At 5-10 and 160 pounds, David Toms doesn’t appear all that imposing oN TV. But in person he looks, well, the same. Nothing much. Slight. Average. “But I’m not a small person,” he says. “I don’t let people walk all over me.” The 38-year-old from Louisiana proved as much when he shredded the field at this year’s WGC-Accenture Match Play, and his fairways-and-greens style should work well this month at Pinehurst. In a conversation at his home in Shreveport, Toms spoke candidly about the Goliaths he’s slain, the painful arthritis that runs in his family, and the reason he’ll be one jittery player at the U.S. Open.
You once said, “I wear a medium shirt and I’m a medium person.” What did you mean?
I’m noncontroversial — not a big ego, or in your face.
This year at the Match Play at La Costa, you blew everyone away yet insisted you’d never be a top-five player. But you’re ranked eighth in the world. Why couldn’t you be No. 1?
It has to do with physical limitation. Who was the last guy under six feet that was No. 1? I can’t remember. And that’s certainly not the direction that the game is headed.
Has the power game ruled that out?
Take what happened this year at Doral. Tiger and Phil were up there at the end, with Vijay right behind them. Then you’ve got Zach Johnson and myself. If the wind was blowing, and there was deep rough, maybe we would have had a chance. I was 7-under through 12 holes on Sunday, and I wasn’t gaining any ground. We had no chance. If you play 7,400-yard courses, and you don’t have any rough and no penalty off the tee, those guys just wail on it. The power player will win every time. It happens a lot. It happened all last year and the year before. And I don’t see it changing.
So are there Tour events that a guy like you — a control player who hits it 280 off the tee — can’t win? [Pauses.] Yes. Unless they change things.
Like course setup? Some say that if you set up courses as hard as you can, then the best player in the world isn’t a member of the Fab Four but someone like Retief Goosen or you.
Vijay hits driver on every hole. But if courses were set up differently, he’d have to approach things differently. How many times does Tiger hit driver at a major? Not many, because he knows he has to keep it in play. At Doral, that never enters into his mind. At majors, the big hitters will still be there. They’ll adjust and hit shorter clubs off the tee. But if you make courses tougher, it brings other guys into it — control players and not necessarily long players.
You’ve done pretty well for a shorter hitter. You’re sixth in all-time earnings.
Last year, Billy Andrade asked me to talk at his club in Atlanta. He introduces me, looks at some stats, and says, “Holy smokes! David’s the No. 9 all-time money winner on Tour — $18 million!” All I can say is, I’m in golf at a good time. When other guys don’t even realize [how much I’ve won], I guess I’m doing it quietly.
You had surgery on your left wrist at the end of 2003. Did you fear your career was over?
Yes. When I first took that cast off, it hurt so bad that I said to myself, “I’m not ever going to play golf again.”
Your recovery wasn’t easy. What was the low point?
At the BellSouth last year I was playing so bad that I actually broke a putter, for the first time ever. I thought, that’s just not me. Mentally, I was losing it.
How’s the wrist now?
What I have is called “carpal bossing.” It starts with arthritis in the joints, and then bone spurs build up. Then the tendons rub on it, and it gives you a kind of tendinitis. When I had the surgery, they cut off the spurs. Now the tendon’s not rubbing on it. See all this scar tissue? [He points to a spot on the back of his left hand, about two inches in diameter.] Right now all of this is numb. You could stick me with a pin and I couldn’t feel it. Not a bit.
How does the condition affect you?
Ask anyone who has arthritis. One day you feel great — the next, you’re hurting. If it’s cold and overcast, my hand is stiff the whole day. That’s one reason I skip Pebble Beach and Riviera — places I know it will be cold and wet. You cried after winning in Memphis last year, when you were coming off the injury.
That was huge, to find out I could still play like that. During the  PGA, I was playing so good that Fred Funk said to me, “I’d better buy pom-poms.” We were paired together again last year in Memphis. I was lapping the field, and he reaches into his bag and grabs a pair of pom-poms and starts shaking them and doing a cheerleader routine. I don’t remember what cheers he did — I was too busy laughing.
