My Shot

2 Gloves, 1 Mind

September 2012

I worked on the line for A.O. Smith for the better part of five years, wrapping insulation around hot-water heaters. I won't lie to you, it was tough work. I like playing golf more. But I loved that job in a lot of ways. That company was and is a family. The bosses treated us fairly. We had fun, and we looked out for each other. Companies like that and their workers, they're what make this country tick. I represent A.O. Smith to this day and won't ever forget the people there for what they represent.

I played a lot of golf in my spare time and was getting better all the time. There was a mini-tour event coming up that I wanted to play in, but I couldn't afford the $750 entry fee. A friend put up most of it, I took off from work without giving proper notice, and proceeded to win. First prize was $15,000, a lot of money to a guy making $9 an hour. I still remember the promoter asking when it was over, "Are you pro or amateur?" I think he was hoping I'd say amateur so he wouldn't have to pay out as much of the purse.

After I won that $15,000, it was back to work on Monday morning. When I walked in, the news was all over the plant. We started up on the line, and I got word that my supervisor, Dale Clark, wanted to see me in his office. My stomach dropped. I walked in, and Dale says, "Tommy, do you know why you're in here?" I said, "Yes, sir. I took time off with no vacation or sick leave. If you need to write me up, I understand." He says, "We both know I should probably take some kind of action, but I'm not going to do that. You're a good worker, and I appreciate what you do for us. But the next time you need to take time off to play in a tournament, I'd appreciate it if you level with me. We'll try to work something out." Then Dale smiled. "Tommy, I know you just won $15,000, but what are you going to do with your life?" I answered, honestly, "I have no clue." The way Dale said it made me realize I had to make a commitment one way or the other. After four days, I told Dale I thought I'd give pro golf a try. I gave my two weeks' notice and lit out for the mini-tours.

The mini-tour deal didn't really work out. Two years later, I met a guy who knew how to line up gambling matches. He was my backer, and I was his horse. We took on all comers. He put up the money, and when we won, I got a nice percentage. We're talking pretty big money, sometimes $20,000 a hole. Most of the time it was best ball, me and a partner against two other guys. Usually the opponents were guys I recognized from the mini-tours. I played like I had nothing to lose in those matches, which was true because my backer was putting up the cash. At the same time, there was a little voice in my head reminding me that if I didn't win, I didn't get paid.

One match I remember was against Kyle Thompson, at Bishopville [S.C.] Country Club. Kyle's on the PGA Tour today and is a heck of a player. Our backers are there and the stakes are high, maybe $10,000 a hole. I chipped in for birdie on 17 to go ahead, but then Kyle chips in for birdie on 18 to make the match a tie. The backers decide on an "E-9"--an emergency nine--to get some kind of resolution. On that nine, I shot 31 and we killed them, won five bets. The main thing I remember was my mind-set. Kyle is a good man, and we're friends to this day, but I was all about destroying whoever I went up against. There was little talk in these matches, no mercy and not many laughs, unless you won.

I'm self-taught. Never had a lesson from the time I was 9, when my little brother, Allen, and I used to take turns with the pullcart, running between shots to see how many holes we could get in before dark. If I had an advantage, it was good feel with my hands and an ability to figure things out on my own. I always did things the way I pictured they ought to be done, even if it was unconventional. For example, I shuffle cards upside down, the palms of my hands facing the table, my fingers riffling the cards instead of my thumbs. It's the opposite of how most people do it, but wrong for me happens to be right.

My swing is ugly. I know it looks ugly, and you can't butter me up and tell me otherwise. It's a baseball swing, it's unorthodox and it looks terrible. But it feels good. I'm like the kid in school who is told how ugly he is but feels good about himself anyway. My swing gets results. It's made me one of the best players in the world--not one of the best on the PGA Tour yet, of course, but I am part of a real small percentage of people on the planet who can play the game for a living.

Karma is huge in this game. Good and bad bounces are about 50-50 in the long run, but the timing of those bounces is where the mojo comes in. I'm a big believer in doing good things so you have that karma going for you when you need it. At "The Big Break IV" at St. Andrews, I hit a terrible shot on the 18th hole. My ball was headed off the property and toward a shop with huge plate-glass windows. It was going to just destroy that shop. But my ball hit a delivery van parked in the street and kicked back onto the course and into the rough. I was still feeling lucky when I whiffed my next shot, but at that point I wondered how good my mojo really was. My fourth shot came out hot, and I was a dead man, but it hit the flagstick, and I made bogey to halve the hole. So in the end, my good karma paid off.

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