2005: Still smilin’

By Rex Hoggard

Findley Lake, N.Y.

Midway through the Wednesday pro-am at last week’s Lake Erie Charity Classic, one of Jason Gore’s playing partners – an outspoken Pennsylvania Pepsi exec with a hook swing – asked Lewis Puller, Gore’s caddie, for help reading a slick 15-foot birdie putt.

“Good luck with that,” Gore deadpanned, never looking up from his own birdie attempt.

Ba da boom.

From Pinehurst to Peek’n Peak, from golf’s biggest stage to the obscurity of the Nationwide Tour, Gore’s shtick travels.

Two weeks removed from playing in the final twosome on Sunday at the U.S. Open, the one-liners still flow as freely as that powerful swing.

Unless you got lost in one of those tightly mown chipping areas at Pinehurst No. 2, you know Gore, 31, electrified the U.S. Open with his ready smile and everyman demeanor. From his stage-setting 71 in the opening round to his woeful 84 finish (which sent him tumbling from second to 49th), Gore was embraced by the North Carolina throngs and by millions watching on television around the world. The media was drawn to him the way a wayward drive was drawn to Pinehurst’s thick Bermuda rough.

The Open spotlight let the world in on part of Jason Gore’s story: On the eve of Jason’s professional debut in 1997, Gore’s mother found his father dead of a heart attack in their California home, and that Gore recently had become a father himself. It was a potent emotional combination that manifested itself in tears on more than one occasion at Pinehurst.

From a corner table in the grand dining room at Peek’n Peak Resort, however, there turns out to be plenty more Gore that the Open spotlight failed to illuminate.

What people likely didn’t know about the Open’s double-X-sized darling:

Not only did he win the 1997 California Amateur at Pebble Beach Golf Links, but six years later, he married his wife, Megan, in a ceremony adjacent to Pebble Beach’s 18th green. “I so over-married,” Gore says of his good-natured better half.

He contemplated leaving the pro ranks at the end of last year with the idea of reapplying for his amateur status, the goal being a second shot at playing in the Walker Cup. “It would take me a few years to get my (amateur) status back,” he says. “But I’d do it again in a heartbeat.”

Deep down, hidden within that barrel chest, he is, by his admission, an electronic geek. “XM radio, DVD players . . . love ’em all,” Gore says as he brandishes his new BlackBerry cellphone/PDA.

Though he’s the epitome of the doting father, he does not change dirty diapers. “We had an incident one night with Jaxon (his 9-month-old son) that I’d rather not talk about,” he says.

Professional golf’s undisputed king of karaoke first took microphone in hand at a birthday party for his grandmother when he was 19 years old. “Probably had a half of a beer and was drunk,” he says. “I got up there with the band and just started going nuts.”

He buys his colorful pants, to the chagrin of his wife and friends, at an out-of-the-way shop in San Diego called House of Flavor.

It also may surprise the golf masses that Gore is a book with multiple covers. The dyed ’do, bright smile and subtle wit mask a soft-spoken, somewhat shy man.

“You see him on TV with that big smile and talking with everyone, but the truth is he’s a little more reserved,” says longtime friend and fellow Nationwide player Joel Kribel. “He’s kind of quiet until he gets to know you.”

At Peek’n Peak during his pro-am round last week, that familiarity took about three holes to set in. What the Pepsi exec and the three other amateurs in Gore’s group learned is that what they saw on their televisions U.S. Open week was no show. The beaming contender to the Open crown appeared as relaxed on Peek’n Peak’s Upper Course as he was for all 294 pops at Pinehurst.

It wasn’t always this easy for Gore. At one time, this lighthearted lug was so homesick he walked away from a scholarship at the University of Arizona and was forced to sit out a year.

“I was a dumb kid,” Gore says of his premature exit after two years at Arizona, where he won back-to-back Pac-10 titles in 1993-94. “I got homesick. That was it. It had nothing to do with the school or anything. I was a little immature.”

Following an NCAA-mandated idle year at the College of the Canyons (Calif.), he transferred to Pepperdine and put together a decorated resume.

Gore helped lead the Waves to the school’s lone NCAA title (1997), and victories at the California State Amateur and California State Open helped solidify his spot on the Walker Cup team that summer.

A year away from college golf and his homesickness behind him, Gore eagerly awaited life as pro until he experienced one of those life-altering mornings shortly after the ’97 Walker Cup. Days before he was set to make his pro debut at the PGA Tour’s Texas Open, Gore was awakened by his mother.

“She came into my room and said, ‘Daddy passed out.’ Immediately I knew that wasn’t good,” Gore says.

