Harrison Frazar gets fresh start at 40

Harrison Frazar gets fresh start at 40

Harrison Frazar How He Got to Kapalua: Won the FedEx St. Jude Classic
Carlos M. Saavedra/SI

A year ago I was so frustrated that I was on the verge of walking away from the game and taking a new job. Then I won for the first time and my perspective-on everything-changed.

Last year in these pages I offered a brutally honest account of my struggle to find contentment on the PGA Tour. When the story came out I was in my 14th season and still searching for my first victory. I loved the game deeply, but a series of injuries had led to some tough seasons, and it was getting harder to go to tournaments and leave behind my high school sweetheart, Allison, and our three sons, Harrison (12), Ford (9) and Slayden (5). I was at a crossroads—scared and depressed and confused, and all that came out in the story. I tried to make it clear that I was going to play hard for the rest of the season and then reassess, but that was easier said than done. I was thinking more and more about getting a job in the real world. I had done it coming out of college; I could do it again.

I wasn’t expecting the strong reactions the story generated. Players pulled me aside to thank me for being so candid. We all know how lucky we are to play this game for a living, but there is an unseen side to the job. The physical toll and the stress from the competition and the constant travel can be overwhelming. It was especially gratifying when one player told me it took a lot of courage for me to talk about these things honestly. Of course, the story ruffled a few feathers. On Twitter, Paul Azinger called me “negative.” Some of the commentators on the golf websites weren’t sympathetic, to put it mildly. I was called “weak,” “pathetic,” “washed-up,” “a spare part” and worse. Those words stung, but facing the criticism was the beginning of the healing process. There were also heated conversations with family members. They were upset because they thought the story was a sign that I had given up. But for me the real motivation to do the article was to let everyone know how I was feeling. They’d see me at church or the country club with my beautiful family or on TV playing golf and think I had the perfect life. It was cathartic for me to express all my doubts and fears.

Last year’s PGA Tour Confidential issue came out the week of the Honda Classic, which began a streak of five straight missed cuts for me. A big part of the problem was that my surgically repaired left hip was hurting. I couldn’t trust it, and every once in a while I would flinch mid-swing, producing some truly horrible shots. It’s hard to play with that kind of uncertainty. I should have taken some time off, but because I had talked about my injuries in the story, I felt that people would roll their eyes, like, Here we go again.

Missing cuts was especially painful because I was playing on a medical exemption and had only 11 events to make in the neighborhood of $575,000 and keep my card for the rest of the year. If I didn’t, I would be left with only conditional status on the Nationwide tour. I wasn’t ready to beat my head against the wall in the minor leagues, so if I didn’t make that money, I was fully prepared to walk away from tournament golf. With all this on my mind, my emotions yo-yoed from day to day, even from hole to hole.

New Orleans, at the end of April, was my fifth missed cut in a row. To that point I had made eight starts and earned a grand total of $26,802.50. I flew home to Dallas discouraged, probably the lowest I had ever been. Because of my hip I hadn’t been able to get to my left side on the downswing. I went to my club, Royal Oaks, grabbed 400 range balls and said, Dammit, I’m going to fix this. Over and over I forced myself to fire into my left hip. I made some progress, but the next morning I couldn’t get out of bed.

I’ve always feared being called a quitter, so even though I could barely walk, I started packing for that week’s tournament in Charlotte. Allison begged me not to go. She knew how badly I was hurting and that I had no chance of performing well. Eventually I called my dad for advice, and he offered some precious wisdom about not being so prideful and to listen to the concerns of the people who love me. I withdrew from Charlotte and spent three weeks getting my back and hip worked on.

When I returned to Royal Oaks, my swing coach, Randy Smith, explained that the way I leverage my hip for extra power was ripping it apart, causing the pain. It was almost like an intervention. I’ve worked with Randy since I was a teenager. He had explained this to me often, but I guess I had to hit rock bottom to really hear him. We spent a week tweaking my swing, and the pain magically disappeared.

