My weekly ritual following the PGA tour has been the same for the last 20 years.
I open my newspaper (yes, I still do that first rather than turn on a computer), flip to the sports agate page where the results are printed, find the latest tour stop round of the day and let my eyes wander until I pinpoint David Toms.
Sure, I’m partial to all former Southeastern Conference golfers, but I’m especially behind Toms for a simple reason.
In my very first full-time paying job as a sportswriter with the Shreveport (La.) Times in 1980, maybe my only golf assignment ever for the Times in my 2 ½ years on the staff, was to cover a high school tournament.
Honest-to-goodness, I can’t remember it if was a city, regional or state tourney. But I do recall I walked the entire 18 holes following an Airline High golfer named David Toms.
The kid was automatic. His face never changed expression, good shot or bad shot. There weren’t many bad shots. He won, and he handled it with graciousness, which wasn’t easy, since he was head-and-shoulders above almost everybody he played.
As years passed, after David went to LSU where he was an All-American, I knew it was a matter of time before he’d not only join the PGA tour, but be a very consistent player for a long, long time.
This week, early in his 20th full-time year on the tour, David, 44, is playing in his 502nd PGA event. He shot a 6-under par 66 on Thursday to tie for the first round lead in the Wells Fargo Open in Charlotte.
Though he hasn’t won since the 2006 Sony Open, his 70.07 strokes per round career average as well as 12 wins including a major (’01 PGA in which his 72-hole total is still a tour record for a major) and lifetime earnings of $33,992,009 (seventh best in PGA history) indicate he’ll be the World Golf Hall of Fame soon enough.
Here’s why I’ve always liked David. Because he has never forgotten where he came from, still living in Shreveport, still proud to be an LSU Tiger (“I like Les Miles because he’s unpredictable,” he says) and still making it a point to give back to those in need through his David Toms Foundation.
"I know I'm blessed to have the talent to play this game, and be in the right place at the right time on more than one occasion," David says. “You're always tested in life. But I really believe the Good Lord does that for a reason. It makes you appreciate the good times even more."
It’s true that golf is a sport anyone can play. But it’s not a sport everyone can play exceptionally.
David, who was raised in both south Louisiana (Denham Springs) and north Louisiana (Shreveport-Bossier City), because of his parents’ divorce just before he became a teenager, had an edge because he had some athletic genes.
His father, Buster, was an all-state player in baseball and basketball, and went on to then-Northeast Louisiana University where he played baseball. Later in college, he quickly became a scratch golfer.
David inherited his father’s athletic versatility. He was an unruffled point guard in basketball and one of the best pitcher-shortstops in his Little League age group, sans the day he gave up a homer to a strapping Shreveport youngster named Albert Belle, who later played for LSU and then had a 12-year major league career as a five-time all-star.
"I threw a fastball to him as hard as I could, he hit it to dead center and I still think the ball is goin' today," David laughs.
When David got to high school, baseball and basketball got shelved. He wasn’t even 6-feet tall and didn’t have a growth spurt in him. But that little sucker could sure take a golf ball for a ride.
“David looked at his size and abilities, and decided if he was going to make a living in sports, that it was going to be golf," Buster says. “He was so good as a junior golfer that he would have to play really bad to lose a tournament. He'd get that far ahead of the field."
Yet it was only when David moved in with his grandparents that he realized golf was his thing. He fit right in with his grandfather Tom, who had a regularly scheduled Saturday round of golf with his old cronies at Palmetto Country Club in Bossier City.
"We had a bunch of old men in our group, and old men usually don't like anybody playing with them," said Tom a couple of years ago. "But because he could keep up with us and was so well-behaved, the group accepted him. They were all crazy about David.”
Grandpa Tom recalled seeing his grandson lose his cool just once.
"He was probably 13 or 14, and we were playing Palmetto one day when he hit a bad shot and threw his club," Tom said. "I said, 'C'mon David, we're going home.' He looked at me. He couldn't believe what was going on. I doubt if we said a word all the way home. But he never threw a club again."
It was Tom, a former military man, who showed his grandson that when he needed to master a certain shot, there were no short cuts.
“Like when he thought I needed to work on hitting a 60-yard sand wedge, he’d take me out to a field at Barksdale Air Force base, drop a shag bag 60 yards away and have me hit balls at them,” David says. “If my shots got within a close enough distance to the bag, then he picked them up. But I had to pick up the ones that weren’t anywhere close.”
The time David spent with his grandfather was basically his golf lessons. He had a natural swing that belied his age, turning heads when he shot a 67 in local charity tournament staged by Hal Sutton, Shreveport’s first hot touring pro. Also playing in the charity round that day was Ben Crenshaw and Lee Trevino.
So in an event that had three PGA veterans with an eventual combined 62 tour victories including nine majors, the little ‘ol high schooler blitzed ’em in front of about 4,000 people.
“It was one of those days that made me think that I might be good enough to be a pro golfer one day,” David says.
Well, if he didn’t know it, his friends and competitors did, like Rob Akins, another local prep golfer from Captain Shreve High.
"There were eight to 10 kids who had the potential to play professionally, but David just stood out," Rob recalls. "A lot of us always said, 'If David doesn't make it, none of us will.' "
David won the Junior Worlds at age 17 and was Southeastern Conference individual medalist as a sophomore, which came as no surprise to his college coach.