After you won, you said you were back to 100 percent. But you really weren’t.
No. I may never be 100 percent healthy again, with the condition I have. In the off-season, I don’t practice. I don’t beat a lot of balls, ever, any more.
Who taught you the game growing up in Louisiana?
My grandfather, Tom Toms. My father was a scratch golfer, and we played a lot, but it was my grandfather who really encouraged me. When he felt I needed to work on my sand wedge from 60 yards, we would go out to a field at Barksdale Air Force base — he’d been in the military — and I would hit 60-yard shots to the shag bag. And if I got within a certain distance to the bag, he would pick those up, and I had to pick up the ones that were way off.
You got good very fast. You were in high school and you shot a 67 at a charity tournament that Hal Sutton staged.
It was me and Hal Sutton against Ben Crenshaw and Lee Trevino. We wore ’em out, in front about 4,000 people. I shot maybe a 67. A lot of people saw me play with the big boys. It was one of those things that made me think, hey, I can do this.
Things got even better when you met your wife, Sonya, in 1991. Do you feel like an overachiever in the looks department?
[Laughs] Definitely. A lot of guys on Tour have overachieved. But she knew me when I was driving a Honda.
What’s the long-term prognosis? Could arthritis cut short your career? I don’t know. It runs in my family. My dad has knobs all over his fingers. My grandmother would melt hot wax over the stove every night, to soak her hands. Now every morning, I dip my hands in hot wax, trying to loosen up the joints, just like she did. they have wax for me out in the fitness trailers.
You’ve got one child, your son, Carter…
And another one on the way the week of the U.S. Open.
So our June cover will read: “David Toms: Why he’s not playing the Open.”
[Laughs.] No, I’m definitely playing.
Will you wear a baby beeper, like Phil Mickelson in 1999?
Maybe. I’m concentrating on playing and winning. If they need to, they can find me. But if I’m playing good, I don’t think she’d expect me to come home, especially if I had a chance to win. If I’m 25 shots back, that’s different. If the stars line up, she might make the decision for me, without me knowing.
So you’d leave if called, but she might not call?
Knowing her, if it comes down to me having the chance to win the Open or having a chance to witness the birth of your child, I mean, which one would you take? It would be a hard decision, but she might make it for me and deal with the consequences later.
You watch a lot of golf on TV. How do you feel about Johnny Miller?
I don’t have a problem with him. He calls it like he sees it. If he says I screwed up or choked, it’s probably the truth. You know, I played with him the last time he won a Tour event at Pebble Beach [in 1994]. It was great. He’d use the claw grip one hole, go cross-handed the next. He chipped in three or four times. We played right behind Bill Murray, who was pulling people out of the crowd, taking pictures with them on the greens. It’s like playing behind the state fair, but Johnny was in his own little world. He just went out and won it.
Good thing Johnny didn’t call the Wachovia Championship in 2003, when you four-putted the last hole, but still won. What happened?
That was strange, because I was totally in control for 71 holes. Then [on the green] I was thinking, How big a fool am I going to make of myself? It just shows you how powerful the mind is. All of a sudden, I couldn’t execute. I just wanted to get the heck out of town. Collect, and get out.
What’s your most memorable win? Is it the 2001 PGA Championship?
Actually, winning in New Orleans [at the 2001 Compaq Classic]. I got into the zone there and shot something like 17-under on the weekend. The fans were into it. I was into it. It was magical. It was almost like I had a Tiger Woods gallery. I think that’s one reason he does so well. The fans are pulling so hard, you feed off it. Every time you hit the green, you think, I’ve got to make this putt because these people are excited.
You and Sonya posed for Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit issue. Was that a difficult decision?
She didn’t know how to respond at first. We thought about it, and sh got into the idea. She trained big time so she’d look her best. All I had to do was put on golf clothes.
You said your Match Play win was the best you’ve ever played. Can anyone beat you at your best?
When I’m hitting the fairway, I can play with anybody.
You’re gaining a reputation as a match-play specialist — you’re 18-5 at the Match Play and 4-3-1 in the Ryder Cup. What happened to the team at Oakland Hills?
