Edwards clawed his way back to the big Tour by winning the 1999 Buy.com Mississippi Gulf Coast Open and finishing second on that tour's money list. In 2000 he broke into the top 75 for the first time, and last year he capped his comeback by winning the Air Canada Classic in Vancouver, firing a character-defining 65 in the final round to prevail by seven shots. In the car to the hotel afterward, Joel unfolded a piece of paper from his wallet and began to cry. "It's my list of goals for the year," he told Rhonda, "and I have achieved every one. Now what do I do?" The answer, as any mountain climber could have told him, was, "Don't look down."
Edwards is getting used to the heights. He shot a four-under-par 69 in the first round of the Mercedes, and that got him a second-round pairing with Tiger Woods. (The last time he had played a tournament round with Woods, Edwards was detained on his way to the 10th tee by marshals who mistook him for a brazen fan. "I guess I didn't look like a professional," he says. "Even my player badge didn't persuade them.") This time Edwards reached the tee without incident and shot a 71, three shots better than Woods, who struggled on the grainy greens. Asked if he'd had a good day, Edwards started ticking off items on his fingers: In the morning he'd agreed to endorsement deals with Precept and Descente; before his round he'd chatted for 30 minutes with Torre and received a Yankees World Series cap; in the afternoon he had played with Woods and beaten him; and after a sunset walk on the beach he and Rhonda were going to an Earth, Wind and Fire concert. "It's unbelievable," Edwards said. "A very good day."
Staying humble at such times is difficult, but Edwards claims to be the only living Texan—he was born in Dallas and lives in Irving—without strong opinions or a crushing handshake. "I'm dull," he says. "I don't have a lot to say."
For a dull guy, though, he has awfully interesting buddies. Country singer Vince Gill has had him backstage at dozens of concerts, and Fox Sports commentator Pat Summerall considers Edwards an indispensable member of his Dry Hole Gang, a small group of amateurs (Edwards is the only pro) who play regularly at Las Colinas Country Club in Irving. You're not exactly colorless, either, when tournament directors on five continents know you'll take Dr Pepper in lieu of cash. Edwards is so sensitive to the nuances of the soft drink that in a blind taste test, he can identify where a sample was bottled. (" Atlanta," he says, taking a swig from a can handed to him. Holding the can up to read the small print, he nods. "Yep, Atlanta.") He's so fond of original recipe Dr Pepper from plants in Stephenville and Dublin, Texas, that he took two cases of the stuff with him to Scotland when he tried to qualify for the 2000 British Open. "I shouldn't be telling you this," he says. "You'll question my sanity."
If you don't, Edwards will. Bob Rotella, the author and sports psychologist, asked him why he hadn't won on Tour. Edwards's reply: "I'm pretty hard on myself."
"At least you know the answer," Rotella said.
"I'm my own worst critic," Edwards says, "but the only time I get really mad is when I don't totally commit to a shot." He cites an approach shot he bailed out on in the final round at Greensboro a few years ago. Fuzzy Zoeller, his playing partner, blistered Edwards for playing timidly when he had a chance to win. "If you ever do that again," Zoeller scolded him, "I'll rough you up."
"Fuzzy was right," Edwards said last week. "You can't push that fear button. The great ones, like Tiger and Mickelson, are never afraid to hit a good shot—or a bad one." Edwards's margin of victory at Vancouver proved he had learned that lesson. The question is, Can he win again? "Definitely," says his caddie, Eric Bajas. "The guy has lots of game, and he believes in himself. I wouldn't be surprised if he won two or three times this year." Even one win, of course, would earn Edwards a return trip to the Mercedes, at which he earned $89,000 for a 13th-place finish.
On New Year's Eve, while Rhonda dressed for the party, Edwards wrote his goals for 2002 on a piece of hotel stationery. He then folded the paper and put it in his wallet. A few hours later he looked up at that Hawaiian moon from the balcony of the Ritz and seemed to wonder how the tournament organizers had made it so big, so bright, so round. "I never wanted to conquer the world," he said. "I only wanted to be part of it in my quiet way."
A week into the new season that's one goal that Edwards can check off.