After 13 roller-coaster, injury-filled years, it may be time for Harrison Frazar to call it a career

After 13 roller-coaster, injury-filled years, it may be time for Harrison Frazar to call it a career

I cherish the time I spend at home with (from left) Ford, Harrison, Slayden and Allison.
Darren Carroll

I love golf. I always have. I believe in everything that’s good about the game: the honesty and integrity and reliance on self that it demands. It still amazes me that I can make a ball go 300 yards and land exactly where I’m looking. Hitting a shot just right and watching the ball fly against the sky is still one of the most thrilling things I can imagine. But as much as I love golf, I’m not sure I want to play it for a living any longer.

I turn 40 this July and have spent 13 years on the PGA Tour, along the way making more than $9.3 million and nearly as many friends. I’ve proved I belong on Tour and provided a nice life for my high school sweetheart, Allison, and our three sons, Harrison, Ford and Slayden (11, 8 and 4). But there’s also been plenty of disappointment. I’ve never played in a Masters or a British Open, and despite a bunch of near misses, I’ve never won a Tour event. I’ve put winning on a pedestal for so long that it’s hard to imagine walking away without a victory. It’s not so much for me anymore. I want it for Allison and my parents and my friends and poor Randy Smith, my teacher at Royal Oaks in Dallas, who has had to put up with me all these years. I especially want it for my boys. But the last few years I’ve felt as if I were banging my head against the wall, wearing myself out physically, mentally and emotionally.

Last summer I blew out my hip and underwent the fourth significant surgery of my career, putting me on the shelf for the rest of the season. For my first month at home I was antsy and angry. But then, slowly, I could feel more than a decade of anxiety start to melt away. I started sleeping better. Old friends began commenting on how much they had missed my smile. Allison and I felt closer than we’d ever been. For the first time I was able to be an assistant coach for one of my boy’s teams, in this case Ford’s lacrosse squad. It was a joy to watch the kids develop and get to know their parents and have that bonding time with my son.

In December, I began gearing up for my return to the Tour, and my demeanor changed immediately. I started to get stressed out and snappy. If the line at Starbucks moved a little too slowly, it would drive me crazy, whereas a few months earlier I would’ve been happy to chat with the people in line. Allison drove me to the airport as I was leaving to start my 2011 season at the Hope, and she gave me a great pep talk. “You’re not the same man you were six months ago,” she said. “Just have fun and be yourself.”

During the first round of the Hope, I birdied two of the first four holes. The whole time I was laughing and joking with my amateur partners and having a great time. There was a backup on the 5th tee, and as we waited, my mind began to wander. One overpowering feeling hit me: I don’t like this. I want to go home. I pushed the thought out of my mind and kept playing, but six weeks later I’m still at a crossroads, struggling with my emotions. I know if I play my best, I have enough game to win a tournament. Maybe more than one. But I also know the commitment it will take to play at that level — is it worth the mental anguish and wear and tear on my soul? And if I decide to go for it, will my body hold up? I don’t know the answers to these and many other questions.

I haven’t given up by any means. I’m going to play hard for the rest of this year, see what happens and then make a decision. But I’m coming to grips with the fact that this very well could be my final season on Tour.

I always had a complicated relationship with golf, going all the way back to when I was a junior. The game didn’t come that easily for me — especially compared with my lifelong friend Justin Leonard — and I always felt I had something to prove. This continued at Texas, where the coaching staff had a habit of referring to me as a “diamond in the rough,” which I interpreted to mean that my game wasn’t very polished. What most people know about my college career is that I was Justin’s roommate, but I was also a three-time All-America, and my coach, Jimmy Clayton, called the 65 I shot on the final day of the 1994 NCAAs “one of the three or four best rounds in the history of Texas golf.” I tend to play my best when I’m at my loosest. I once went 61-29 in a Saturday morning 27-hole qualifier. I did it on 45 minutes of sleep, my arm still stained red from having mixed some very strong Kool-Aid in a trash can at a late-night frat party. The heavily structured team environment at Texas left me pretty burned out. After graduating with a psychology degree — I also minored in Spanish and earned an advanced certificate in business — I married Allison and took a job as a commercial real estate analyst in Dallas, with a starting salary of $22,000. Allison began teaching fifth-graders. We got a house and a dog, and for months at a time I hardly touched my clubs. It was a nice life.

But I’ve always had an insatiable need to prove to people that I’m not a quitter, so after a year in the real world I went to Q school in the fall of 1996, earning a spot on the Nationwide tour. I won the ’97 South Carolina Classic and finished 13th on the money list, sending me to the big leagues.

