When Peter Uihlein was 9 years old, Tiger Woods called Uihlein's home in Massachusetts. Woods had phoned to talk shop with Wally Uihlein, Peter's father, who is the chairman and chief executive of Acushnet, the $1.4 billion company that owns Titleist, FootJoy and Pinnacle. Peter, an up-and-coming junior, had an opportunity to speak with Woods. It was a chance to mine the world's No. 1 golfer for a nugget of wisdom, or at the very least for Peter to induce wide-eyed envy from his pals on the practice green. But wracked with nerves, the youngster couldn't get himself to lift the receiver. "I choked," he says today, laughing.
In the dozen or so years since that episode, Uihlein has exhibited far greater poise when exposed to big-time golfers, and not just when the likes of Davis Love III or Zach Johnson have dropped by the house for a barbecue. Uihlein is no longer intimidated, he's intimidatingand he has been at every level of his ascent, from New England's peewee ranks, to the competitive IMG Leadbetter Golf Academy in Florida, to the powerhouse golf team at Oklahoma State University, where Uihlein is now a junior. In 2010, he was named a first-team All-American. At the last Walker Cup, he went a perfect 4-0. And in August, Uihlein won the U.S. Amateur, solidifying his perch atop the World Amateur Golf Rankings and earning himself a tee time with Phil Mickelson in this month's Masters. "He's got the game for Augustahe hits it three miles and he putts and chips it like a dream," says Uihlein's college coach, Mike McGraw. "Is that a recipe for something good to happen or what?"
That Uihlein (pronounced "You-line") has rolled through golf's amateur ranks may have something to do with his father's clout, but really, free golf shoes and customground wedges can only take a player so far. Uihlein's talent is better classified as one of golf's happy coincidences. Peter is not Wally, and Wally is not a gonzo golf dad who ordered his R&D guys to cobble his progeny into some sort of robo-golfer. In fact, Wally so respects his son's space that he's been known to lurk in the distance at Peter's tournaments, binoculars in hand. "I watch from afar and only provide counsel if requested," Wally says.
Still, that hasn't quelled the inevitable expectations placed on Peter by others, or, thanks to the ubiquity of his father's brands, the occasional charge of favoritism. Not only did Titleist sponsor the Leadbetter school during Peter's enrollment there, but it is also the national sponsor of the AJGA, which twice named Peter its player of the year. Titleist is also a generous benefactor of the OSU golf program. So, yes, there have been apparent conflicts of interest.
But it's not as if Peter's a .190 hitter who bats cleanup because his dad's the coach. "He outperformed everyone in junior golf," says Tommy Mou, an IMG friend who now plays at the University of Florida. "Whatever Peter has gotten, he's deserved." Uihlein's detractors might also not realize that he was once turned away from an AJGA event for not satisfying an age requirement (he was too young by a matter of months); that his college coach benched him for nearly an entire season; and those dinged-up irons in his bag? Sure, they're Titleist 680s, but they're six years old.
Uihlein's desire to forge his own identity became clear to his IMG fitness trainer and mentor, David Donatucci, the first time Donatucci heard an academy peer of Uihlein's hit him up for free gear. "Peter's response was, 'Listen, my dad works for the company. I don't,' " says Donatucci, who is now the director of fitness and performance for the PGA of America. "He drew a line in the sand right there to all the kids, saying, 'That's not what I do or who I am.' "
Which is something those closest to Uihlein have known since he began, at age 2, whacking plastic balls over the kitchen counter. "Peter has been overachieving for many years," Wally says. "He is more his own man than he will ever get credit for."
In a 250-seat lecture hall at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, Peter Uihlein's geology professor is rattling on about tar sand and oil shale. Uihlein may be familiar with the benefits of such earthly wonders as graphite and titanium, but this morning's subject escapes his purview.
"'Oil shale' is actually a bit of a misnomer," the professor shouts excitedly, waving a sample of the shiny black rock above his head. "It actually contains an enormous amount of untapped oil!"
Uihlein is in jeans and a gray Red Sox hoodie (he's a rabid fan), and his sandy-brown curls spill out from beneath a Masters cap. Seated to his immediate left are three other members of the tightly knit golf team: Brad Gehl (aka "Snail"), Ian Davis ("Bean"), and Kevin Dougherty ("Slug"). In their customary seats near the back of the auditorium, the golfers half pay attention as they peck away on their PDA's and in hushed tones recount an old "Saturday Night Live" sketch. Uihlein scans a quiz that had been returned to him earlier in class. His grade, scribbled at the end of a list of questions about fault creeps, points of rupture and seismic waves: 72.
"Seventy-six," Uihlein mutters under his breath when asked how he fared. "Four-point curve."
In moments like this, you could understand if Uihleinafter two-plus years of lectures and lab sessionsfelt the urge to pack up his books and pursue his lifelong dream of playing the PGA Tour; his friend and former teammate, Rickie Fowler, darted after two years at OSU, and look at how he's doing. But Uihlein is in no rush, and not just because he dates a pom girl, junior Kelly Johnson. Or because he relishes pancake-eating contests with his coach. Or because remaining an amateur in 2011 will reward him, as reigning U.S. Amateur champion, with a handful of Tour starts.