ORLANDO, Fla. – He could have been a burnout, a druggie, the Todd Marinovich of golf. He could have turned into a lousy father or a teaching pro or a TV commentator up in the booth trying to say something wise about wind or break or pressure. He could have been bitter.
Sean O’Hair appears to be none of these things. Coming off a must-see-TV playoff loss at the Valspar Championship, and about to play in this week’s Arnold Palmer Invitational at his beloved Bay Hill, O’Hair is basking in the glow of the second major re-launch of his golfing life.
“I’ve got to be realistic with where I’ve been the last two years,” he said in his press conference here Tuesday. “I’m trying to salvage a career.”
Until last week, when he was the old man (32) of his playoff against Patrick Reed (24) and winner Jordan Spieth (21), O’Hair’s reality was grim. The 2008 Valspar champion, he needed a late sponsor’s exemption just to get in the field, which is why nearly winning was almost as good as winning. What’s more, thanks to another exemption O’Hair was headed to Bay Hill, where he finished 14th in 2007, T3 in ’08 and second (to Tiger) in ’09.
Maybe that’s why O’Hair looked nothing like Charlie Brown as he left the Copperhead course Sunday, having ditched his slacks for shorts, his arm slung over the shoulders of his 8-year-old boy Luke, one of his and wife Jackie’s four kids. “You have fun?” O’Hair said. “That was cool, wasn’t it?”
In this season of comebacks—Padraig Harrington, Dustin Johnson—the O’Hair story is perhaps the least likely. A charter member of the Tour’s all-nice guy team, he has already reinvented himself once, requiring a total brain cleanse after turning pro at 17 and becoming an overnight basket case.
Few humans, to say nothing of Tour pros, can match the strangeness of O’Hair’s formative years. Health and Human Services probably wouldn’t allow it. Upon turning pro O’Hair set out on the Web.com Tour with his father Marc, whose maniacal involvement in Sean’s career—extra running for bogeys, no short pants allowed—would become the stuff of legend (and revulsion) when the two were featured on a segment on 60 Minutes II.
O’Hair, whom his father called “pretty good labor,” missed 14 of 18 cuts that first year on the developmental circuit. He broke down crying in the second stage of Q School in 2002, and split with Marc soon after.
“I haven’t talked to my dad in 13 years,” Sean told GOLF.com after his press conference at Bay Hill. “It is what it is. I just can’t deal with that crap anymore.” Where does Marc live? “I’m not exactly sure,” Sean said.
The last time the public heard from Marc O’Hair was in 2005, when he faxed out a letter saying he was letting Sean out of a much-chronicled “contract” that was to pay Marc 10 percent of his son’s earnings for life.
Those earnings have been considerable. O’Hair reinvented himself with the aid of wife Jackie and her cigar-chomping father, Steve Lucas, who used to carry O’Hair’s bag. They helped wean the quiet, 6-foot-2, 165-pound O’Hair off of a lifetime of shaming, freeing him up to play his best golf. He won the John Deere Classic and was rookie of the year in 2005, made the 2009 Presidents Cup team, and won four times in all through 2011.
Then the good times stopped rolling. Maybe they froze to death.
Stuck indoors amid too many snowy Pennsylvania winters—Jackie’s family is from there—and listening to too many voices, O’Hair’s game began to crack. He missed 12 cuts in 22 starts and banked just $268,614 in 2013. Last year he missed 11 cuts in 25 starts and earned $408,793.
Having graduated from father in law Lucas to pro caddies, O’Hair fired his looper, Paul Tesori; left his swing coach, Sean Foley; went back to Foley; and then, unable to get the time he needed, left Foley again last year. O’Hair now says he was in the kind of dizzying free fall Woods is in today.
“I’ve never lost my talent,” O’Hair said. “I just think my mind got clouded with things that I didn’t need to be thinking about. I almost forgot who I was as a player. And, too, there’s been some challenging stuff off the golf course—trying to figure out how to be the father I want to be, the husband I want to be, being able to practice and dedicate myself to the game the way I want to, but yet I’m not able to because I live where I live.”
Working with Philadelphia-based instructor John Donegan, O’Hair all but abandoned his focus on mechanics. The coach made a few fixes but mostly left O’Hair to go back to the way he played as a kid, bringing bags of balls into the trees and hitting shots through windows of daylight.
Playing in the Web.com Tour Finals last fall, O’Hair salvaged his Tour card with a T3 at the Nationwide Children’s Hospital Championship. He played well at the start of this year but had nothing to show for it until he nearly parlayed his exemption at the Valspar into his fifth Tour win.
“It would have been a great anniversary,” said caddie Knight, who has been on O’Hair’s bag for exactly a year. “That putt on 16 caught a lot of the hole; Jordan’s putt broke the other way. Sean has been playing so great, this was only a matter of time.”
O’Hair’s second rebirth will also include a change of address. He and Jackie have agreed to put golf first, for now, which means moving into a new home, perhaps at Isleworth, by June. Jackie’s family will have to get on a plane to visit, but for the first time in years Sean will be able to practice year-round. His mom, Brenda, who has split from Marc and lives in nearby Lakeland, Fla., will find it easier to see the grandkids, too.
“I never thought my wife would do it,” Sean said.
They fought about moving for years, but a string of bad Northeast winters essentially wound up making O’Hair’s closing argument for him.
He would have closed out Spieth and Reed had his birdie putt not melted over the hole at 16. Still, O’Hair’s 274 total was six shots lower than when he won the Valspar in 2008. He calls his final-round 67 Sunday, “the best round of golf I ever played,” given where he’s been. It’s hard to argue. The demons are gone, his head is clear, and his future is filled with year-round sunshine. Sean O’Hair is playing young again. Cool, isn’t it?