2005: British Open - O’Hair turns a corner on winding Open road
Saturday, September 17, 2011
St. Andrews, Scotland
Karma has been working overtime.
During a 24-hour window, Sean O’Hair won the John Deere Classic, Jason Gore took gold at the Nationwide Tour’s Pete Dye Classic and Brad Faxon qualified for the British Open. Three of the game’s most genuine and endearing people earned smiles from the golf gods over the course of a single magical Sunday.
Of all the mid-summer blockbusters, however, O’Hair’s tale stands apart.
The story has been sandblasted into our cringing collective conscience. Overbearing father rides soft-spoken son to estrangement.
It was the story of the week earlier this year at the Byron Nelson Championship when O’Hair made his first leaderboard cameo and again at the John Deere Classic.
At St. Andrews, however, it was O’Hair’s game, not his ghastly past, that made headlines.
Just getting to the Auld Grey Toon was inspiring enough, but once there the kid put on a show that would make Rudy of Notre Dame fame proud.
O’Hair’s Open timeline unfolded in rapid-fire order: Win the Deere and qualify for golf’s oldest championship in the process; jump through more hoops than a show pony to round up a passport
in record time; play a single practice round on the quirkiest of links layouts; piece together rounds of 73-67-70-73 to tie for 15th in his first major.
“It was a very stressful birthday (July 11),” O’Hair said. “I would have regretted it big time (if he hadn’t been here). It was an inconvenience but it was worth it.”
Within minutes of collecting his John Deere hardware, O’Hair learned he’d also earned a spot at St. Andrews. The rub was he didn’t have a passport. With help from John Deere officials, his agent Mike Troiani and an assortment of congressmen and government officials, O’Hair secured a passport and was winging his way to Scotland late Tuesday.
“They said, ‘We will get this done,’ ” said Steve Lucas, O’Hair’s caddie and father-in-law. “All he had to do was show up with a birth certificate and two Walgreens photos.”
He arrived at St. Andrews on Wednesday and was able to play just a single practice round with David Frost and past Open champion Tom Lehman. Bleary-eyed and bubbleheaded from jet lag is no way to go through life, especially at the Open Championship.
“We had no clue where to go today,” O’Hair
said after his opening effort. “We just kind of followed whoever went before me, and if I had to hit first (Lucas) pretty much told me, ‘You’re screwed.’ It was more of a hit and hope kind of day.”
Many Open veterans could only hope to match O’Hair’s stats. He finished the week seventh in driving distance (329.4-yard average) and 19th in greens in regulation (79 percent).
So much for conventional wisdom. And doing things the right way. Learning curves. Baby steps. Earning stripes. But then nothing about O’Hair’s story has been by the book.
From his early exit from high school to his unorthodox path to the PGA Tour, O’Hair has forged his own testing path. His St. Andrews stunner was no different. The kid was cool under the most ancient pressure, unflappable in the wind and wild of the Old Course.
O’Hair’s length seemed to make up for his lack of experience. On the par-5, 568-yard fifth hole during Round 2 he bombed his drive past a set of ominous bunkers down the right, leaving him just 147 yards to the hole.
“It was ridiculous,” Lucas said. “We were a full 7-iron ahead of one of the guys in our group.”
At St. Andrews, everything seemed stacked against O’Hair.
From his dearth of links experience – he’d played the Old Course during a junior tournament years before but remembered only that it rained a lot – to his wispy 6-foot-2 frame that seemed to stand about as much of a chance against the Scottish wind as a stalk of heather.
Yet at every turn there he was. Perched a mere four shots behind eventual champion Tiger Woods late Saturday, he was a babe in the wilderness thumbing his nose at what was supposed to happen.
When he finished his second-round 67 to easily make the cut, O’Hair was as smiling and self-effacing as ever.
“I think I probably just got lucky today,” he said.
Humility is endearing, especially when it comes from someone who just cashed a seven figure winner’s check and moved into the best-young-Americans rota.
He dismissed his uncanny ability to learn the nuances of links golf with a shrug: “I grew up playing golf in wind. All you hit in west Texas is a low hook,” he said.
And when he wrapped up his Open week, shoulder to shoulder with Sandy Lyle, a man who won an Open title when O’Hair was 3 years old, he was insightful beyond his 23 years.
“A little inexperience today,” O’Hair said of his 1-over final round. “I’m definitely going to miss this golf course . . . but I’ll be back.”
That last line is as close as O’Hair comes to cocky.
With his John Deere victory, O’Hair seems to have turned a corner in his career. He never lacked for talent, and most observers agree the only thing holding back O’Hair was a lack of confidence. Following two magical weeks of golf, that seems to be yesterday’s mental garbage.
“I think my game has changed in the last two weeks,” said O’Hair, who plans to take at least a week off to celebrate his string of accomplishments and rest. “I have a little different mindset about myself and my game. I have a little more belief in myself. That’s always been my problem.”
Of course, there also has been another problem for O’Hair. Despite his ever-expanding list of on-course accomplishments, he always has been known as the son of Marc O’Hair, authoritarian father. But on a breezy Sunday afternoon in St. Andrews, even that seemed to be changing.
“You want people to talk about your game, not your personal life,” O’Hair said. “They always will talk about my past, but it’s nice to be playing well and for people to see the other side of it, too. It’s nice for it all to be coming together.”
Happy endings are like that.