Staked by a loan from her parents, Joe honed his craft on the Nike tour, aided by the presence of his wife, who often caddied for him. Durant finally busted loose in '96, winning the Mississippi Gulf Coast Classic and finishing third on the Nike money list, which shot him to the PGA Tour.
He began to come into his own during his sophomore season, in '98. "I had the honor of leading the U.S. Open at Olympic for 12 holes during the first round," Durant says. (But who's counting?) His confidence stoked, he won the next week at the Western Open, trumping Vijay Singh in a Sunday shootout.
Success, though, didn't come without a struggle. On the way to the '99 Pebble Beach Pro-Am, Durant cracked two ribs trying to hoist one of Tracey's suitcases. ("Hey, it was Pebble," she says apologetically. "All that layering weighs a lot.") Durant played hurt the rest of the year, and it showed. Two months after suffering the injury, he dragged himself to his first Masters. Daintily swinging his wedges, Durant won the par-3 tournament on Wednesday. The next day he hung up an 87 on the big course. "I could feel his pain," says Hardin, who watched his old colleague from the gallery. "Of course, Joe is such a nice fellow that when I talked to him afterward, all he said was, 'Hey, how are things down at the warehouse?' " For the year Durant would make only 13 of 26 cuts, plummeting to 157th on the money list.
Still bothered by the injury in early 2000, Durant got bageled on the West Coast, missing the cut in all five of his appearances. From this disastrous start he slowly refound his form, climbing back to 76th on the season-ending money list. However, one of his worst performances of the year is what set up his rampage in 2001. During the final round of the Reno-Tahoe Open, in late August, Durant putted—and putted and putted—his way to an 83. A few days later he was moping around the practice green at the Air Canada Championship when he got some free advice from Arnie Cunningham, a rep for SeeMore putters. Durant had always had a pronounced forward press, striking his putts with a descending blow, like someone trying to kill a mouse with a broom. At Cunningham's urging Durant moved his hands back, straightening his shaft and making his stroke more shallow. He closed the season with a flurry, including a fifth at the Tampa Bay Classic, his best finish since winning the Western. Durant was so encouraged by his putting that he overhauled his chipping, too. (Last Saturday at the Honda, Durant uncharacteristically hit only 12 greens, but he didn't make a bogey.)
Durant's full arsenal was unleashed at the Hope, at which he went 36 under to set the scoring record for a five-round event. While this birdie binge was dismissed in some quarters as a fluke, those close to Durant weren't surprised. "It was only a matter of time," says Ron Gring, Durant's coach since the early '90s. "There have been a dozen times that Joe could've shot those kind of numbers if he had converted his opportunities. If he putts the way he has been lately, he's frightening."
As shocking as Durant's coming-out party in the desert was, his performance two weeks later at Doral might have been even more impressive. Playing in a wind that gusted hard enough to send palm fronds skittering across the fairways, Durant's final-round 65 was the best score of the day, and he stormed back from four strokes down to become the Tour's only multiple winner this season.
In the wake of that victory Durant's quiet life was turned upside down. When he checked his cell phone the next day, he had 23 messages, and he arrived at the Honda to discover his locker was plastered with two-dozen congratulatory notes. Durant was so run down by all the demands on his time that on Friday afternoon he crashed for a three-hour power nap, and he didn't hit balls following any of his rounds.
Durant had such a low profile coming into this season that he still wears clothing adorned with the generic PGA TOUR logo, but don't fret about how he'll handle fame and fortune. He and Tracey have already dealt with the primary distraction of the Tour's nouveau riche, the New House. For a year and a half they have been planning their dream digs—not some ostentatious Isle-worth Xanadu but a simple country home 20 acres north of Pensacola. The accompanying barn has already gone up, to house Tracey's Arabian, Junior. They plan to add more horses, for Connor, nine, and her brother, Hayes, three. Dad has designs for a full-blown practice facility, but more now he simply aims for the horizon and shags the balls himself. For added ambiance Durant often cues up the strains of his favorite band—Pink Floyd, of course.
Having brought his game back from the dark side of the moon, Durant was in no position to pout about a fifth-place finish at the Honda. "More points," he said, alluding to the Ryder Cup standings. (He's eighth.) The Sept. 28-30 match at the Belfry has become his primary goal for the year. Back at the warehouse in Fort Walton Beach, some interested observers are charting his progress.
"We're allowed to watch TV during the workday if it's golf-related, being in the golf business and all," says Hardin. "I keep an eye out for Joe. He's the type of person who would've been successful wherever he went. If he had stayed with Edwin Watts Golf, within six months he would have moved to a better position in the warehouse. Six months after that he could have looked forward to moving to our retail staff. After that, who knows? With his work ethic and friendly manner he very well could've become a manager of one of our retail stores Joe had a bright future here."