LOS ANGELES — The next two months suddenly are loaded with perks James Hahn never imagined.
His victory Sunday at Riviera gives him a two-year exemption on a PGA Tour that took him a decade to reach. He qualified for two World Golf Championships. He’s going to the Masters for the first time. What’s more, his wife is expecting their first child in three weeks.
But like so many other players who toiled like Hahn, winning is sweeter when looking back, not forward.
”Came from a small town. Didn’t do well in college. Was never an All-American. Sold shoes for a living,” he said, reciting a journey that sounded more back roads than Autobahn. ”And then just one day, the putts started going in and I started playing a little better. Won a couple of golf tournaments, and now I’m here.”
If only it were that simple.
Hahn, born in South Korea and raised in the Bay Area, walked through the locker room at Riviera and saw portraits of the past champions. It’s an impressive collection, ranging from Ben Hogan to Byron Nelson, from Johnny Miller to Tom Watson, from Fred Couples to Phil Mickelson.
None of them ever worked at Nordstrom.
”I sold a lot of shoes,” Hahn said with a smile, the silver trophy from the Northern Trust Open at his side. ”I was pretty good at it.”
Golf was a little harder.
He tried the mini-tours. He played one year in South Korea, two more in Canada, trying to find his way. What he remembers distinctly is a tournament in Edmonton, Alberta, where he had about $200 in his wallet and was asking himself if it was worth the effort.
And that’s when he questioned his own effort.
”I’m sitting there in my room,” he said. ”I’ve got to borrow money to pay for my caddie fee. It was a little embarrassing. I was going to borrow money from my parents to get a flight home. And I’m sitting there on the computer going on Craigslist and I start looking for jobs. It kind of hit me like, `Hey, you have an opportunity to do something with your life.’ And I was just wasting it, hanging out with friends, partying on the weekends. I wasn’t putting in the time.”
Perhaps it was that honesty that cleared his mind and allowed him to finish in the top 10 that week. He recalls making around $3,000, which felt closer to $1 million. When he returned to Edmonton a year later, he won.
”I thought I was a millionaire,” he said. ”I was like, `Dinner’s on me, guys. Got $1,000 in my bank account. Don’t worry about.’ Seeing exactly a year ago where I was and how much work I put into it, and to be able to play golf at that point … that was a big, big goal of mine, just to keep playing golf.”
He has more in the bank account now.
Hahn rolled in a 25-foot birdie putt on the third extra hole at Riviera – the par-3 14th – to beat Dustin Johnson and Paul Casey in a playoff. Hideki Matsuyama, Jordan Spieth, Keegan Bradley and Sergio Garcia all missed the playoff by a shot.
He earned $1.26 million, and when someone asked if it felt like a million, Hahn quickly corrected him.
”No, it is $1 million. It’s not like $1 million,” he replied with that easy smile.
He spent Wednesday afternoon on the practice range trying to hit 60-yard wedges into small nets because it reminded him of his days as a kid. That came in handy with a flop shot over the back bunker on No. 10 that set up a birdie and allowed him to stay in the playoff with Johnson.
And the rain that hit Riviera over the final two hours? More memories of his road to winning.
”I love the rain, absolutely love it,” he said. ”Not to be spiritual about it, but I feel like it’s God’s way of just washing the streets and making everything fresh again. Because that’s what happens in the Bay Area when we get a lot of rain. The streets are clean, spotless.
”I remember days when I was living at home, I would go to Metropolitan Golf Links and it would be raining every single day and I would be the only guy on the range,” he said. ”I would go home and look at myself in the mirror and say, `You worked hard today. You deserve to sleep. You deserve all the good things that happen to you.”’
The rain made him feel good. It was a reminder that golf is not a fair-weather sport, and not an easy one. Of course, it started pouring as he was trying to hang on with pars in the final hour, and at one point he thought the rain was a little much.
”But it stopped,” he said. ”It turned out to be a beautiful day.”