Reigning U.S. Amateur champion Peter Uihlein is ready for the Masters spotlight

Tuesday March 22nd, 2011
U DA MAN: Uihlein has given his fans something to cheer about.
Scogin Mayo

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.

\nIn 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 intimidating—and 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 Augusta—he 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?"

\nThat 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.

\nStill, 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.

\nBut 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.

\nUihlein'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.' "

\nWhich 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."

\nIn 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.

\n"'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!"

\nUihlein 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.

\n"Seventy-six," Uihlein mutters under his breath when asked how he fared. "Four-point curve."

\nIn moments like this, you could understand if Uihlein—after two-plus years of lectures and lab sessions—felt 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.

\nUihlein has other goals: like graduating, playing in a second Walker Cup, helping the Cowboys win an 11th national title, and leaving his spike mark on a program that has produced such Tour pros as Bob Tway, Scott Verplank, Charles Howell III and, more recently, Hunter Mahan and Fowler. "They've been so good to me that I kind of want to repay them," Uihlein says of his coaches and the university at large. (After his Amateur win, Uihlein was given a shout-out in front of a packed house at an OSU football game.) "I also want to set an example for younger kids—just because they play well in one Tour event, they think they're ready to go pro, but there's no way.

\n"For every one Rickie Fowler," he adds, "there are 10 Ty Tryons."

\nSays McGraw: "Peter understands that he's potentially got 30 years of pro golf ahead, and having a dad who's been in the trenches, he understands more than some kids that's there are going to be times when the life of a Tour pro is strictly business, when it's not all fun. Do I think he has the chance to be one of the best players we've ever had at Oklahoma State? I do. And we're going to find that out, because he's going to play all four years."

\nThere are worse places at which to hang around and carve out your legacy than Karsten Creek Golf Club, the Cowboys' home track. Antler chandeliers dangle from the ceiling in the cedar- and-stone clubhouse; pop music blares from speakers in the indoor hitting bays; and in the men's locker room two leather recliners sit in front of a 46-inch flat-screen. The team's meal plan is the grill-room menu, which at lunchtime can mean deciding between a blackened chicken ciabatta and an Angus burger with sweet pepper bacon and smoked cheddar. The players also have carte blanche on a highly rated Tom Fazio course and what amounts to their own private practice facility.

\nThe $9 million facility, which was paid for in cash by the largesse of OSU alumnus and Texas billionaire T. Boone Pickens, is open to the public, but with $300 green fees and no student discount, the only company OSU golfers can expect on a typical afternoon is a family of chipmunks scampering through the brush. It's idyllic, and that's the point. "That golf course is a tool to try and attract people like Peter Uihlein," says Mike Holder, the longtime OSU golf coach-turned- athletic director. "And it's a statement about how serious Oklahoma State is about collegiate golf."

\nUihlein learned just how serious during his freshman year. After tying for 27th in the first event of the 2008 fall season, in Illinois, Uihlein returned to Stillwater and what would become an exasperating seven months of erratic play—a period Wally calls the "abyss."

\nMcGraw, like most college coaches, conducts intra-team qualifying rounds that determine his team's starters for each week's tournament. The math is simple: finish in the top 5 or warm the bench. Uihlein warmed the bench, all semester long and deep into the spring. Karsten Creek—a suffocating test riddled with daunting carries and ball-swallowing blackjack oaks—had the would-be star in a stranglehold. "He's in Stillwater, Okla., in the winter, which is not the nicest place in the world," says David Whelan, Uihlein's swing coach and the director of instruction at the IMG academy. "He's facing a really tough course. He's got coaches that are going to be hard on him, with a workout regimen that starts at five in the morning. It was time to grow up quickly."

\nMcGraw had seen this before. In 2006, when superstar junior Jonathan Moore came to OSU, Karsten bullied him, too. For much of his freshman year, Moore looked lost out there, once shooting a 65—for nine holes. (Moore bounced back, winning the NCAA individual title that same year.) "Any time you're playing poorly, you feel like the whole world's watching you," McGraw says. "They're not, but you feel like it. And I think Peter felt the whole amateur golf world was focused on Stillwater and asking, 'Why is this kid not making the team?'

