Sean O’Hair had just come out of the scorer’s trailer behind the 18th green of the postcard-famous finishing hole at Kapalua's Plantation Course and, despite a long opening round in the warm Maui sun at the PGA Tour’s season-opening, winner-only Hyundai Tournament of Champions, was signing every item thrust in front of him by waiting fans.
Suddenly, among the line of hats, scorecards, golf balls and programs, out popped a bright yellow flag from the Shaughnessy Golf and Country Club in Vancouver, where just over five months earlier O’Hair had won the Canadian Open to earn a spot in the season opener.
As O’Hair signed the flag – and without any hesitation, the volunteer card of the beaming woman holding it – someone in the crowd noted it was a long way to come for an autograph.
O’Hair just smiled, almost sheepishly, and kept signing.
For the soft-spoken 29-year-old Texas native, a 4,300-kilometer trip from Vancouver to Maui was nothing compared to his journey back to the winner’s circle on the PGA Tour.
Never mind flying his wife, four kids and in-laws across the continent from his adopted home just outside Philadelphia, O’Hair had to travel a lot further as a person to get back to Kapalua. His personal voyage took a lot longer too, and the flight path included detours deep inside his own mind, including to the edge of despair on the eve of the Canadian Open.
An emotional O’Hair said, after winning the Canadian Open, that he was “lost” on the eve of it, with nine missed cuts in12 events, and a waning belief in a game he’d altered significantly. That night, he was lost enough that he cracked open a bible. In it, he read passages about perseverance and says the lessons they taught helped him find a way to just let things happen on their own on the golf course.
It was the breakthrough O’Hair needed to win again at the Canadian Open. But what he'd really been looking for leading up to it – what he'd been trying to find during a season in which he ironically fired two famous Canadian golf figures in swing coach Sean Foley, who now works with Tiger Woods, and caddy Brennan Little, who used to loop for Mike Weir – was himself.
“Who I was?” O’Hair rhetorically asked Golf Canada in a quieter one-on-one setting after the Maui autograph session, repeating the question as if to let it sink in. “Yeah, that’s a good assessment.” Who he was is exactly what he was looking for.
O’Hair lost himself in the desire – some on the outside saw it as a need – to accelerate what was already a promising path to PGA stardom. And it’s easy to understand how.
When observers aren't looking for scars on O’Hair from the legendary stories of a youth under the overbearing thumb of his now estranged father, Marc, they seem to always be looking for more from him. When the media finally moved on from stories of him being forced to run a mile for every stroke over par, or turning pro at the young age of 17 – before his senior year of high school – or signing a contract to turn over 10 percent of his winnings, it was to pontificate on whether or not he could be even better.
Michael Jordan and Fred Couples both did so publicly going into the 2009 President’s Cup. The basketball great called O'Hair his "biggest project" and "biggest focus" after playing a practice round together leading up to the event, and Couples sought O'Hair out on the driving range of a Fed Ex Cup tournament leading up to it, asking for more assertiveness, more chest-puffing bravado – and less shoulder slumping – from the rail-thin 6-foot-2 golfer.
It seemed O’Hair was always hearing about what others expected him to be because of his past, or that they expected more in the future – a nod to a considerable talent that made him such a highly ranked junior prodigy and that drew praise from peers like Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson.
That outside desire for O'Hair to always be more, to be better, can seem a little silly given what he already is – a guy with as many PGA Tour wins as kids and over $16-million in career winnings, despite the fact that he won’t even turn 30 until July – a couple weeks before defending the Canadian Open title at Hamilton Golf and Country Club. He is also immensely popular among his competition on the PGA Tour, exuding enough maturity and earning enough respect to have already been given a spot on the player’s policy board.
So maybe it’s okay to saunter a bit on the course, to let the shoulders slump naturally.
“I think I’m just learning that I need to figure things out more my way,” O’Hair said with another thoughtful pause, “And it’s nice that so many people want to help me out.”
But that seems like an awful lot of competing voices.
“Yeah,” O’Hair continues. “At the President’s Cup, there were a lot of people talking at me and that led to some discomfort early, and I finally just said ‘You know what? I am just going to do what fits me best,’ and I ended up playing well later on that week. I’m not naturally an outgoing, in-your-face kind of guy. I wasn’t raised that way. I don’t like to show a lot of emotion, whether it be anger or excitement. It tends to be boring to watch, but that’s what fits my game best.”
O’Hair returned to other things he felt fit better, splitting with Foley. He went back to his old coach, Steve Dahlby, who he’d worked with on and off since before he was a teenager, and to a swing some once called too upright to be repeatable and consistent under pressure.
“My style and my golf swing, there is a certain comfort level to it,” he said.
Going back to both did not produce immediate results for the 2005 PGA Tour Rookie of the Year, however. And by the time O’Hair arrived at the 2012 Canadian Open, he’d missed more cuts (10) than he’d made (eight), only playing the weekend three times in 12 events. After a miserable Pro-Am at a tough, tree-lined Shaughnessy course, he hit what he calls his “low point of the whole year.”
“Wednesday night before the Open was the tipping point for me,” he said five months later. “You sometimes feel lost and, really, I think praying does a lot for the heart and soul. It helps you find your way. And it’s just funny how that works, because, once I got there, things just kind of fell into place.”
They’ve stayed in place ever since. Four days later, O’Hair again raised a PGA Tour trophy. Buoyed by the win, and with a renewed faith in the swing changes, O’Hair made 16 of his next 18 cuts and almost $2 million since his late night epiphany on the eve of the Canadian Open.
“It almost felt like fate,” O’Hair says. “It gave me confidence that I was working on the right things.”
It gave him confidence to be himself, on his own terms. That’s the O’Hair we’ll see at the Canadian Open this year.