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A different journey to success for Sean O'Hair

Sean O’Hair became the youngest player on the PGA Tour with at least three victories when he rallied to win at Quail Hollow. Just don’t get the idea that the 26-year-old lacks much life experience.

With his baby face, slender build and a gullible grin, he looks like he is fresh out of college.

It is hard to believe that O’Hair turned pro 10 years ago, when his estranged father persuaded him to drop out of high school a year early as part of his master plan to develop a champion.

Or that he accepted a handshake and a hug from Tiger Woods while holding his oldest daughter, a precocious 4-year-old named Molly. He has an 18-month-old son, Luke, and his wife is expecting their child next month.

His education was like few others on the PGA Tour.

Kevin Na also skipped his senior year of high school in California and got his card through Q-school two years later. Ty Tryon earned his card at age 17, still a junior in high school. After a few unproductive years on tour, he hasn’t been heard from since.

What makes O’Hair different, and what makes him appreciate what he has, is how he got here.

In a bus.

It was a 40-foot Fleetwood Discovery that his grandparents helped him buy so O’Hair and his bride, Jackie, could travel mini-tours, from the West Coast to New England.

“I remember being on the Gateway Tour in ’04 and having $2,000 in our bank account, and we didn’t have enough money to play in any tournaments in the summer,” O’Hair said Sunday. “We were playing for a meal ticket for the next week. I mean, it was actually that tough. We constantly talk about that stuff and reminisce.

“I think that’s the stuff that makes this so sweet,” he said. “It makes the hard work worth it, and it’s just really nice to enjoy it with her, especially where we came from.”

Most players only needed to find the golf course. O’Hair also had to find a place to park the bus.

His choice of a “hotel” usually was a Wal-Mart parking lot, although there was that RV park in Arkansas when a tornado passed 5 miles from where they were staying; and the time in North Carolina when a lightning storm settled over their bus for three hours.

“In a motor home, if it sprinkles it sounds like hail,” he said. “So there’s been some pretty freaky stuff.”

His wife waited outside the tennis courts at Quail Hollow until O’Hair finished his media obligations, trying to get a handle on Molly’s constant chatter and Luke’s penchant for exploring. She is eight months pregnant, and the stifling afternoon heat didn’t add to the comfort level.

They met on the range in South Florida, a time when O’Hair was breaking away from a father who once made him run a mile for every bogey on his card during his junior golf days. She played in college, and a few years ago during the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, she shot 76 from the men’s tees at Cypress Point.

Even living check-to-check—when the check wasn’t guaranteed and wasn’t anything the size of what he makes now—she never lost hope that O’Hair was on the right track.

“The one thing about him is he never gives up,” Jackie said. “Even when he’s on his way to an 80, he’ll be trying to birdie the next hole. He always believed in himself, his team and his talent.”

That team includes his father-in-law, Steve Lucas, a steady influence as his caddie for the first three years on tour, current caddie Paul Tesori, and swing coach Sean Foley, whom O’Hair said changed his career by rebuilding his swing.

Few players are in such a groove at the moment.

O’Hair looked like a sacrificial lamb at Bay Hill, when he took a five-shot lead into the final round over Woods, lost the lead on the 16th hole and could only watch as Woods knocked in a 15-foot birdie putt on the final hole to win.

It was tough to watch, but O’Hair has been there before.

Only two years ago, in a tight battle with Phil Mickelson along the back nine at The Players Championship, O’Hair posed over a 9-iron on the island-green 17th and was stunned to see it sail over the green into the water. Even more shocking was the next shot, also wet. He wound up with a quadruple-bogey 7, which dropped him from second place to a tie for 11th, a difference of $747,000.

In the days after the Bay Hill fiasco, O’Hair gathered his troops and discussed the next move.

The conclusion was that he would keep putting himself in contention and be ready the next time, confident that it would not be that long before he had another chance, pleasantly surprised that redemption would come so soon.

“That was one thing I kind of looked at after a couple of days went by,” O’Hair said, referring to the Bay Hill loss. “If I want to compete at this level, that’s not the only tournament that I’m going to lose. I’ll be in the lead many more times and probably blow another five-shot lead. Unfortunately, that’s part of competing at a high level.

“These guys are the best players in the world, and me losing a five-shot lead doesn’t mean I’m a failure. It just means I got beat.”

Such perspective is a big step toward success in golf, and O’Hair is well on his way. Quail Hollow was his biggest victory yet, moving him to No. 12 in the world ranking and to No. 4 in the standings to make the Presidents Cup team.

 

May 5, 2009




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