I had plenty of time to work on my game because I had been turned down for a sponsor’s exemption to Colonial. That hurt. I am a Texas boy, so that tournament is special for me. But fate works in funny ways. If I had gotten into Colonial, I would not have played in Memphis. During Colonial week I was invited to a dinner with David Toms, a few other golf friends and a couple of gentlemen I didn’t know. The man who had arranged the dinner owns and runs one of the largest sports marketing firms in the country, with an emphasis on the NFL. Even though we live in the same community, we had never met. He wanted to expand his company into golf, and unbeknownst to me, one of the purposes of the dinner was to recruit me to lead the new venture. He had read the SI article and was waiting for the right time to approach me. After five consecutive missed cuts, he must have figured this was the right time. Hearing his sales pitch had a profound impact on me. Someone was making very real the prospect of a new life. I suddenly felt I had value as more than a golfer. Even before the dinner was over, a huge weight had been lifted, and I knew that no matter what happened with my golf, everything was going to be O.K. for my family and me.

The next day my boyhood friend Justin Leonard and I played a practice round at Dallas Athletic Club, site of a U.S. Open qualifier. After a few holes Justin said he hadn’t seen me so relaxed in a long time. I told him the story about the dinner and the job opportunity. He was quiet for a few holes, and then he looked me in the eye and said, “I know you’ve been looking for answers. I think that’s why you did the SI article. This sounds like a good fit—I think you should take the job.” Wow, now another person was calling me out. I suddenly became eager to have some more conversations about the new job, but I still had three tournaments left on my medical exemption and I needed to finish what I had started. I resolved to enjoy my final few weeks on Tour.

A week after my round with Justin I teed it up at the Nelson, my first event since New Orleans. I felt completely freed up, physically and emotionally. For two days I hit it so good but struggled on the greens and barely made the cut. Fifteen minutes before the start of my third round, I abandoned the belly putter I had used for the last couple of years and put a short putter back in the bag. It was the same one I had used to shoot 59 at Q school in 2008. Lo and behold, I started making putts, and thanks to a solid weekend, I finished 14th. I made $107,250, but I only had two starts left to clear almost half a million dollars. The good news was that I had stopped worrying about it.

On the Monday after the Nelson, I teed it up at the Open qualifier. I opened with 72 and then dropped a 64 on the boys to earn my way into a playoff for the last spot. Then I birdied the first extra hole to punch my ticket to Congressional. Afterward I went straight to my son Harrison’s baseball game, and I was so dehydrated my whole body was cramping. I told my caddie, Marc Lebas, that I was thinking of skipping that week’s FedEx St. Jude Classic. He told me I was crazy, saying, “If you hit it half as good as you have the last five days, you can win Memphis.” Allison tried to persuade me not to go because it’s always a sauna there, but Marc was right, I was swinging too well to stay home. The family was going to join me in Memphis, but we feared Ford was coming down with pneumonia. He turned out to be O.K. Allison and the kids stayed in Dallas, and we made plans for them to meet me the next week in Washington, D.C., for the Open. That was to be my 11th start. No one really said it, but we were all preparing for that to be the last start of my PGA Tour career.

Once I arrived in Memphis, I was determined to recoup some energy. On Tuesday I only played nine holes, and on Wednesday all I did was chip and putt. To stay out of the heat I decided to see a movie that afternoon. I went to Cowboys and Aliens, and then over the phone my boys somehow talked me into seeing Kung Fu Panda 2. I walked outside and bought another ticket. Going to a kids’ movie without any kids is a strange experience; I probably looked like a creep. But the movie was actually kind of fun, and hearing the laughter all around me lightened my heart.

