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And It Started with a Kick in the Pants from His Wife!

By John M. Ross,
Correspondent
Joe Durant
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The mrs. had a recommendation for Joe Durant's golf game: Be tougher! (PGA of America)

Aside from the new faces it has put in the winner's circle, and several altered pages in the record book, the first quarterly report of the PGA Tour has produced enough inspirational episodes to keep the traffic at the nation's practice ranges going at full tilt for the rest of the year.

And the one that makes the heart beat a little faster has been fashioned by Joe Durant, who gave up the Tour to become an insurance man, and has returned at age 37 with a blazing comeback.

When he junked his golf career in 1991, he wasn't giving up much. He'd had the vision of being a touring pro ever since he was seven - and had played with distinction on the golf team at Huntingdon (Alabama) College - but when he got out on the tour he simply didn't have the attitude for the awesome grind.

He grumbled over every missed green, every lipout, and he soon realized the pressure was too much for him. After 31 tournaments on the Buy.Com Tour, the development circuit, he had made 19 cuts, but a measly $18,000. He didn't need a career counselor to tell him it was time to go.

Friends nudged him toward the insurance business. It was a simple transition. After a short course in basics, you got your license, and then you took your prospects out to the golf course to sell them policies. It sounded great to Joe: no heavy lifting and a lot of time to play. And he also knew that most of the insurance brokers in his town had nice houses on the top of the hill.

To be sure, Joe took the insurance course, and he got his broker's license. And then, nothing. He didn't sell a dollar's worth of insurance. And for me, this brings back memories of Terry from an earlier day.

Terry was a neighbor who had lost his job and, like Joe, had decided to shift gears and get into insurance. He came to me looking for a lift to the station, where I headed each morning for the commuter train trip to New York City. He had enrolled at an insurance school there, but he didn't seem to have much enthusiasm for the venture. Indeed, as a daily ritual, he would ridicule or poke fun at the classroom instruction that was being served up, and it became such fun that I began to look forward to the daily ride.

The instructors focused on the nuts and bolts of the business, but they also tried to equip the budding salesmen with scenarios to convince a prospect of the need for insurance protection. Anyone who has been in the grip of an insurance peddler has heard them. Like: "Have you heard what happened to poor Bill Murphy? Came through his annual physical with flying colors just three weeks ago. They found him dead yesterday. Wife, two kids and a big mortgage on that nice house. Now, God forbid, if this ever happened to you, would Carrie and the kids be protected?"

Terry called them the "God forbid" stories, and he had an endless string of them that would have delighted a soap opera writer. Sure they were sad, terrifying, too, but knowing the intent, they eventually became hysterical.

When Terry finally completed his course and got his license, he called me one day and cheerfully advised me that since I had shuttled him to the train over the weeks, he was going to make his very first sales presentation me. My reply stunned him.

"God forbid," I said, and quickly changed the subject.

Terry never did sell me or anyone else any insurance, and, like Joe Durant, he eventually chucked the whole idea. Last I heard, Terry was selling computers, and all his "God forbid" stories have gone to waste.

But back to Durant. He thought his background might fit well in some job on the fringe of the game, where he might also use his sales training. He went to work for a golf retailer, where he mostly stacked boxes and did other menial tasks. But he probably would have been better off caddying. Hard-pressed to support a wife and child, Joe thought he might give the Tour another shot. Perhaps he had quit too soon. He was only 26 at that time.

When he passed his thoughts to his wife, Tracey, he was jolted. She agreed but... She then launched into a brutally frank appraisal of his approach to being a Tour player. A college golfer herself, with a reputation for being a never-say-die competitor, she told Joe that he needed a new attitude toward his golf. He had to be tougher, more positive in his thinking. And if he wasn't ready to do that, he should forget it. She didn't want to go through another siege of him coming home with a bad score and then whimpering the rest of the night.

It was a painful "kick in the butt," Durant admits, but it was precisely what he needed. He went to work with a new approach to the game. He was a fighter now. The "poor-me" attitude was gone, and he seemed to feel better about himself.

The change did not produce results overnight. Far from it. He labored on the Buy.com Tour for the next five years, barely making more than the check for stacking the boxes. His hard work on the practice tee began to pay off in 1996, when he won his first event on that circuit and brought his annual earnings up to $160,000.

With another shot at the PGA Tour in '97, Durant made two out of three cuts and a year-end check of $241,000. But it was in the prestigious Western Open the following year, when he showed the new scrappy side of Joe Durant to a big TV audience. Finishing with birdies on Nos. 14, 15 and 17, he broke away from a tie with Vijay Singh and scored his first PGA victory worth almost $400,000.

He spent much of 2000 recovering from a cracked ribs injury, but he still managed to finish in the top ten four times. However there was no advance warning of the incredible breakout that would occur in 2001. Indeed, he missed the cut in the season opener, and was well down the list in the next three. He finally got things in gear in the Bob Hope classic. Apparently he likes big TV audiences.

He put on a show to be remembered, and it will live perhaps even longer than that in the records. His 36-under-par victory set a new record for a five-round PGA tournament and gave him the biggest check of his life - $630,000.

In the Genuity Championship at the start of the Florida swing, Durant stuffed his pockets with all kinds of goodies. Putting up another final-round 65 as he did in the Hope, Joe came home two shots ahead of Mike Weir and became the first double winner of the season. It also gave him an invitation to the Masters, moved him up on the points ladder for Ryder Cup team, and put him on top of the PGA money list. His biggest-ever $810,000 check for the Genuity brought his total for the season to almost $1.5 million.

In terms of game improvement, the PGA statistics also provide the evidence of Durant's diligent work on the practice tee. At the end of the Genuity, he was first in five stat categories including driving accuracy, greens-in-regulation and all-around performance.

Getting another go at the Masters is something Joe has been panting for ever since his last visit in 1999. That was a bittersweet experience. He won the warm-up par 3 event and was elated, until he realized that this was generally regarded as the kiss-of-death, hampering the chances of winning the Green Jacket. The jinx worked perfectly against Joe. He put up an 86 for the first round and blew his chances of even making the cut.

It's a strange, merry world these days for Joe, who is now pursued at every turn as the game's man of the moment. There was a time, he tells, whenever he put a good score on the board, the response would be "Joe who?"

"The last few weeks have been unbelievable for me," he gushes.

And then he quickly adds, it all goes back to that kick in the pants from his wife.

(c) Copyright John M. Ross

 
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