On a Dec. 30 flight from Dallas to Maui, 14-time Tour winner Hal Sutton reached around the seat in front of him and tapped Joel Edwards on the shoulder. "You been to Hawaii before?" Sutton asked.
Edwards twisted in his seat to answer. "Yeah, five years ago, but not for the Tournament of Champions."
Actually, the two golfers were on their way to play in the Mercedes Championships, the first Tour event of 2002, but if you're a player of a certain age—Sutton is 43, Edwards 40—you call the tournament by the name it carried from 1953 until 1994: the T of C. For Edwards, a handsome but humble pro with a thrilled-to-be-here demeanor, the old name resonated like a gong: Tournament of Champions. Now, as before, the event's field is limited to the 35 or so players who have won Tour events the previous year. Champions like Woods, Duval, Garc�a, Furyk, Calcavecchia, Parnevik and, for the first time, Joel Edwards.
The world works better when you're a champion. At Kahalui Airport, for example, all four of Edwards's bags made it to the luggage carousel. "Wow, that's a first," said Joel's delighted wife, Rhonda. "We've never arrived in Hawaii and had all our luggage." Then, instead of waiting at the curb for the National Car Rental bus, the Edwardses were escorted to a white stretch limousine for the hour-long trip to the Kapalua Bay Hotel. "I could get used to this," Joel said, sinking into the rich upholstery and watching palm trees flash past the tinted windows. The limo reminded him of the time he and a friend shared a red Ferrari at the Hawaiian Open. "Rhonda thought it was a mistake when she opened the credit-card bill and saw ' Ferrari rental.' Had to be some other guy."
When you're 40, you know who you are, and Edwards is a Chinese-takeout kind of guy. "Joel is generous, courteous, quiet," says Tour veteran Tom Pernice Jr. "He's likable, smart, nice to play with and great to be around," echoes Brad Faxon.
Look for a dark side, and Edwards will concede that he's addicted to Dr Pepper and can't get enough of his four-year-old son, Tanner. Pry into his obsessions, and Edwards, a native Texan, will confess to a lifelong love affair with the New York Yankees. When he opened his locker before a practice round last week and found a baseball autographed by Yankees manager and pro-am participant Joe Torre, Edwards was almost speechless. "I've got to meet Torre," he said. "I've got to meet Torre!"
First, though, Edwards had to process the loot that the Mercedes Championships lavishes on its invitees. Champagne. Chocolates. A beach bag, sandals and Tommy Bahama pajamas for Rhonda. Gift certificates to restaurants and boutiques. A sport shirt and swim trunks for Joel. Fruit baskets. Truffles. "Every time we come back to the room, there's some new goody," said Rhonda. All the players got courtesy cars, of course; Joel's was a Mercedes SUV with enough cockpit gadgetry to satisfy his amateur pilot's taste for toggles and gauges.
Cumulatively, the gifts made Edwards. If not wary, at least reflective. While driving to the Plantation course with Cameron Beckman, another first-time Tour winner, Edwards couldn't suppress a smile. Sharing the mood, Beckman said, "I know why you're smiling."
That night, while a New Year's Eve party rocked the ballroom at the Ritz-Carlton Kapalua, Edwards stood outside on a balcony and stared up at a full moon and drifting clouds. "Four years ago," he said, "Cameron and I were in Dallas playing on the Lone Star tour. He had dropped off the Buy.com tour, and I'd had back surgery and was thinking that maybe my career was over. Now...." He shook his head. "Now we're here at the Tournament of Champions. I still pinch myself."
If Edwards seemed unusually appreciative of his good fortune, it was because it was so long in coming. After earning All-Southland Conference honors at North Texas State, he pursued pro golf with a doggedness that was impressive but not particularly rewarding. It took him six years to earn his first PGA Tour card, but he never finished higher than 90th on the money list between 1989 and '96, and had to return to Q school five times. "We've been on the South African tour, the Dakota tour, and we've done tours where you run to the bank and hope the check clears," says Rhonda. "It was sometimes hard to watch because Joel wanted to succeed so desperately and tried so hard, year after year."