“David had one of the most natural swings of any golfer I've ever coached," says Buddy Alexander, David’s coach at LSU who now coaches the University of Florida. "If you take his swing and look at him from 1987, it would look a whole lot different. The only thing I changed was his grip right when he got to LSU, and I figured it would take him three months of struggling to adapt. The next week, he was hitting the ball like he played with that grip all his life."
But even someone with a sure swing and an even temperament isn't guaranteed immediate success as a pro. David finally earned his full-time tour card in ’92 and finished third in his third tournament. Then, he missed 16 of the next 26 cuts, struggled the next two seasons and lost his tour card.
It was about that time that Rob Akins, who after a college career at Louisiana Tech had moved to Memphis and become a golf teacher, re-entered David’s life. They ran into each other one year when David was playing at the FedEx St. Jude Classic.
"You could always see in David’s eyes there was an ease in his golf game," says Rob, a nationally-known golf teacher who’s the director of golf instruction at Spring Creek Ranch in the Memphis suburb of Collierville. "But for the first time, I saw him worry about everybody else. He'd lost that edge he always had.
"The biggest thing I remembered was how he looked as a kid, not just his swing, but the way he carried himself when he felt like he could beat just about anybody. I was able to remind him of that. I believed in him and I think because of that, that he believed in me."
Whatever Rob did worked. David, after several near-misses where he'd have three rounds in the mid 60s and blow up to the mid-70s on Sunday, finally won his first PGA tournament in '97 at the Quad City Classic.
Two years later, David won two tournaments and finished second in a five-week span, winning more than $1 million. He had a streak at one time of winning at least one tournament a year in seven of the past eight seasons, including a major in the '01 PGA in a season he won three times.
Rob knows David so well that he can see where David sometimes tries to be too perfect and presses.
“David has the ability just to stand there and hit shots over and over as close to perfect as anybody," Rob says. "But sometimes, I think his expectation level gets so high that he becomes too hard on himself and he gets in a slump. It's very hard to find that fine line of figuring out how hard you need to try, and trying too hard."
A couple of secrets of David’s success are his temperament and focus. Bad shots, bad rounds, bad tournaments don’t stay with him.
"I don't think you're necessarily taught that," David says. "I think it's something that you're just born with, and maybe you can work some to master it. I think my son Carter has it.”
Probably so. Carter, 13, played in his first middle school golf tournament earlier this year and won it.
David’s family life with his wife Sonya and two children (Anna was born in ’05) provides him with the balance he needs to handle the grind of the pro tour.
"When I first turned pro, I didn't understand the whole Bruce Lietzke thing about how he stopped playing much while at the top of his game," David says. “But the more I get into being a dad, I understand it. I kind of like that lifestyle myself, and I've been fortunate enough and successful enough to not have to play all the time.”
When David takes a week or two off from the tour, there’s nothing he enjoys more than just being a Dad and picking his kids up from school in the town he was raised.
"The fact David chose to live in Shreveport, and not Arizona or Florida or Texas like a lot of pro golfers, says a lot about him," says Adam Young, executive director of the foundation in Shreveport that David started in 2003 to help underprivileged, abused and abandoned children. "He can be himself here."
David’s foundation, now in its ninth year having raised more than $4 million which he awards in grants to needy organizations, obviously is no passing fancy. It’s also not window dressing to help his PR image, which doesn’t need help.
When Hurricane Katrina destroyed the Mississippi Gulf Coast and flooded New Orleans and surrounding parishes in late August ’05, it drove many evacuees north and west to such locales as Houston, Memphis, Dallas and Shreveport.
A day after Katrina hit, David walked through the LSU-Shreveport gymnasium, which had been turned into a shelter, and handed out 500 $100 Wal-Mart gift cards to grateful evacuees. He also got one of his corporate sponsors, Tommy Hilfiger, to outfit the entire St. Bernard Parish Sheriff's Department with new pullover windbreakers.
Aided by a $500,000 donation from Bighorn Golf Club, David’s foundation raised $1.5 million in Katrina relief. In his first visit back to New Orleans following Katrina for the Zurich Classic, the annual PGA tour stop, his foundation gave $100,000 each to four New Orleans charities.
David’s foundation has endured like his golf game. He’s fought his way through wrist surgery in ’03, a heart episode in ’05 called supraventricular tachycardia, or a rapid heartbeat originating above the ventricles (it was corrected with surgery), a back problem in ’06 and an injured shoulder a couple of years ago.
“I don't think the human body is meant to be standing straight up for eight to ten hours a day and then bending over half of that time hitting a golf shot twisting your body in all kinds of crazy ways,” David says. “Guys now swing awfully hard at it, too, compared to say 15 years ago.
“This is a sport is if your hands are hurting, your elbow, your shoulder, your hips, your back, if anything is hurting, it's just a difficult sport to play to me. You can get a blister on your pinky finger and all of a sudden it's hard to play golf just because of all the feel that goes into golf shots. That's just part of it.”
Yet even after all these years, after all the travel, all the balls hit on the driving range, all the perfect shots, all the putts that should have dropped, there’s nothing more than David loves than standing on the first tee on the opening round of a tournament.
It’s like a painter standing in front of a canvas, imagining all the possibilities.
“I’m 44 years old, still out here grinding away, and when I show up every week I'm just trying to play my best,” David says. “I'd love to win another golf tournament. I've been stuck on 12 for a long time.
“That's what motivates me to come out here and play obviously. I'm just kind of going to go out and play each shot the best I can.”