\n"So I told him he needed to face his fear, to just play Karsten every day when he got back from Christmas break. And to his credit, he came back and he didn't just play, he wanted me to play with him. He wanted to show me that he was going to win this battle."

\nHe'd play well for six or seven holes, then a full nine, then for most of a round. Finally, in April, the frost thawed. Uihlein won a local event, then tied for eighth at a national tournament at Texas A&M. Two weeks later he placed second at the NCAA regionals—at Karsten. Four months later he was a Walker Cupper. "I wouldn't be anywhere near the player I was if I hadn't gone through that struggle," Uihlein says. "I always said I didn't like it, but it's probably one of the better things that's ever happened to me."

\nGood things have been happening to Uihlein for about as long as he can remember. When he was 10, he flew to Miami to play in the Doral-Publix Junior Classic. Peter hadn't touched a club in two months but played well enough to score a final-round pairing with a curly-haired, funny-talking kid named Rory McIlroy. Peter finished third. "I think then we realized he had some serious game," Wally says.

\nTo maximize that talent, Peter enrolled at the IMG academy. "That was my choice," he stresses. Peter and his mother, Tina, moved to Bradenton, Fla., while his older brother, Jon, remained in Massachusetts with Wally. "My wife didn't see our oldest son grow up, and I didn't get to experience Peter's formative years," Wally says. "It worked for us, but we wouldn't recommend it unless parents accept the sacrifices going in."

\nUntil he arrived in Bradenton, Peter hadn't given much thought to his old man's stature in the golf world. "When I was down there and I finally realized how big of a deal he is, it was pretty eye opening," Peter says. It could be frustrating, too. Like many hyper-competitive juniors, Uihlein sometimes scowled after a missed putt or slammed the odd club—behavior that drew reprimands from tournament officials. "I'd tell him, 'Look, they expect you to be a little more knowledgeable of the sportsmanship and etiquette of the game because of who you are,' " says Donatucci, the trainer. "Right or wrong, that's what you have to deal with."

\nSo Uihlein dealt with it. At 16, he won his first AJGA player of the year award. "I beat out Jamie Lovemark, Kyle Stanley, Fowler— three guys who are on Tour now," he says. "At that age, that was pretty special." In 2006, Sports Illustrated likened Uihlein to a young Phil Mickelson, although superathlete Dustin Johnson might be a more apt comparison. At IMG , Uihlein's vertical leap was 3 feet. He could broad jump 8 feet. And he ran a 4.6 40. "I help guys get ready for the NFL combine that don't do those things," Donatucci says.

\nThose physical gifts have helped make the 6'1", 190-pound Uihlein a big hitter, although his most lethal weapon might be the low stinger he ropes with his 2-iron and 3-wood. "I haven't seen a lot of people hit that shot," says Sean Einhaus, Uihlein's OSU teammate. "And I've never seen Peter miss it."

\nAt the 2010 U.S. Amateur at Chambers Bay, a sweeping links on the shore of Washington's Puget Sound, Uihlein showcased his full arsenal. On the 11th hole of his semifinal match against Patrick Cantlay, Uihlein ripped a physics-defying 4-iron 220 yards into a howling wind—to 12 feet. Three holes later and still fighting the gusts, Uihlein launched a drive at a fairway bunker that no other player had dared challenge. He flew it, drawing a "Wow!" from Cantlay. "When your competitor says, 'Wow!' " says Alan Bratton, the assistant golf coach at OSU and Uihlein's caddie that week, "you have to feel pretty good about winning that match." Uihlein closed out Cantlay a hole later.

\nThe next day, on his 21st birthday, Uihlein defeated Stanford star David Chung 4 and 2 in the 36-hole final. With cheers and applause echoing off the dunes, Uihlein found his teary-eyed parents on the 16th green and fell into their arms. Wally didn't say much. He didn't need to.

\n"Happy birthday," he whispered.

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