By T.J. Auclair, PGA.com Interactive Producer
BENTON HARBOR, Mich. – Scanning across the practice green under a cloudless blue sky at Harbor Shores late in the afternoon on the eve of the 73rd Senior PGA Championship presented by KitchenAid, a couple of dozen players were getting in some last-minute work, grinding away, preparing for the year’s first senior major.
One of those players was journeyman Joel Edwards. He had a smile on his face as he stroked putts and chatted with his caddie, while puffing on a cigar. But just for fun, he said, because he proudly quit smoking cigarettes seven years ago.
The 50-year-old Dallas, Texas, native is making his Senior PGA Championship debut this week. In fact, it’s just his fourth Champions Tour start overall.
At first blush, one might get the impression that Edwards is just happy to be here. And don’t be mistaken – he is. Happy to be here because he’s doing what he loves most – competing.
Over the last four years, Edwards has spent a little bit of time playing on the Nationwide Tour and a lot of time teaching golf at Las Colinas Country Club in Irving, Texas.
“I enjoy teaching immensely,” he said. “Seeing someone hit a draw for the first time is kind of neat. Teaching people to hit that shot they’ve never hit, or hit it better than they’ve ever hit it is a lot of fun. It’s never been boring for me, teaching.”
It’s clear after listening to him talk for a few minutes that Edwards is passionate about teaching. But his true love is competing. It’s something he’s been darn good at for most of his life.
“I would rather be playing,” he said. “I want to play again. That never really left me. The fantasy is always there. When you’ve played the Tour, your taste buds are always juicy. When you’re playing well, you’re wishing it was out there. If you’re playing good at home, well it’s just that -- you’re playing good at home. If you’re playing well in tournament golf there’s nothing like it. It’s so much more rewarding. It just feels different. If you’re competitive playing golf, you can’t help but enjoy it. Nobody enjoys it if you’re not competitive.”
Edwards played on the PGA Tour from 1989-2004. In that span, he played 393 events, made the cut 194 times and notched 19 career top-10s.
One top-10 stands out above the rest, however. That was his win in the 2001 Air Canada Championship by an incredible seven strokes over runner up Steve Lowery. It fulfilled a lifelong dream for Edwards.
“That week at the Air Canada Championship 11 years ago was so huge for me,” Edwards said, smiling as he recollected the week. “I won by seven. Man, that was fun. It was one of those things where I didn’t believe I was that far ahead. I think that might have helped me. I looked at the boards and everything, but I kept saying to myself, ‘They’re lying. There’s just no way I’m seven up.’ It was unbelievable.
“It solidified in mind that I belonged. It was something I set out to do as a kid and I did it. You talk about living the dream. Everybody jokes, ‘Oh, you’re living the dream.’ That week I got to live the dream. I played the Tour, which is what I set out to do and then I wanted to win and I did all that. I’m very thankful that I got to do that. I’ll never forget that and that’s something I hope happens again.”
The following week was pretty cool at the Bell Canadian Open, too. Edwards didn’t win, he finished tied for 52nd. But he was paired with none other than Tiger Woods for the first two rounds since he entered the “winners wave” of tee times by virtue of his victory.
“So all of a sudden you win, you’re on this high and then you get the pairings for the next tournament. Who am I paired with? Tiger Woods,” Edwards said. “Instead of getting nervous about it, I was jacked. What’s better than playing with someone, who I consider to be the Babe Ruth of golf, while I’m at the height of my career at 39 years old? And, I got to play with him at his best. It was so much fun. I had practiced with him before, but to see him play was so special.”
Throughout his career, Edwards has had a self-imposed rule. It’s one that most touring pros follow – you don’t watch the other guy swing. That first round with Woods was an exception to the rule.
“I teased myself,” he said. “I watched almost every shot he hit that day. He shot 65 and I shot 74. The next day, I told myself I wasn’t going to watch one swing he made. I shot 66 and he shot 74. It was really funny, because I thought, ‘OK, he’s human.’ And then I’m thinking, ‘Yeah right. That 74 is a fluke for him!’
“It meant a lot to me because I pretty much ran the full gamut that whole week, going from basically obscurity and making a living at it having fun along the way, then I win, then I get thrown into shark waters right away with Tiger and it’s like, ‘let’s see how well you can swim.’ It was a lot of fun to do that and I hope I get to play with him again some day.”
Back to the present at Harbor Shores. Edwards is ready for his 12:50 tee time on Thursday afternoon. He’s a little nervous with anticipation, but that’s what he likes.
“I absolutely have nerves when it comes to playing here,” he said. “They have five big ones on the Champions Tour. I’ve only played in three regular Champions Tour events before this, but this definitely has a different feel to it than the previous three I’ve played in. I’m looking forward to the nerves. I like that. I don’t like the nerves when you’re like, ‘Oh God, I’m playing terrible,’ but I like the nerves when I’m playing good.”
Edwards also likes the familiar faces out here. He didn’t know many of the guys he played alongside on the Nationwide Tour in recent years. This is almost like a homecoming.
“When I play with the kids on the Nationwide Tour lately, I don’t know most of them, but I know pretty much everybody out here and that’s the neat part for me,” he said. “You know their game, you know they can play. They’ve been kicking my butt for 25 years, so it’s really no different. The good part is you know everybody.”
Like a kid getting ready for his first day of school, Edwards is truly looking forward to the start of his first major championship on the 50-and-over circuit. If it ends with him hoisting the Alfred S. Bourne Trophy over his head, he’ll be ecstatic.
“It’d be great,” he said. “It’d be something wonderful to put on the resume. I’m just excited to be here playing in my first Champions Tour major. Early in the year I wasn’t even in the tournament, and then I played decent and got in. There are really good players out here. Really good players. If we have this interview in a week, then I beat some really good players. That’d be something to talk about for me.”
If he doesn’t win, it will at least be one of those treasured weeks with his true love – competitive golf.
Win or lose, he’ll never let go of that passion though – teaching golf.
“The teaching has put a different perspective on things for me,” he said. “When I played the Tour I never took it for granted. I always knew – one bad year and you’re gone. I always worked hard and I still work hard.
“One thing I know for sure is, no matter what – even if I’m lucky enough to win 10 times out here – I’m still going to teach. I know that. I enjoy it that much. No matter what happens, I’ll be teaching.”