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

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

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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.

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 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?”

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
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.

Uihlein 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.

“For every one Rickie Fowler,” he adds,
“there are 10 Ty Tryons.”

Says 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.”

There 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.

The $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.”

Uihlein 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.”

McGraw, 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.”

McGraw 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?’

“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.”

He’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.”

Good 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.

To 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.”

Until 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.”

So 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.

Those 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.”

At 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.

The 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.

“Happy birthday,” he whispered.