Schupak: Uihlein takes the road rarely traveled to success
Editor's note: This story originally ran in the March 15th issue of Golfweek magazine. Uihlein won his first European Tour victory on Sunday in Portugal.
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RIO GRANDE, Puerto Rico -- The best thing that ever happened to Peter Uihlein may have been flunking out of PGA Tour Qualifying School in 2011.
With no status, the 2010 U.S. Amateur champion boldly went where few Americans go anymore. Uihlein took the fork in the road and joined the Challenge Tour, the European Tour’s developmental circuit, and has become a better golfer for it.
Flipping through his passport, stamped with 17 countries where he has competed since turning professional in late 2011, is a conversation starter. At this rate, he may replace Gary Player as golf’s global ambassador. After all, Uihlein can recount adventures cage-diving with great white sharks at Mossel Bay in South Africa, or show video he took of lions while chasing the country’s “Big Five” at Kruger National Park. His eyes grow wide as he describes playing a tournament inside the palace gates of Mohammed VI, the king of Morocco.
“You’re hitting balls literally in his garden,” Uihlein said.
Yes, Uihlein, who competed in Puerto Rico last week, always wanted to see the world, but he isn’t backpacking through Europe. This is about learning his craft, seeking greatness and plotting how it can best be achieved.
During one four-week stretch last summer, he went from Geneva to Moscow to Kazakhstan to Toulouse, France. He played those 16 rounds in 45 under par and finished sixth, T-8, T-18 and T-5. All told, he played 15 events, made 13 cuts and had six top 10s.
Why don’t more young American pros explore this route? Golf is a global game now. Consider this: Nearly two-thirds of the top 100 in the Official World Golf Ranking are international players, and most of them launched their careers somewhere other than in the U.S.
Uihlein ticks off a laundry list of pros: Justin Rose, Adam Scott, Carl Pettersson, Louis Oosthuizen.
He can go on. Ernie Els, Retief Goosen, Vijay Singh, Jose Maria Olazabal and others a generation before.
“It worked out for them,” Uihlein said.
But none of them is American. Name an American player in the past 25 years who has had any sustained success on the European Tour. You can’t.
Uihlein is going where there is no path and attempting to leave his own trail. He’s 23 and already has figured out that life is a marathon, not a sprint. The future stars of American golf tend to stay at home, and for that you can blame the system.
“The Tour has made an emphasis on the Web.com Tour as the pathway to the PGA Tour,” said Jordan Spieth, “and that’s where I want to be.”
It wasn’t always that way. Uihlein’s path isn’t that different than the ones the late Payne Stewart and Corey Pavin took in the 1980s. Stewart was schooled on the old Asian Tour, and Pavin cut his teeth in Europe. Uihlein is learning how to travel, play against the next generation of global talent and compete in a variety of conditions.
“You grow up quicker,” he said.
His game shows maturity, too. He has refined his swing with instructor Butch Harmon. Erik Compton was paired with Uihlein in the first two rounds in Puerto Rico this year and last, and he witnessed a radically different golfer this time.
“He has the potential to be a top-10, top-20 player in the world,” Compton said, noting Uihlein’s prodigious length.
Uihlein showcased his power and potential in Puerto Rico. He can cancel his scheduled trip for New Delhi to play in the European Tour’s Avantha Masters. A week after posting his best finish on the European Tour – fourth at the Tshwane Open in South Africa – Uihlein shot 5-under 67 at Trump International to tie for sixth and earn a spot in this week’s Tampa Bay Championship. Uihlein made a pair of 30-foot birdie putts on Nos. 6 and 8 and went out in 31. It looked as if he might make a run at the title, but his round was derailed by bogeys at Nos. 11 and 14. Suddenly, a top-10 finish seemed in jeopardy until Uihlein proved his mettle by making eagle at the 72nd hole.
“As long as I keep getting into contention and getting myself in scenarios where I have a chance to win, regardless of where that is, that’s really the ultimate goal, to get comfortable being in situations like that,” he said.
So Uihlein, who played at Oklahoma State, gets to come home for a start at Innisbrook’s Copperhead, which he called one of his favorite courses. Who knows what that could lead to? No matter what, he has a complete schedule planned overseas for the balance of the season (including first-time visits to South Korea and China), with the goal of earning fully exempt status on the European Tour for 2014.
Maybe then he will have completed his post-graduate degree in the art of being a global golfer.