KAPALUA, Hawaii – So some of golf’s well-heeled stars can thumb their collective noses at paradise, choosing not to partake in the beauty of Kapalua and its enticing no-cut, free opening-week money to begin their 2012 PGA Tour campaigns. Fine. Hey, it is understandable, what with the golf season having gone truly global and players needing to build their own off-time windows into what now has become about a 50-week season around the world.
That said, it may take a team of six bulky security guards and a few mules to ever pull Harrison Frazar off the island of Maui and get him back home to Dallas. Here at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions, Frazar, at age 40, is the oldest of the one dozen first-timers in the field. And needless to say, after requiring 355 career starts to earn his first PGA Tour victory – which he collected last summer in Memphis – this was one event he wasn’t about to miss.
To some, entry into the PGA Tour’s tournament of champions, which begins on Friday, is old hat, just one more ho-hum bauble that accompanies success. That’s why it’s so refreshing to see Frazar’s enthusiasm, and to hear him call it an “honor” and “privilege” to be able to participate.
“There’s nothing else you can do, or can be, to get into this tournament other than winning a golf tournament,” Frazar said. “You can’t get a special exemption, can’t get here by being top 50 on the money list, can’t get a commissioner’s foreign exemption … The only way to get into this event is to win a golf tournament.
“And it took me a long, long time.”
That it did. Frazar, a pro since 1996, was on his way out of the game, conducting his own farewell tour of sorts last June, when he basically bumped into a victory at the FedEx St. Jude Classic, defeating Robert Karlsson in a playoff. He was coming off hip surgery in 2010 and began the 2011 season on a major medical extension. To complicate matters – or maybe to simplify them as he looked to his future – he was playing poorly; Memphis marked the 10th of the 11 starts he was given to make the equivalent of the 125th finisher in 2010 earnings list to keep his card, and that quest wasn’t going well. Heading to Memphis, Frazar had made three cuts and earned $134,052.
Fealing defeated, deflated and beaten up, he was resigned to walking away from the game he loves. Memphis was a late addition to his schedule. Frazar aleady had decided that Hartford, the week after the U.S. Open, would be his final event on Tour, and once he’d said all his goodbyes, the next chapter awaited, that being some job in the 9-to-5 world in which most of us toil. Maybe he’d work in sports marketing, or get a position within the Salesmanship Club at his hometown Tour event, the Byron Nelson.
Ah, but the golf gods, for all their cruelty, sometimes can display a good sense of humor, too. Harrison Frazar stepped up on Sunday, shot 67 despite a bogey at his 72nd hole, and did something he’d never done in 15 long years on Tour. He won.
“It was huge,” said Hambric Sports’ David Winkle, who signed Frazar when he graduated from the Nationwide Tour in 1997 and has been a close friend for years. “If Harrison had to bag it and move on without ever winning, I don’t think he’d have felt he validated his career. You always tell guys ‘Let it happen, trust your ability,’ and all those cliche things. But it’s more complicated than that.
“I think winning is different for everyone, but it’s especially fulfilling for Harrison. It really opens some doors. He has an immense amount of talent, and that’s almost a double-edged sword – not only do you want to win, but you’re constantly told you should. People see your game and say, ‘My God, how haven’t you won yet?’ It’s always meant in a flattering way, but it chips away at your self-esteem and your self-confidence.”
Frazar made 18 other starts in 2011 and only one other time finished in the top 25 (a T-14 in his back yard at the Nelson). So what possible explanation could there be for all the pieces to finally – finally – fit together at St. Jude?
“The shortest answer is that I’d let go,” Frazar said. “Golf wasn’t the important thing, not the end-all. I was not concerned about it. In Memphis, I was playing golf because I wanted to play golf. I knew in my heart of hearts and in my mind that I wasn’t going to play anymore. So what’s the big deal? What are the repercussions (of playing poorly)? If it didn’t work, it didn’t work, right?
“My medical (extension) was up. I was not playing well and I was going to go get a job. I was not stressed out, not nervous, not uptight. All I knew is that golf was over, and lo and behold, when you finally let go and just go play for the love of the game, it rewards you.”
It can reward quite handsomely, too. In addition to earning a million-dollar winner’s check and a first Masters invitation, Frazar now is exempt on the PGA Tour through 2013. This week, his Memphis bounty extends to a healthy slice of paradise – a chance to tee it up in a 28-player, no-cut, limited-field event, the winner taking in $1.12 million. Frazar scratches his head and seems genuinely mystified when he considers there are a handful of players – stars such as Luke Donald, Rory McIlroy, Phil Mickelson and Adam Scott – who are eligible to compete at Kapalua’s Plantation Course this week but choose not to show.
Rather than focus on who is not here, though, Frazar is pretty dialed in on who is – for him, that includes his wife, Allison, his three young sons and his in-laws, all soaking in the bright Hawaiian sunshine and rolling surf. Tuesday afternoon, some players were just arriving on Maui – Frazer has been here enjoying himself since Dec. 28.
“This was always an event I kind of looked at from the outside looking in, with envy and jealousy and admiration and all the other emotions that go along with it,” he said. “The last few years, I didn’t even think that it was even possible for me to get in. Here I am all of a sudden. It’s a reminder to me how much my life has changed in the last six months.”
On the Frazar family’s first evening in Hawaii, as the sun dipped over the horizon and the three boys frolicked together in the ocean, Allison and Harrison stood on the beach, just watching. Allison thanked her hard-working husband for a job well done. Now that they’ve had a taste of the Tour’s “other” side, she asked her husband to do what he could in 2012 to get the family back here in the very near future.
And then she added, “But if not, it’s OK. We’ve done it.”