The golf world needs new heroes. And perhaps none of the sport’s youngest stars has the potential to become as much of a fan favorite as Sean O’Hair. The 26-year-old pro is at a crossroads in what could be an awesome career. But there’s so much more to the story—and O’Hair’s is a particularly compelling one.
Just in time for Father’s Day, O’Hair is expecting his third child this month. And these days, he’s better able to revisit the wretched relationship he had with his own dad and move on.
“I was misguided by my father,” says O’Hair, who lives in Pocopson Township. “I wasn’t good enough to turn pro. When you’re 17, you don’t know what you’re good at, and I was sheltered as a kid. I was thrown into a grown-up world and told to make a living. I trusted my dad.”
While he admits Marc O’Hair was tough on him, Sean still attests that there were good times—and that his father, above all else, instilled in him that mediocrity isn’t acceptable. He still lives by that competitive drive.
There’s a vast variety of PGA Tour players. Some struggle just to keep their playing cards. They usually age quickly and fade fast because of the stress. Others play well, rarely win events, but still make up to $1.5 million a year. They’re usually content. Then there’s the stratosphere Tiger Woods has defined.
“You can look at him and all he’s accomplished, and he still wants to improve and get better every year,” O’Hair says.
Seven years Woods’ junior, O’Hair is already in his 10th professional season and his fifth on the PGA Tour. He enjoyed a $1.17 million win last month at the Quail Hollow Championship in Charlotte, N.C., five weeks after blowing a five-shot lead against Woods at Bay Hill’s Arnold Palmer Invitational in Orlando. He won’t play locally again until next year’s AT&T National at Aronimink Golf Club in Newtown Square, where he’s a member.
O’Hair spends the most time at Concord Country Club in Concordville. He’s also a member at the Ace Center Golf Course in Conshohocken and Manufacturers’ Golf & Country Club in Fort Washington. He’s coached by Nike Golf Canada’s Sean Foley. His caddy is former PGA golfer Paul Tesori, who once worked for veteran Vijay Singh.
“I have a great guy on my bag, a great coach, and I’m definitely headed in the right direction,” says O’Hair. “I’m just now learning why I’m good, and how I can become the player I want to become. I’m learning about the game and myself at the same time.”
O’Hair also is keenly aware of his responsibilities as a family man. At the time of this interview, he was just back from two weeks in Hawaii—home for a week, then off to Scottsdale, Ariz. That morning, his wife, Jackie, had expressed her frustration. “It feels like you just got here, and now you’re leaving Monday for another week,” she said.
Their 4-year-old daughter, Molly, too, is beginning to ask where Daddy goes all the time.
“I don’t know anything else or any other way,” O’Hair says. “If I wasn’t golfing, maybe I’d be a racecar driver. I don’t work in an office and then come home each night. But there are perks: I’m providing a nice lifestyle for my wife and kids. I’m proud of that, and I still love what I do.”
Starting in 1999, O’Hair entered the PGA Tour Qualifying School, but he was unsuccessful in his first five attempts. He played on various developmental tours: the Nationwide Tour, the third-level Gateway Tour in the Southwest, and the Cleveland Golf Pro Tour. He made the cut in only four of his 18 starts on Nationwide, earning just $59,844.
By 2004, he was traveling with Jackie—who was also his caddie—in a motor home they bought with their wedding money. That year, he finally made it through qualifying school.
O’Hair’s 2005 season was a dramatic success. He won the John Deere Classic and finished second at the EDS Byron Nelson Championship. In March 2006, he was the youngest man in the top 50 of the Official World Golf Rankings before stumbling and finishing no higher than fourth the rest of the season. He returned to the top 50 with a third-place finish at the Canadian Open.
In his first four full seasons on the PGA Tour, he’s won just under $7.9 million. That includes the almost $2.5 million he took home in 2005, when he was named the PGA Tour’s Rookie of the Year.
Even now, O’Hair still gets the same question: Why did he turn pro so soon?
“It was a tough position for a 17-year-old,” he says. “When I turned pro, I was a loner. I was surrounded by people twice my age, most of whom were competitive because the qualifiers were cut-throat.”
O’Hair didn’t attend his high school graduation or senior week. In fact, he never went on a date until he met Jackie at 19 in Coral Springs, Fla. She was a student at Florida Atlantic University; the O’Hairs lived down the street. The two married a semester before she graduated.
“Talk about fate,” O’Hair muses. “A guy from Texas meets a girl from Aston, Delaware County.”
The O’Hair kids will go to college, and finish growing up—something their father says he didn’t do until he met Jackie.
Yet, somehow, O’Hair hasn’t rejected his upbringing. In some cases, he wouldn’t change it at all. And since he started at the bottom and worked so hard to get to the top, O’Hair values his success that much more.
