The Headquarters of Edwin Watts Golf sits within a sprawling industrial park in Fort Walton Beach, Fla., surrounded by a beer distributorship and a sanitation facility, among other things. An imposing, L-shaped structure, the headquarters covers about 100,000 square feet. Most of it is taken up by a warehouse that feeds 52 retail stores, and 10 years ego Joe Durant was part of its antlike workforce, scurrying around the grid of overstuffed aisles trying to keep up with the furious flow of merchandise. Burned out en the mini-tour grind, with a young wife and a baby girl, Durant had quit competitive golf cold turkey at age 27, opting for the warehouse and a starting salary of $450 a week.
"Joe built boxes, put up freight, and—I probably shouldn't tell you this—there were times when he swept floors too," says Jeff Hardin, the Edwin Watts warehouse manager who helped oversee Durant in the fall of 1991. "It ain't a glamorous job. This warehouse is not what you would call climate-controlled."
Three months of hard time in the warehouse—as well as an aborted attempt to sell insurance—persuaded Durant to give golf one last shot, and after a decade of toil he is an overnight sensation. Following a record victory at the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic and a rousing, final-round comeback to steal the Genuity Championship, Durant arrived at last week's Honda Classic in Coral Springs $1.5 million (which works out to slightly more than $450 a week). He was also making a run at the record books: Only 24 players in Your history have won three consecutive starts (hence last week's Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel headline HOGAN, SNEAD AND DURANT?). An opening 67 at the TPC at Heron Bay left Durant two strokes off the lead, and when he followed with rounds of 71 and 66, only six players stood between him and a three-peat.
On the eve of the final round Durant, who before 2001 had won only one tournament in four seasons on Tour, took a moment to reflect on his unlikely journey. "I think about those days of stacking boxes all the time," he said from a Coral Springs restaurant where, decked out in jeans as blue as his piercing eyes, he sat inconspicuously, sipping a cup of coffee. "I don't ever want to forget. It keeps me humble. It makes me work harder, makes me cherish everything that I've accomplished."
On Sunday at the Honda, Durant nearly struck again. With back-to-back birdies early in his round, he inched up to a tie for fourth. This time, though, he ran out of putts, missing a half-dozen birdie attempts of six feet or less. He settled for a 69 and a tie for fifth, a scant three strokes behind winner Jesper Parnevik, not to mention an additional $121,600. "I was tempted to run out there with my old Bulls Eye and start putting for him," said Durant's wife, Tracey.
Don't laugh—that might've helped. Tracey was a Division II All-America at Troy ( Ala.) State, and she once beat her hubby head-to-head, throwing a 68 at him. Before that she had been a pixie with a big-time short game playing for the boys' team at Tate High in Pensacola, Fla. Tate's crosstown rival was Escambia High, where Durant was the top player. Joe had admired Tracey's form since middle school, but it took him until the 11th grade to work up the courage to ask her out. Tracey shot him down. As fate would have it Joe and Tracey wound up playing for small colleges in Alabama mat were within 45 minutes of each other Huntingdon College didn't have its own course, so Joe frequently made the drive to Troy State, though he had more than golf on his mind. By way of a first date he invited Tracey to watch one of his tournaments, and they've been together ever since. "I was swept off my feet by his ball striking," Tracey says in bone-dry tones. They were married in April 1988.
Durant's superb long game carried him to the '87 NAIA championship, and he turned pro shortly thereafter. Tracey, a year younger, dropped out of school to help pay the bills, working first as a salesperson in a clothing store, then doing paperwork for a credit union. ("She could have made it to the LPGA tour, if that's where her priorities had been," says Scott Warzecha, a Montgomery, Ala., teaching pro who played alongside Joe at Huntingdon.)
A perfectionist who insists on ironing his clothes before rounds, Durant had trouble adjusting to the struggle of the cutthroat mini-tours. His short game was deficient at best. "I hated practicing my putting and chipping," he says. "That was because a) I didn't know what the heck I was doing, and b) I stunk. It would be like spending an hour practicing your tee shots—and topping every single one."
The more he struggled on the greens, the more he worked on his swing, adding extra coats of polish to his compact, rhythmic action. The results were predictable, a lot of dazzling one-irons and underwhelming scores. For three years Durant haunted every podunk micromini in the Southeast before reaching the Ben Hogan tour in '91. He won only $16,095 in 27 tournaments and at season's end lost a seven-man playoff to determine who would advance to the final stage of the PGA Tour's Q school. Hello, Edwin Watts.
After his six-month cameo in the straight world, Durant couldn't get back on a golf course fast enough. It was then that Tracey "put the fear of God in me," he says. "She sat me down and said, 'Look, if you do not go out there with a better attitude, we're not even going to do this.' "