The Texas swing during my rookie year remains one of the highlights of my career. At the Nelson, I opened with a 64 and wound up in Sunday’s final pairing alongside Fred Couples. I played well and tied for second. The next week, at Colonial, I again played in the final group, this time finishing fourth. In two weeks I went from being seen as merely Justin’s ex-roommate to a potential force on Tour, thanks to a power game that at season’s end left me third in the driving-distance stats.

Over the next few years I had more chances to win. At the 1999 Phoenix Open, I played in the final group with Tiger Woods — that was the day he talked a dozen fans into moving a very large loose impediment — but I shot a rocky 73 and faded to sixth. The close call that still bugs me the most came in 2000 at New Orleans. I had played beautifully all week and was leading by a stroke on the 71st hole, a par-3. The pin was on the left edge of the green, hard against a water hazard. I knew the proper play was to hit my tee shot 30 feet right of the flag and settle for a par, but I didn’t have the mental discipline to do it. For a long time I had this morbid desire to prove to the world that I was unconventional. I liked my identity as an aggressive player, so I wasn’t going to back down or bail out. Ever. I tugged the shot just a touch and my ball bounced into the lake. I made a crushing double bogey, ultimately slipping to third place.

In 2001 I suffered my first serious injury — a torn labrum in my right hip that required surgery — but I’ve always had physical issues. There is a history of rheumatoid arthritis in my family, and a lot of relatives have hip and shoulder problems. I’ve battled tendinitis and bursitis in both shoulders going all the way back to college. I don’t think fans understand how much wear and tear there is on tour pros. Go get a metal stick and hit the ground as hard as you can. Then do it 300 more times. Now do it every day and see how your joints feel. In 2005 I had surgery on my right wrist to clear out years of accumulated scar tissue. That cost me six weeks of tournaments, but I could afford it because I was coming off my best season, during which I finished 48th on the money list with $1.44 million. (I lost a playoff at the 2004 Hawaiian Open to Ernie Els, but that never bothered me because I played well on Sunday and was simply beaten by one of the best players in the world.)

The 2006 season was when my life on the Tour really started to change. Until then Allison, Harrison and Ford had traveled to most tournaments with me. It was a big expense and occasionally a big hassle, but we loved being together and having various adventures on the road. By the spring of ’06, however, Allison was pregnant with Slayden and she could no longer travel. That fall Harrison started kindergarten at an excellent public school that was pretty strict about limiting student absences. Allison and I had built our dream home in Dallas’s Park Cities neighborhood, close to both sets of parents. It’s a very Norman Rockwell kind of place to raise a family, and we wanted the boys to have stable lives, rich with sports and other activities. So we decided the family would no longer travel with me, except occasionally in the summer.

In 2007 I played a typically heavy load of 32 tournaments and quickly discovered that being a road warrior can be a very lonely life. I came to dread empty hotel rooms and still do. Sometimes I’ll hang out in the lobby, drinking coffee and surfing the Internet — anything to avoid the feeling of having four walls closing in on me. I see lots of movies and try to meet other players for long dinners, and in a typical tournament week I will read two or three novels, usually mysteries by the likes of Lee Child. But none of this fills the void of my missing family. I talk constantly to Allison and the boys on the phone — in the morning before school, before their games, always at bedtime. It often makes me miss them even more.

Without the family around, I missed the cut in 21 of those 32 starts and had to return to Q school for the first time in a decade. The next two seasons were also struggles, as I had a lone top 10 in each. But 2010 was when things really began to fall apart.

During the first few months of the season I was having problems with my back, hip and elbow, and I spent more time in the fitness trailer than on the range, simply trying to get all the aches and pains to go away. I also endured a series of cortisone shots. That was nothing new; for a long time I had been averaging eight or nine a year. My frustration with my broken body turned me into a pretty big grump, and that bad attitude carried over to the course — from Pebble through the Players, I missed nine cuts in a row, the worst slump of my career. I kept soldiering on because I didn’t want to be seen as a quitter or a whiner, and I was worried that people would think I was a hypochondriac. Justin once said, “It’s an odd-numbered year, so that means Harry’s going to have surgery.” The comment was made in jest, but it stayed with me. Is that what people really thought?

At the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, my back was tight, my left hip was killing me and I had a sharp pain in my elbow, but I played on, missing another cut, of course. The next week in Hartford, during the first round, my left knee went out. My swing had so many compensations for injuries, I didn’t know what to compensate for anymore. That night I was feeling pretty down when I called Allison. She was at a college reunion and didn’t pick up, so I left her a long message. When she called back I could tell she had been crying. She said, “I don’t care whether you ever play golf again. Just come home so I can take care of you.”

