KAPALUA, Hawaii - Christmas arrived a day early in Dallas at the home of Harrison Frazar.
His wife walked into the house holding the mail that Saturday, fighting back tears as she handed him an envelope from Augusta National, both of them knowing it could be only one thing: His invitation to play in the Masters.
“We went into my office, closed the door, opened it and read it,” Frazar said. “And we had a good cry.”
It was sure to be an emotional moment for Frazar, a 40-year-old who took a job in commercial real estate when he left the University of Texas because he didn't think he was good enough to play golf for a living. It became even more meaningful considering Frazar was on the verge of walking away from the PGA Tour last year.
Frazar is among 12 players at Kapalua who will make their debut in the Tournament of Champions when it begins Friday. Most of the others are in their 20s, just getting started.
What makes this amazing to Frazar is that just seven months ago, he was ready to quit.
Coming off a shortened 2010 season because of surgery to his right shoulder and left hip, Frazar was standing on the tee at the Bob Hope Classic when he began to wonder what he was doing out there.
“I felt empty,” he said. “I began to doubt my skills, my heart, my body, my mind, my own self-worth. I doubted everything.”
He went three months without making a cut. The harder he tried, the worse it would get.
At a dinner during Colonial arranged by friends, a power figure in business and sports marketing — Frazar didn't say who — dangled an attractive job offer. Two days later, another group of businessmen asked him to consider another job.
Frazar began to realize golf might not be in his future, that it was time to move on. Among those he consulted was Justin Leonard, a former Texas teammate and one of his best friends.
“I remember he told me about one of the offers, and I told him it sounded pretty good,” Leonard said. “I'm pretty close to him. And I could definitely tell he was pretty beat up.”
Frazar was so serious about retiring from golf that he mapped out an exit strategy.
He finally made the cut at the Byron Nelson Championship and tied for 14th. A week later he qualified for the U.S. Open, but he didn't want his career to end at such a big, busy week.
“I wanted Hartford to be my last tournament,” Frazar said. “I told my caddie, ‘I'm not going to Memphis. I'm going to play the Open, and then go to Hartford and that will be it.’ He told me I was crazy, that I was hitting it good. So I went to my son's Little League game, thought about it and said, ‘I need to go to Memphis.’ ”
It turned out to be the best decision of his career.
Frazar felt a load lifted when he made up his mind to retire, and he felt at ease with himself. Maybe that's why he played well at the Nelson and qualified for the U.S. Open. But when he was 3-over through four holes at the St. Jude Classic, Frazar felt himself slipping into his old pattern of getting down on himself.
“I told my caddie, ‘Don't talk to me about another shot. Just give me yardage to the flag.’ I'd had it with trying to be perfect. I was going to pick a shot, stand up and hit it,” Frazar said.
What happened next was a blur.
Without realizing it, Frazar was only one shot out of the lead going into the final round. He had a one-shot lead on the final hole when he pulled a seven-iron into the water and had to scramble for bogey. Frazar wound up winning with a par on the third extra hole.
After 14 years and 354 tournaments produced nothing, he was a PGA Tour winner. More than the cheque of just over US$1 million, he received a two-year exemption on tour, a spot in the Tournament of Champions on Maui and that coveted invitation to the Masters.
Frazar never made it to Hartford for his farewell.
“Life had taken a 180 degree flip,” he said. “When I least expected it, I suddenly had a whole different set of issues.”
Retirement from the PGA Tour no longer was one of them.
“Not for two years,” he said with a smile.
His coach, Randy Smith, was giving lessons at Royal Oaks when Frazar worked his way into contention. Smith headed for his office, locked the door and watched the final hour alone, nearly breaking his hand against the desk when Frazar went into the water on the 18th.
When it was over, Smith tried calling him four times and couldn't leave a message without his voice choking.
“He was beat up. He was worn out,” Smith said. “He felt resigned to the fact that's what he was going to do, and he felt comfortable about the people he was going to get involved with. He was going to give it everything he had and play free.
“It was not a matter of holding on, because there was nothing to hold onto.”
The perks were immediate. Frazar made it to the British Open for the first time in his career. He played Firestone for the first time. He flew to Shanghai for the World Golf Championship.
And on Christmas Eve, he received his letter from Augusta National.
“Other than winning a major, I think it's the most coveted thing in golf,” Frazar said. “It's probably not as big of a deal to the younger guys.
“They don't realize how hard it is. But when you've tried for 14 or 15 years, it's a real emotional moment.”
He kept that invitation in a small stack of letters he has received over the years, from former U.S. president George H.W. Bush, Ben Crenshaw, former Texas coach Darrell Royal, Arnold Palmer and Byron Nelson, who wrote to Frazar after he lost in New Orleans a decade ago, “You learn more from your failures than your successes. Always be honest with yourself and keep your head up.”
Four days after getting the letter, Frazar loaded up his three sons and other family members and headed for Maui. He couldn't wait to get to Kapalua, and even now, it's hard to believe how he got here.
“The first day we were here, the kids were out playing in the surf and my wife came up to me and said, ‘Good job, honey.’ ”