Sheldon Gore, 54, lay motionless on the kitchen floor behind a chair. Jason attempted to administer CPR, but to no avail. His father had already passed away, the victim of a heart attack.

“To this day I’ll know the taste of giving him CPR and watching him take his last breath,” Gore says.

How much Gore still is affected by his father’s death depends on whom you ask.

“It’s one of those things he doesn’t really talk about,” Kribel says. “He keeps it to himself, but I think it did have a pretty big impact on his career because they were so close.”

Gore regrouped in time for PGA Tour Qualifying School later that fall, but finished an uninspired 160th. He recorded only three top-10 finishes in his first 27 events on the Nationwide Tour.

“It was quite a traumatic moment for a 23-year-old kid who was basically beating the (crap) out of the golf world at the time,” Gore says. “I was a Walker Cup player. I’d won like four or five events. I was on top of the world. Then to turn around and have that happen . . .”

Time helped ease his father’s passing, and talent and drive took over in 2000 as he earned his first trip to the PGA Tour via Q-School. His ascent surprised few, least of all Gore, who dubs himself a “late bloomer.”

Still, the top-of-the-world success many expected from him has been elusive. And Gore admits he used his father’s death as a crutch.

“It was an easy way to make excuses,” Gore says. “If I didn’t play good it was all, you know, “Woe is me.’”

As recently as six months ago, Gore toyed with the idea of hanging up his spikes. Disappointed with his 73rd-place finish on the 2004 Nationwide money list and another pedestrian Q-School (where he tied for 126th), Gore told his wife he was thinking of quitting the pro game.

“She said, ‘Yeah, sure you are. I don’t want you around that much,’ ” Gore says. “That’s when I started to figure it out that it just wasn’t that important. If I went out and played bad, who cares?”

Gore was peppered with sponsor exemptions to play PGA Tour events after the U.S. Open, but has decided to ride out the rest of the season on the Nationwide Tour, where he hopes to earn his Tour card by finishing in the top 20 on the money list. (Entering the Lake Erie event, he ranked 67th in earnings with $29,879.)

“It just turned into a numbers game,” he says. “You have 17 events out here (on the Nationwide Tour) vs. seven on the PGA Tour. If I’d have played better Sunday (at the U.S. Open), it might have been different.”

He left a lot on the table Sunday at Pinehurst No. 2: A possible five-year PGA Tour exemption (had he won), a possible Tour card for 2006 (with a runner-up finish), as well as possible berths at next year’s Masters (top 8) and U.S. Open (top 15).

“What I was disappointed most about was probably Augusta,” he says. “It wasn’t like I was trying to shoot 84. I was trying to play smart. It just didn’t work out.”

Humility has offered Gore a helping hand. Six seasons on the Nationwide Tour and two unsuccessful years on the PGA Tour have taught him patience. Marriage and fatherhood have helped put things in perspective.

“He misses his dad every day, but he’s a father now, too,” says Megan Gore. “(Fatherhood) has made golf not everything for him.”

The happy-go-lucky kid who was so beset by nerves at the ’97 Walker Cup he struggled to tee up his ball in his first match at Quaker Ridge in New York doesn’t seem so far removed now.

The linebacker in linen who strolled No. 2’s narrow fairways is the genuine article. The smiling prince of Pinehurst has been livening up practice rounds and shutting down karaoke bars for years on the Nationwide circuit.

“It’s hard to smile all the way around your head – but he’s like the Michelin Man,” says Nationwide Tour player Ryan Hietala, who met Gore playing junior events in California in the 1980s. The two have a regular game each Tuesday of tournament week.

On the course, Gore is strong – he ranked fifth in driving distance at the Open, averaging 311 yards – with a competitive edge that belies his easygoing exterior. Off the course, he’s 243 pounds of crooning energy.

Family and golf, in that order, may be Gore’s life, but singing is his passion.

“If you get me in the right place at the right time, I’ll grab the microphone,” Gore says. “Usually beer and Las Vegas are involved.”

Each year at the Nationwide Tour’s Fort Smith, Ark., event he takes over the karaoke machine at the local TGI Friday’s. For his bachelor party, he passed on the traditional staples and spent the night wailing away at a Las Vegas piano bar named New York, New York.

“He would be a finalist on ‘American Idol,’ ” Hietala says.

Gore can do a better-than-average Garth Brooks, but says his old standby is Elton John’s “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me.”

His affinity for the microphone and center stage prompts a question: What would he be doing if he wasn’t playing golf?

“I’d be a rock star,” Gore says.

To those who know him, Jason Gore already is.

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