in contention. When I have a hard shot or a hard hole, I freeze up. Others do too, but I may do it more than anyone else. It seems like every time I get into a situation I'm not familiar with, I try to downplay it or I screw it up."
Part of the problem may be attributed to "being a Tolles," he says. Being a Tolles means being stubborn and resistant to change. "We have one-track minds," Tolles says. "It's like when you're doing your job, you learn shortcuts and tricks of the trade. Not us. We're by the book." This literal-mindedness does seem to have had an impact on his game. For example, Tolles was taught that to hit a ball out of a buried lie in a bunker, the club face, without exception, had to be closed. It was not until his third year on the Nike tour that, despite having been shown other ways to play the shot, he would try another approach.
That kind of rigidity cropped up again in New Orleans and might have kept him from winning instead of finishing third. After the final round Tolles said, "I had to be realistic. My first time in that position, McCarron's first time, I figured both of us would just balloon and that some-one like Tom Watson or Davis Love, guys who already know how to elevate their games under pressure, would win. But Scott stayed in control and won by three shots. It kind of left me shaking my head."