Peter Uihlein: Earning his way
This story originally ran in the Sept. 27, 2008 issue of Golfweek.
BRADENTON, Fla. – Peter Uihlein has to go paint soon, but all he’s thinking about are pitchers.
It’s a spring morning. He’s watching “SportsCenter,” and they’re talking Boston Red Sox, specifically Bartolo Colon and the rotation. “How much are they paying him?” Uihlein’s mother, Tina, asks from the kitchen.
Uihlein is wearing a Red Sox T-shirt, khaki shorts and a white Titleist hat. He’s sitting on the couch, in front of the coffee table, where Mom has just served scrambled eggs.
“This is what I do,” Tina jokes. She and Peter continue to talk BoSox as bacon crackles on the stove.
For the past five years, this was a familiar scene in this three-story condo overlooking Sarasota Bay. Peter’s alarm clock went off most weekdays at 6:40 a.m. to remind him of his 7 o’clock workout.
“He hasn’t missed a workout for five years,” said David Whelan, Uihlein’s swing coach from IMG Academies/David Leadbetter Golf Academy, where Uihlein enrolled at age 14. “He’s obviously got that inner desire.”
Now 19, Uihlein – whose father Wally is president and CEO of Acushnet Co., parent of the Titleist, FootJoy, Cobra and Pinnacle brands – graduated May 30 from the on-campus Pendleton School and recently began his freshman year at Oklahoma State. At 6:56 on this hot and hazy morning, Uihlein pulls into the IMG Academies lot, climbs out of his black Audi A4 with OSU logos stitched into the seats – an 18th-birthday present from his parents – and walks toward the gym. “Every weekday,” he says, pausing. “For five years.”
Two hours later, he is back home, on the couch, a fork in one hand, a piece of bacon in the other. Behind him, 19 putters lean against a wall. Titleists abound, like the eggs. Around the corner, a large wall heralds Uihlein’s golfing achievements, notably two AJGA Rolex Player of the Year trophies.
He has art class in 15 minutes. Today’s project involves painting. Uihlein, 33rd in the Golfweek/Scratch Players World Amateur Ranking, looks at his mother, hoping she’s forgotten.
“Don’t you have to go soon, Peter?” Tina asks.
“Do I have to?” Peter responds.
“I think so,” she says, in a tone that leaves no room for interpretation.
An hour later, Uihlein ascends the stairs, back into the TV room and drops into a recliner, smiling. On his shorts, there are spots of paint.
• • •
When Peter Uihlein was little, he became a Duke basketball fan. He’s always liked winners. One day, he asked his father, “Who is the Duke basketball of golf?” Oklahoma State, Dad said.
Peter’s room soon started to look like the OSU bookstore, Wally Uihlein said. Bedspread, sheets, pillows. He wrote to then-coach Mike Holder, a letter Holder still has.
This fall, Uihlein joins a powerhouse under OSU coach Mike McGraw that includes sophomores Rickie Fowler and Kevin Tway. Uihlein made the Cowboys’ season-opening lineup for the Sept. 19-21 Illini Invitational.
Wally Uihlein considers his son’s success “serendipitous,” comparing Peter’s situation with that of his other son, Jon, 20, a junior at Rochester Institute of Technology. Wally stayed home with Jon in Massachusetts, Acushnet’s corporate headquarters, while Tina and Peter were in Florida. “He’d be more interested in rewiring the house for additional bandwidth (than golfing),” Wally said of Jon.
After Peter Uihlein picked up a club as a toddler, he never let go. Jon has a scar above his eyebrow to prove it.
“People expect me to be a good player, just because of who my dad is,” Peter said. “When people say things like, ‘You’re supposed to be good, so it’s not a surprise that you are good,’ things like that really piss me off.”
At 13, he told his parents that he wanted to make his own golf decisions.
“The first time a 13- or 14-year-old says that to you, you kind of say, ‘Well, geez, I can save you a lot of pain,’ “ Wally Uihlein said, “but (he was) right.”
Peter went to his parents and explained that he didn’t think he could compete against the best while living up North. After his first visit to the Leadbetter Academy, he said it wasn’t for him. A day or so later, he changed his mind.
It was a life-changing decision. Not just for Peter, but for the entire Uihlein family.
“What we did, we wouldn’t advise it unless you were prepared to go about it the way we did,” Wally Uihlein said. “And it hasn’t been easy. (Tina’s) suffered the most, not being able to see her other son grow up. Her role in the whole thing (shouldn’t) be underappreciated.”
Peter, often quick to joke, turns serious. “I’ve always understood what she did for me,” he said. “I never take it for granted.”
• • •
Of course, there have been perks. Peter was tutored early by Peter Kostis, his father’s good friend. He plays only Titleist 5s because that’s the number baseball Hall of Famer George Brett wrote on a Pro V1 prototype when they played together years ago. He has hung out with Sergio Garcia, played basketball with Aaron Baddeley and flown cross-country in a private jet with Scotty Cameron. Peter says he’s even responsible for some putter-face and golf-shoe designs, even if his father won’t acknowledge it.
Still, he has spent most of the past five years at the academy or traveling to events, not playing exclusive courses or attending majors.
“The things I want are probably possessions I can’t have right now, like being the best player in the world,” he said.
He studies success: the thought process of Jack Nicklaus; the workout routine of Tiger Woods; the way Derek Jeter handles the media; even the short game of friend, Arnond “Bank” Vongvanij, a sophomore at Florida.
“Peter’s not shy of hanging around people better than he is,” his father said.
He’s not bashful, either. Uihlein, joked last year during his AJGA Player of the Year speech about his code-of-conduct penalties. He has let a few colorful words slip over the years, costing him strokes.
“Some people expect me to be so professional, uptight and show no emotion, but that’s just not who I am,” he said. “I like to have fun, and I get mad.”
He is a teenager with a great golf swing, and perhaps even greater expectations. That’s hardly an exclusive club.
“I don’t get any special treatment compared to anybody else,” said Uihlein, who plays only Titleist equipment available to other junior and college golfers. “I’ve worked my butt off to get where I am. I was not a very good player when I got (to the academy). And I worked to become a good player.”
Assume what you will about Peter Uihlein, but he’s pretty comfortable in his own shoes, made by FootJoy or not.
A story in a North Carolina newspaper last year after Uihlein’s victory at the AJGA’s FootJoy Boys Invitational opened with the line “Golf is Peter Uihlein’s life.” This came after the reporter three or four times interjected with the same question, “So you would say golf is your life, then?”
A year later, Uihlein, sitting behind the practice range at the Leadbetter Academy, is reminded of that story. He adjusts his hat, looks down at his paint-splattered shorts and smiles.
“I definitely didn’t want to become an artist,” Uihlein said. “I can tell you that.”