Off the course, we had great team chemistry. Hal Sutton — a friend and a guy I grew up idolizing — let everybody prepare the way they wanted to. Looking back, maybe that wasn’t the right thing to do. We didn’t know what the plan was until right when it was time to go. I played with Jim Furyk in the first match. We’ve never been paired in competition before, and all of the sudden we’re playing one of most important events of our lives.
Mickelson and Woods were paired together on the first day. What’s the conflict between those two?
Did something happen with them early on? I really don’t know. Maybe it’s just two guys who are striving to be the best they can be and who happen to be totally different people — like Jack and Arnie when they first came out.
How would you handle the team if you were Ryder Cup captain?
First, I would go to the venue a week in advance and stay behind closed doors — no media — and practice as a team. Practice with whoever you’re playing with, practice alternate-shot, practice all of the scenarios, practice with every player.
Take it more seriously?
Take it a lot more seriously.
Speaking of Mickelson, it’s been almost four years since your PGA Championship victory. Did you feel guilty about stealing if from poor, majorless Phil Mickelson?
[Laughs] Absolutely not. I knew his time would come. I could tell the crowd wanted him to win. But [the win] did a lot more for me than it would have for him. It put me on the map. He was already on it. Here was a guy who’d won a ton of tournaments, made zillions of dollars, had his own airplane. The only thing he hadn’t done was win a major.
Most people remember your ace on Saturday, at the 227-yard par-3 15th. And your layup on the 72nd hole on Sunday.
The hole-in-one was special. That put me in the lead for good. I was playing great, but once that happened — you’re playing a difficult shot over water, and you make a hole-in-one with a wood? It makes you think, maybe it’s my time. I think everything happens for a reason. But things have to line up for you to win — unless you’re Tiger or Vijay or Ernie, who don’t need breaks. They can win and not have everything line up perfect. For us other guys, things need to break the right way.
You know, your humility can be really annoying sometimes.
No, it’s true!
You laid up on the 490-yard 18th.
I didn’t have a perfect yardage. I needed a 7-wood but didn’t have one. I’d already put myself in that position in the practice rounds. I’d said to my caddie, “No matter what, whether I’m leading the tournament or not, if I don’t feel comfortable with this second shot and the yardage I have, I’m laying up.” It’s a par 5 that they made a par 4. It was still a three-shot hole. So I didn’t hesitate. I hit my second shot to almost the perfect yardage — 88 yards, a full lob wedge. I hit it to 12 feet and made the putt.
Then you gave Mickelson, who you were playing with, a little fist-pump.
I knew it was going in six inches from the hole. I threw that fist pump right toward Phil, although I didn’t realize it.
Was the win a life-altering experience?
Sure. But I didn’t chase the money, go all over the world. I didn’t do Letterman or The Tonight Show. Maybe next time — I think I could handle it. It wouldn’t affect my play.
Are you saying guys like Rich Beem, Todd Hamilton and Ben Curtis shouldn’t be doing that sort of thing?
Different strokes for different folks. But what good does the exposure do for you if you don’t back it up with good play?
You’ve done well enough to give yourself a few presents, like that 500-acre hunting reserve in Arkansas.
You can get acres pretty cheap in Arkansas. We’re developing it for duck hunting. I’m about a 10-12 handicap duck caller. I keep a duck call in my bag, just to fiddle with. I pulled it out once at the Players Championship, during a practice round.
You also like to pass the time fishing. I know at the HP Classic, they helicopter players out to go deep-sea fishing. Do you think Tour perks are a little out of control?
They gave me one of those Maybachs at the Wachovia — a $400,000 car. I didn’t want to drive that thing. You need a chauffeur for that car. I mean, I’m pulling into Burger King in a Maybach? That’s just not right.
Speaking of cars, I hear you like to tailgate before LSU football games.
My wife doesn’t let us sit out there for very long. Before every home game, for the last two years, I’ve gone into the locker room before the game. But you can’t get hammered and then go to the locker room reeking of Budweiser and talk to the coach about the plays he’s gonna run. That wouldn’t go over very well.