During the first round, I double-bogeyed my third hole and bogeyed the fourth from the middle of the fairway. I wasn’t the same guy I had been at the Nelson or the Open qualifier. I was worried about the results, the money, life after golf, all of it. On the fifth hole I turned off my brain. I told my caddie not to give me too much information—I didn’t want to hear about the humidity or the grain of the grass, the carry over a bunker or the tide of the Mississippi. Just give me a number to the flag. A few times I didn’t even wait for that, I just looked at the shot and said, “This feels like a seven-iron.” Suddenly I had no anxiety, no pressure, no fear. I entered a childlike state of mind in which I was simply hitting shots, free of consequences. I salvaged a one-over 71 and then shot a bogey-free 65 on Friday. In the third round I shot a 64 to move into second place, one behind Robert Karlsson, with whom I’d be playing in the final pairing.

Allison and the boys wanted to fly in for the final round, but it was expensive to change their plane tickets. More than that, I was in such a good place mentally, she and I decided not to mess with it. But I wasn’t alone on that Sunday. After I arrived at the course for the final round, I sat in the car and said, “O.K., God, here we are again. I have no idea what you have planned for me. I’m willing to go with it, but don’t tease me because my heart can’t handle it.” I wanted to win or shoot 100, because either way that would provide some clarity.

When I stepped onto the 1st tee I felt such peace, and somehow I kept that feeling the entire day. I birdied four of the first 11 holes to tie Karlsson for the lead, but I wasn’t worried about that. I didn’t look at a leader board until the 14th hole—everyone  else had fallen away and I was like, Holy crap, it’s just the two of us. We were still tied on the 17th hole, where I smashed maybe the best tee shot of my life. Robert changed clubs and then hit a bad drive and I thought, I got to him. Sure enough, he made bogey, giving me a one-stroke lead heading to the 18th hole, a 453-yard dogleg left with water all down the left side. After another strong tee shot, I had 165 yards to a pin tucked on the left edge of the green, only a few paces from the hazard. The safe play would have been well right of the hole, but just thinking about a defensive shot was where things began to go wrong. For the first time all week I was worried about the consequences instead of focusing on executing the swing. I tried to clear my head, but the damage was done. I knew the second the ball left the clubface that it was wet. But before it even trickled down the slope and into the water, I was focused on finding a way to get up and down for bogey, which I did. Robert had an eight-footer for par to force a playoff. He’s a world-class player; I was certain he would make it, and he did.

Before the playoff began it occurred to me that no matter what happened I was guaranteed to make enough money to satisfy my medical exemption. But I quickly put that out of my mind because at that moment all I wanted was the crystal. Robert hadn’t won on Tour either, and I figured the playoff would come down to one of us making a mistake. On the third extra hole I hit a great three-wood off the tee, while Robert popped up his drive. He had 180 yards left, I had less than 100. I made a tap-in par and then watched while he grinded on a tough 10-footer to extend the playoff. Again, I was convinced Robert would make the putt. This time he didn’t, and finally, after all the heartbreak and doubt and uncertainty, only a week away from what could have been my final tournament, I was a PGA Tour winner. (It took only 355 tries.) I went numb. I wanted to say something profound to Robert but couldn’t get it out. CBS analyst Peter Kostis corralled me for an interview, but I was in such a deer-in-the-headlights state that my friends still give me grief about it. I did the trophy ceremony in a daze. I can’t even remember what I said in the champion’s press conference. I do recall that when it was over I checked my phone and there were already more than 200 texts, 100 e-mails and dozens of voice mails, including a few from a semihysterical Allison.

Not long after the win, Sean O’Hair congratulated me and said, “You know, things like this don’t happen by accident.” He had no idea how right he was. This victory wasn’t because I suddenly became a better golfer. It was the culmination of a spiritual journey that had begun a year earlier, when Allison and I changed churches. I instantly connected with our new minister, Paul Rasmussen. He’s my age, has young children like me and has a background in high-level sports. For the first time in my life I was excited about attending church, and I began listening to all his sermons on iTunes. I’ve never liked to mix sports and religion because I know it makes a lot of fans uncomfortable. And I think it’s dangerous to discuss religion and faith only when good things happen. But all of this is vital to my story.