Back in Dallas I spent three hours in an MRI tube. They found tendinitis and arthritic flare-ups in most of my joints and a cyst on top of my left femur. In July, I went in for surgery on the cyst and my doctor discovered a lot more damage in the hip — the cartilage was so shredded, it was basically bone on bone in there. The doc performed microfracture surgery on my hip. When I was briefed on all of this in post-op, I felt an overwhelming relief that there really was something wrong and those close to me would know I wasn’t making it all up as an excuse for my poor play. Since I was out for the rest of the year anyway, I had another surgery in August to fix my right shoulder.

As I’ve returned to the Tour this year — playing on a major medical exemption — the challenges have been more mental than physical. When I stand on a tee I find myself thinking back to all the bad shots I’ve hit in previous years. I have to go through a pretty significant thought process to get rid of the negative images. Some of the anxiousness has returned. In my season debut at the Hope, I finished 54th, and then I missed the cut at Torrey Pines. I flew home from there, and Allison and the boys met me at the airport. She said that as soon as she saw me she almost burst into tears because she could see that emotionally I was right back to where I had been six months earlier.

But two weeks at home perked me up, and I went to Los Angeles and played pretty well. I opened 69-74 to make the cut, and on Saturday, I shot my lowest round in 16 months, a 65 that tied for low round of the day and propelled me to a tie for seventh place, five strokes off the lead. The 65 actually wasn’t a great ball-striking round, but I managed my game well, made a bunch of putts and holed out a sand wedge from the 7th fairway. On Sunday, I tried not to think about the magnitude of the opportunity, but I was still really, really nervous, just from not having been in that situation in a very long time. A series of mental mistakes and loose swings doomed me to a 77 that dropped me to 51st. Still, I left L.A. feeling encouraged. That 65 was a reminder that deep down there’s still a pretty good player in there.

If you grow up a golfer in Texas you have your choice of icons. Byron Nelson was always my hero, and I was privileged to become friends with him through the years. There are some interesting parallels in how we both feel about tournament golf. It wasn’t everything to Mr. Nelson. He used his talent to get what he wanted — a beautiful ranch and a quiet life. I’m pretty sure Mr. Nelson never had any regrets about leaving the game in his prime because he was more at peace with himself than anyone I’ve met. Of course, Mr. Nelson accomplished so many great things in the game. For me there’s still some inner turmoil because of the nagging feeling that I was not quite committed enough to reach my potential. I regret letting the game beat me down. I wish I had been stronger. But as I’m slowly making peace with my up-and-down career, I’ve begun to seriously contemplate my future without competitive golf.

What would I do for a living? I’d like to stay connected to the game I love. Maybe I could be a tournament director or work for the Tour as a player liaison, or maybe as an agent. All of these jobs would come with a pay cut, but that’s O.K. Allison and I have done a good job of saving, and we’re willing to make some lifestyle adjustments if necessary. Anyway, I like to think I’ve conducted myself as a gentleman all these years and that I’ll have a few options. But I’m not ready to start having those conversations yet. I’m still focused on playing.

One of the things that still drives me is wanting to play well for my sons. I’ve always instilled in them that trying your best is the key to success. Naturally Ford equates that with trophies. He’s always asking me when I’m going to bring one home. One of the most bittersweet moments of my career came out of the 2008 Q school. I shot a 59 during the fourth round and won the tournament going away. I called home afterward, and the boys were so excited because they had watched the finish on TV. Ford got on the phone and was yelling, “Dad, you won! You won! I can’t wait to see your trophy!” I had to explain to him that they don’t hand out trophies at Q school. He thought that was pretty silly, and Harrison agreed.

Unbeknownst to me the boys talked Allison into taking them to a crafts store to get supplies. They painted a piece of wood and glued on the lettering #1 DAD. They presented this “trophy” to me when I got home. I know how lucky I am to have played golf for a living, and I’m truly appreciative for all that the game has given me. But no matter what happens the rest of this year, and beyond, that little homemade trophy will always be my most precious reward.

The Frazar File
Age: 39

Hometown: Dallas

Career highlights: In 2008 he shot the second 59 in PGA Tour qualifying school history at PGA West en route to victory. Frazar has four second-place finishes on the PGA Tour.

Did you know? After graduating from Texas, Frazar worked for a year in real estate before fellow Longhorn Mark Brooks persuaded him to turn pro.

The latest: Playing on a major medical exemption, Frazar has made the cut in two of his three starts this year on the PGA Tour.

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