The latest chapter in the professional golfing life of Tommy Tolles begins next month.
The Hendersonville resident, now 51, had a good run more than 20 years ago on the PGA Tour.
He hopes this shot at competing with the best players in the world on the Champions Tour will culminate in his first win.
Last month, Tolles tied Tom Byrum for medalist honors with a 72-hole total of 19-under par at the PGA Tour Champions National Qualifying Tournament in Scottsdale, Ariz.
He scorched the TPC Champions course with rounds of 65-65-69-66 – 265, and although Byrum eagled the first playoff hole to win the event, he and Tolles were among the five players to earn a card for membership on the Tour in 2018.
“I felt (good) about my game,” said Tolles, a once promising player on the PGA Tour who had top five finishes in three consecutive majors in 1996-97 and had the Sunday lead in three straight tournaments in 1996.
He had gradually left the pro game and was working as a landscaper and playing in occasional local events like the Etowah Valley Pro-Am.
“I could shape my driver, hit the iron shots I needed to make and the putts were dropping,” Tolles said of his good play at the Champions qualifying tournament.
After years away from the PGA Tour, Tolles got the itch to get back between the ropes, and the amount of money to be had helped motivate him to take tentative steps to get back to competing.
After turning 50 in Oct. 2016, he tried but failed to secure playing rights on the Champions Tour through the qualifying tournament.
During the 2017 Champions schedule, he got into five tournaments through Monday qualifying and earned $51,180. He best finish was a tie for 16th and he also qualified for the U.S. Senior Open, missing the cuts after rounds of 71-71.
He won $25,000 at this year’s qualifying tournament, but more importantly earned a card that will allow him entry into tournaments without the hassle and pressure of having to shoot lights out in Monday qualifying.
His first tournament in 2018 will be the Boca Raton Championship Feb. 9-11.
“I was ill-prepared last year at Q school, but this time I was more comfortable and knew what to expect,” said Tolles.
In 1996 and ’97, Tolles earned more than $800,000 each year on the PGA Tour. During one memorable stretch, he had a chance to win three straight tourneys in ’96.
“Three straight weeks I played in the final group (at New Orleans, the Players Championship and in Atlanta),” said Tolles.
“I had the lead on Sunday, I was right there. It’s really disappointing I didn’t win at least one of them, and I still think about that.”
After that run of great play, Tolles showed he had the game to contend in majors. In three straight appearances in ’96 and ’97, he tied for fifth in the U.S. Open, tied for third in the PGA Championship and finished third in the ’97 Masters, famous as the first major win for Tiger Woods.
Tolles seemed destined to win and enjoy a long, lucrative career on the PGA Tour, but his play began waning, and several years later he came home and turned to a career in landscaping.
“I lost my game and I lost my passion, and I don’t know which went first,” he said.
Confidence and other parts of the mental game have sometimes got in Tolles’ way, and he said the difference between showing up at an event in 2018 knowing he can play with the best will be much easier than the frantic nature of Monday qualifying, in which players must score very well in an 18-hole shootout.
“The few events I played in (2017), there was a part of me that felt a lot of anticipation and anxiety and part of me felt rushed,” said Tolles.
“That shouldn’t be the case this year, so it’s just a matter of going out and playing my game.”
While he has taken a much different route than the average Champions player, whose over-50 career is just a continuation of a long stint on the PGA Tour, Tolles is still confident he can play at a high level.
“I’ve always dreamed of winning a (PGA Tour or Champions) event, and it has never happened,” he said.
“Those guys that play every week are right where they need to be physically, mentally and emotionally.
I’m not there yet, but you have to believe that you can play with them. If you don’t, you shouldn’t be out there because you have no chance.”