In the month I was home before the Nelson, Paul delivered a series of sermons that affected me deeply. The first offered the message that God does not expect you to be perfect. When it came to golf I had always tried to be too perfect. It was a relief to be reminded that, in a larger context, perfection is not attainable.

We also heard the story of the Prodigal Son, of how his older brother became consumed with envy. For all these years I could not grasp why I had not been given the one thing I craved—a victory—while so many others had, even players I smugly felt were less deserving. I had a lot of hurt in my heart that I needed to let go of. I needed to be thankful for the many blessings in my life and be happy for the successes of others. Paul Azinger was right: I had become a negative, empty person. The day of that sermon I watched on TV as David Toms won at Colonial, and I could not have been more thrilled for him. That was the first step toward letting go of all the jealousy that had held me back.

The last of these sermons drew from the Gospel of John, telling the story of the invalid who sat for 40 years on a mat. Every day this man waited for someone to care for him, always making excuses why he did nothing to better himself. Jesus healed him, but still the man would not get up, prompting Jesus to order the man to pick up his mat and walk, which he finally did. This story resonated with me because I had to trust that God had a plan for me but needed me to walk that path for myself. A lot of people had a hand in my victory: Allison, with her constant encouragement; the physical therapists who healed my back and hip; Randy Smith, who made just the right tweaks to my swing; the NFL agent, whose job offer did so much for my self-image; my caddie, Marc, who encouraged me to ditch the belly putter and make the trip to Memphis. But really what it all came down to was that I had to pick up my mat and walk on my own.


Heading to the U.S. Open immediately after my victory was surreal. I had been preparing myself to walk off the final green at Congressional, hug my family and bawl my eyes out because my Tour career was over. Now I was soaking up congratulations from players I didn’t think would even notice my win: Phil Mickelson, Adam Scott, Graeme McDowell. As fate would have it, the first two people I saw at Congressional were Toms and his son, Carter, and they were genuinely happy for me. I also bumped into Karlsson, and he was gracious. He said, “I had no idea of all you’ve been through. What a great win.” He’s such a class act that my whole family roots for him now.

I somehow finished 30th at Congressional even though my mind was wandering: How do we go about finding a house in Augusta? How do you get to Akron? One night I bolted upright in bed and said to Allison, “Ohmygawd, I think this victory gets me into the British Open. Has my passport expired? Has yours? Do we even know where they are?”

In fact, the victory didn’t exempt me into the British, but I qualified later through the PGA Tour money list. Playing the Open was another longtime dream I had pretty much given up on. I had traveled overseas in 1998 for local qualifying but missed by a few shots and wondered if I would ever return. This time Allison and I went to England without the boys, and we had a great time. She was in the grandstand for my first tee shot. Just to hear Ivor Robson say my name was a thrill. After I bombed my drive I looked up at Allison, and she was beaming. I think we both shed a little tear.

I got off to a solid start at Royal St. George’s, opening 72–70, but I lost my way on the weekend and finished 69th. That was the theme for the rest of my Tour season—I played pretty well but kept getting in my own way. I think I was trying a little too hard; some habits are hard to break. But I had another breakthrough around Thanks giving, when I won the Pebble Beach Invitational, a cool little event featuring players from the PGA, Champions and LPGA tours. I’m not going to pretend that it’s a big-time event, but the field did have a lot of tournament winners. The final round was played in nasty, windy conditions, but I felt totally comfortable. I told myself, You’ve done this before so just stand up and hit the shots. I played a gorgeous three-quarter pitching wedge to a back pin at 15, a great eight-iron into 16 and a really sweet five-iron at 17. I don’t care what the tournament is, anytime you win at Pebble Beach it’s meaningful.

