The PGA tour has no soft spot for rookies. Every January the Tour welcomes a fresh batch of about 25 starry-eyed dreamers, and every October it spits out most of them. Tired and broke, they head straight back to hell, a.k.a. qualifying school. It's the exception, not the rule, when a rook—what the veterans call a first-year player—wins enough cash to keep his playing card.
Paul Azinger didn't. Mark Calcavecchia didn't. Neither did Tom Lehman, Loren Roberts, Jim Gallagher Jr. or Jeff Sluman. In fact, over the last five years only 21% of the Tour's rookies have earned enough to avoid a return trip to Q school the next season. "Being a rookie out here can be demoralizing and intimidating," says Gallagher, who in his inaugural year, 1984, made just $22,249 and had to qualify all over again. "You have to earn every inch of respect you get. There's no guarantee you'll ever make a penny."
True to form, only six members of this year's 23-player rookie class are among the top 125, the cutoff for keeping one's card. But against all odds, three of them—Woody Austin, David Duval and Justin Leonard—are doing so well that when the Tour concludes in seven weeks at the Tour Championship, their collective performance will go down as the greatest in Tour history. It'll be better, far better, than that of rookies in years such as 1977, when Jay Haas, Peter Jacobsen, Craig Stadler and Curtis Strange played their first full seasons, or 1981, when Calcavecchia, Fred Couples, Nick Faldo, Mark O'Meara and Payne Stewart debuted.
Already Duval has earned $791,158 and broken the rookie money-winning record by $100,000, while Austin ($593,457, including a win at the Buick Open) and Leonard ($501,493) could also break the old record—set last year by Ernie Els—with another good finish or two. What's more, if Austin, Duval and Leonard maintain their spots on the money list (24rd, 10th and 27th, respectively), 1995 will be the first year in which more than one rookie has finished in the top 30, the benchmark for qualification to the prestigious Tour Championship.
Their performances have created the most compelling race for Rookie of the Year since the award was created in 1990. The winner is determined by a players' vote after the Tour Championship. Who wins will probably come down to how the contenders perform in that final event. Even then, most of the voters will probably still be scratching their heads.
The rap on Leonard's campaign for Rookie of the Year is simple: He's not a rookie, a point with which even he agrees. "After graduating from Texas, I played 13 events on the Tour last year, and I was in eight the year before as an amateur," says Leonard, the winner of the 1992 U.S. Amateur and the '94 NCAAs. "So, no, I don't consider myself a rookie."
In any other year Leonard, 23, would not be. Last year the PGA Tour ruled that a player's rookie season is the one in which he plays his 10th tournament as a pro or finishes in the top 125 on the money list. Last year not only did Leonard play in more than 10 events, but he also finished high enough on the money list to be exempted onto the Tour this year. In March, however, Duval, whose endorsement contracts contain incentives for winning Rookie of the Year, successfully petitioned commissioner Tim Finchem to delay the application of the rule until 1996. Duval played 11 events last year but told Finchem that had he been aware of the rookie rule, he would not have played so many. Finchem and the Tour policy board sided with Duval, and he and Leonard thus became eligible for this year's award.
As Leonard's pedigree suggests, he is a rookie only on paper. He moves in Tour circles with such self-confidence that he seems as much of a veteran as the players with whom he's chummy, guys like Sluman, Davis Love III and Tom Kite. Leonard is already a poster boy for Polo and a spokesman for Kiawah Island Golf Club. And his home course, Royal Oaks in Dallas, will soon install a bronze likeness of him on a brick wall behind the 1st tee.
Though it may be a bit premature, the superstar treatment is not unwarranted. Leonard has made 21 cuts in 27 events. Five times he has finished in the top 10, including a second-place tie at the Western Open and a tie for eighth at the PGA. There he made a 20-foot par putt on the 72nd green to qualify for the Masters (the top eight finishers in each of the other majors get in). "I knew what it meant, and I nailed it," Leonard says.