Note: This story appeared in the Sept. 22, 2007 issue of Golfweek.
By REX HOGGARD
WINDERMERE, FLA. – Nick O’Hern rocks back on his Ping putter with the 49-inch shaft, a smile inching across his face as he grips an imaginary baseball in his right hand, his index and middle fingers digging into unseen seams as if he were preparing to unleash a fluttering knuckleball.
Fitting, because before Nicholas Simon O’Hern became the match-play Achilles’ heel to golf’s undisputed Achilles, Tiger Woods, the lanky Australian was something of a Down Under version of future baseball Hall of Fame pitcher Greg Maddux – physically underwhelming yet gifted with supersized portions of guile and tenacity.
“(Maddux) is kind of like me in a sense because he can’t overpower them,” O’Hern says. “I can’t hit it 300 yards. You just have to think your way around. He’s fantastic with that. It’s awesome to watch him pitch because he just kind of outfoxes everyone.”
O’Hern – a quiet utility man who holds the distinction of being the only player to beat Woods twice in match play – was hand-picked for the Presidents Cup by International captain Gary Player mainly for his success against America’s mightiest slugger.
“He’s a very good match player, and he’s played Tiger twice already and beaten him, which is a big feather in his cap,” Player said heading into next week’s matches at Royal Montreal. In many ways, though, it was on the baseball diamondwhere the die was cast for one of golf’s most unassuming giant killers.
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O’Hern’s father played baseball for the Australian national team, and the competitive son eagerly followed. He worked his way onto the Western Australian state team as a pitcher with a steady diet of offspeed stuff–a knuckleball being his favorite offering– and a small-ball mentality at the plate.
“I used to lead off, and I was a good bunter,” says O’Hern, who pitched right-handed but swings– golf clubs and bats– from the left side. O’Hern still is a good bunter, with warning- track power. Which partly explains how the gawky southpaw who ranks 168th in driving distance on Tour (279.6 yards) couldn’t always break 80 little more than a decade ago.
On this sunny August afternoon at Isleworth Country Club, little more than a long par 4 from Woods’ lakeside digs, O’Hern looks less like a giant-slaying David and more like a 35-year-old father of two playing catch-up in a fast-paced, iPhone world.
But then, when you’ve covered as much ground as O’Hern, stardom and success are always relative.
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For those who knew him before he started scaling all those match-play mountains, O’Hern remains the same unpretentious assistant pro who began his golf career digging out a living at Mount Lawley Golf Club just outside his hometown of Perth.
“He’ll be the same guy always. No matter what he does or what he wins,” says Stuart Appleby, a regular playing partner of O’Hern when the two are at home at Isleworth. “He’ll always be a quiet, unassuming, go-about-and-do-your- business type of guy.”
The type of guy who, in the mid-1990s after a three-year apprenticeship at Mount Lawley, had to take “country trips” to isolated clubs that didn’t have pros to give lessons. He taught mostly to left-handers because it was easier to tutor by example.
“When you’re up and coming and need a way to make money, you’ll do whatever it takes,” O’Hern says.
Between trips, O’Hern competed in local pro-ams, where, by his own admission, he had little success. It wasn’t until 1996, when he and his wife, Alana, reached a professional epiphany, that his competitive fortunes began to turn. O’Hern gave himself a three-year window to elevate his game or find a more stable way to support the couple. He began working with Mount Lawley pro Neil Simpson, and in 1998 the O’Herns sold almost everything they owned, mortgaged their house and spent four “fantastic” months in the United States.
Although O’Hern failed to advance out of the second stage of PGA Tour Q-School and had little success Monday qualifying for Nike Tour (now Nationwide) events during that stretch, he counts his American odyssey as an unqualified success. He capped the trek with a victory at a South Dakota mini-tour event, complete with a $13,000 winner’s pot. “It paid for the whole trip,” O’Hern says. “You don’t get experiences like that unless you try. It was a gamble, but you don’t get anywhere without taking risks.”
The next year, O’Hern qualified for the PGA European Tour. Though he has had only five victory laps, all in Australia, his plodding, no-nonsense game has proven a perfect fit for professional, and match play, success. Like fellow Aussies Peter Lonard and Rod Pampling, O’Hern’s rise from the pro shop affords him a distinct perspective that keeps the trio grounded in a work-a-day world foreign to some of today’s pampered stars.
“If you come from that background, you tend to appreciate it a little more,” says Steve Bann, an Australian swing coach who works with O’Hern. “He doesn’t let himself get caught up in the‘I’m some sort of superstar’ thing.” O’Hern’s languid climb from the Mount Lawley pro shop to Royal Montreal wild card provides an ideal parallel for his match-play prowess. At the WGC-Match Play Championship at La Costa in 2005, O’Hern collected the most coveted match-play scalp when he stunned Woods, 3 and 1.
InFebruary, he bunted his way to a sequel, this time at The Gallery in Tucson, building a 4-up lead before the turn and closing out the world No. 1 on the second extra hole with a 12-foot par putt.
“Tiger sucks people in and makes them try to be better than they are, but not Nick,” Bann says. “He never tries to be something he’s not.”
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While O’Hern’s match-play record vs. Woods was no doubt the primary reason Player wasted little time offering the Aussie one of his coveted captain’s picks, O’Hern’s mark goes well beyond those high-profile walkoffs.
In four WGC-Match Play appearances, O’Hern has advanced to the quarterfinals three times, and his list of match-play conquests reads like a “Who’s Who” roll of U.S. Presidents Cup players – including victories over Lucas Glover and Charles Howell III as well as Woods. O’Hern also compiled a respectable 2-3 record in his first Presidents Cup two years ago in Virginia.
Perhaps more impressive than the cast O’Hern has dispatched is the method to his match-play madness. He ranks in the top 70 in only one major statistical category (69th in scoring average) and is regularly 10 to 20 yards behind most of his opponents off the tee.
It is, in an odd tortoise vs. the hare kind of way, where O’Hern finds his greatest advantage. “I’m quite a short hitter, so in match play I’ve always got the first (shot) into the green. I’m always applying the pressure if I’m playing well,” he says. “Maybe I just annoy the long hitters.” Or maybe, like his sporting idol Maddux, he just outthinks them.
“I’d rather have an ordinary swing with a great head than a great swing and an ordinary head,” says O’Hern, his right hand still curled around the imaginary baseball.
His next knuckleball awaits.