Starting 2012 in Maui was another amazing experience. You look at the short list of players in the field, and it hits you how exclusive this tournament is. The whole family came with me, including my in-laws, and we got there a week early to goof off. Up until Monday of tournament week the Tour players can act like tourists on the Plantation course, wearing shorts and lounging in a cart. I took my boys out to play nine holes a few times. It was a unique way to prepare for a tournament, and I couldn’t have been any fresher or more relaxed when the real golf started. I breezed to a tie for fifth and played even better the next week at the Sony Open, tying for second.

Of course, just when you think you’ve got this game figured out, you get kicked in the teeth. At Phoenix I opened 66–67 to earn a spot in the last group on Saturday. With all the hubbub at that tournament it’s easy to lose your focus, and instead of just hitting shots I started thinking about winning and everything that comes with it, and once again I tried to force it to happen. I played terribly on the weekend to fade to 26th place. That weekend was a step backward, but I haven’t beaten myself up over it. I know my game is there, and I even learn something from the bad rounds now. It’s funny to be 40 and finally growing up as a golfer.

As content as I am with my place in the game, I’m still not satisfied. For the first time I have some job security —the win makes me exempt on Tour through 2013—and I’m determined to make the most of the opportunity. I’m motivated to get into the top 50 in the World Ranking so I can keep playing in the big tournaments. (I’m 86th.) The biggest of them all is still ahead of me: my first Masters. I started thinking about Augusta almost the second Karlsson missed his putt.

In the coming weeks I’m planning to make at least two scouting trips to Augusta National. Might as well milk it, right? The first time I want to go alone, just to get over the awe. I’m talking to Dustin Johnson and Ryan Palmer about going with them closer to the tournament. They know the course and can help me strategically. I’m long off the tee and hit my irons high—everyone says the course sets up perfectly for me. I’m not trying to put a lot of pressure on myself, but the plan isn’t to go to the Masters for two rounds of sightseeing. I’d like to be a factor in the tournament.

Yes, I’m well aware that a year ago I was seriously talking about walking away from the game and now I have visions of contending at the Masters. It’s mind-boggling how much my life and career have changed. How to explain it? I think often about one of my favorite sayings: If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude. I don’t believe it was an accident that I won the tournament I did. After all, St. Jude is the patron saint of lost causes. 

Group hug at 1,000 feet
by: Allison Frazar

The boys and I were airborne when we got the good news. Just don't tell the FAA what we did next.

Every PGA Tour wife dreams about her husband's first victory and getting to run onto the final green with the kids to give her man a big kiss. It didn't quite work out like that for Harrison and me.

The boys and I were at DFW airport, awaiting our flight to Washington for the U.S. Open. Luckily we found a TV in a bar that was across from our gate. Now, I don't make a habit of taking my boys to bars, but these were unusual circumstances. We were so giddy that everyone around us started getting into it too. When the playoff started, Slayden had to go to the bathroom-of course he did-so we ran off and left his brothers at the bar. With strangers.

When we got back, the gate agent was glaring at me as she made the final boarding call. I was torn. But I wanted to be in Washington to cheer up Harrison in case he lost.

The three boys were together in one row, and I was behind them. I'm the kind of girl who usually follows the rules, but while we were taxied I was sneaking updates on my phone. Finally I got caught by a flight attendant, so I put the phone on the floor between my feet. As the plane raced down the runway, my phone started vibrating like a bag of popcorn in a microwave, and we were a couple of hundred feet in the air when I noticed a call. I leaned down and answered. One of my friends screamed, "He won! He won!" I unbuckled my seat belt and threw myself over the back of the seat in front of me and told the boys, "Daddy won!" We dissolved into a sloppy group hug. It was one of the sweetest moments of my life, even if the businessmen in my row were looking at me like I was a lunatic.

Because of all the hoopla that came with the victory, Harrison missed his flight to Washington. When he arrived, I did in fact give him a big kiss. We ha dreamed about that moment for so long I didn't mind waiting an extra day.

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