After leaving Texas at 12, O’Hair spent two-and-a-half years in Arizona, including a year in a Jesuit prep school. He began golf lessons with Steve Dahlby at Troon North Golf Club in Scottsdale. Then, at 15, it was off to the $40,000-per- year David Leadbetter Golf Academy in Bradenton, Fla. There, he attended school from 8 a.m. to noon, then golfed until dusk. After two years, he turned pro.
Marc O’Hair never took much interest in his son’s play until the family moved to Scottsdale. In Texas, his mother, Brenda, drove him to tournaments. “She never cared how I played as long as I acted like a gentleman,” O’Hair recalls. “My best memories growing up in golf are between my mom and me. Then, at 15, I became nationally ranked—and my dad wanted too much from me.”
Marc sold his share of the family shutter business in Lubbock for $2.75 million, and the two hit the road. Then, when the money, time and patience ran out, “he screamed a lot, and I was expected to listen,” says O’Hair. “When I didn’t, and spoke up, he called it backtalk. It drew backhands to my face, or I’d be thrown against a wall. There were a lot of bloody noses, but it’s not like he cornered me and beat the s–t out of me—though a few times he did get crazy.”
Fighting back was out of the question. “My dad is a big guy (6-foot-3, 230 pounds),” O’Hair says. “If I did, I don’t think I’d be here.”
Marc drove his son from tournament to tournament, caddied for him, spent gobs of cash on him, and coached, coaxed and coerced him. Soon, Sean was 18, then 19 and 20. He was stuck, stalled.
“Sean’s family was like a lot of them,” says Gary Gilchrist, then the director at Leadbetter Golf Academy but who now runs his own school near Orlando. “As an outsider, the dad looked supportive, but behind closed doors, he was very driven—the type where it was his way or the highway. It seemed the main thing for the dad was making sure Sean understood the sacrifice. And at the time, he didn’t think Sean appreciated it.”
Gilchrist says he only ever observed one hazing: “For every careless bogey, Sean had to run a mile,” he remembers. “A lot of parents’ intentions aren’t to do wrong, but the impact is negative. Whenever you have a kid who’s good at anything, often the parents don’t come off looking normal.”
The relationship between O’Hair and his father went downhill as the investment money evaporated. Marc never made it a secret that he viewed his son as a business opportunity. Hardly humble, the elder O’Hair bragged on national TV that it all came down to “material, labor and overhead”—and led on that Sean was “pretty good labor.”
While it’s never bothered O’Hair to talk about the rift and subsequent split with his father, he’s never wanted his career to be measured by it. Still, the media bashed his father, and that upset his mom. “She was caught in the middle,” O’Hair says.
Early into the estrangement, O’Hair’s father poured fuel on the fire. In the Orlando Sentinel, he swore he’d “lower the boom” on his son once he became famous. Marc pledged to “crucify” Sean in the media, then accused the press of staging an all-out attack on him.
The family now knows that Marc is a manic-depressive, though he wasn’t diagnosed back then. One minute, father and son were the best of friends, then it was like a switch clicked off.
“It made me really do some soul searching because, at times, I blamed myself,” O’Hair confesses. “Was I really that bad a guy? Physically, I could deal with the hitting, but he beat me down mentally. He had me second-guessing and questioning myself.”
Slowly, O’Hair began tuning out Marc. For the past six-plus years, they haven’t spoken. For a while, O’Hair had some contact with his mom, but that relationship has totally dissipated. When Marc’s father died last spring, O’Hair pulled out of that week’s PGA Tour stop for the funeral. His dad and the rest of the family didn’t attend. Years ago, Marc split from his father.
In the end, O’Hair lost his parents in the deal gone bad. He has little contact with a younger sister as well, but says he’s no longer haunted by it. Instead, he focuses on his new support system: Jackie’s family and his own children. “Life goes on,” he says. “That was my old life, and these days, I don’t even feel like it was my life.”
Tiger Woods’ late father was no less tough on his son. But there was love, wisdom and guidance within Earl Woods’ Green Beret mindset. “He offered a process—both mental and physical,” says Gilchrist, who educates parents along with their golfing children.
O’Hair says there was—and still is—a contract his father forced him to sign, stipulating that he’d get 10 percent of his son’s golf winnings for life. “I didn’t react well to that,” he says. “There’s no way you can put money ahead of family.”
Ultimately, though, the whole experience has made O’Hair a better parent. “I hope I don’t go too far the opposite way and not push them enough,” says O’Hair.
Right now, his 2-year-old son, Luke, holds a golf club like it’s an ice hockey stick. “I need to get him some skating lessons,” his dad says.
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