By DOUG FERGUSON
SAN MARTIN, Calif. — The greeting from Frys.com Open President Duke Butler is meant as a joke, even though it has some truth to it.
“Happy New Year,” he tells players when they arrive at CordeValle Golf Club. That’s still 85 days away — except on the PGA Tour calendar. For the first time, it goes to a wraparound 2013-14 season that begins Thursday.
Sean O’Hair is most likely to take him at his word. Not only is it a new year, it feels like a new start.
Just over a week ago, O’Hair completed one of the most gratifying months of his career with his best result of the season. It was only a tie for eighth. And it was on the Web.com Tour. But it meant he could keep his job.
“Got it done,” he said. “Got my card back.”
The first step forward was to take what felt like 100 steps back. Just four years removed from beating Ernie Els in singles at the Presidents Cup, O’Hair went through such a miserable year that he wasn’t sure he wanted to keep playing golf.
He lost confidence in his swing. He suffered what he called an identity crisis on the golf course.
“I forgot myself as a player, how I swung and how I played,” O’Hair said. “And then taking that on the golf course, I almost forgot how to act and how to think. I really just got to a point where I just kind of was blank out there and lost my fight. Anything you could possibly do wrong, I did wrong this year. I just had to take a step back and had to first ask myself, ‘Do I really want to do this anymore?’”
Burnout at age 32 would be understandable.
O’Hair was a product of an overzealous father who was caught up in the arrival of Tiger Woods a generation ago. He groomed the boy to be a golfer and made him run a mile for every bogey. O’Hair eventually sought his own way.
With a new wife, and his father-in-law as his caddie and calming influence, O’Hair won the John Deere Classic in 2005 and reached the Tour Championship as a rookie. He won three more times, including the Quail Hollow Championship just two months after losing a five-shot lead to Woods.
Woods used to wonder if O’Hair’s regimented upbringing made his mind tougher or his heart too tender.
O’Hair was never tested more than he was this year.
“Do I really want to do this anymore?”
“I don’t want to be mediocre,” O’Hair said. “I still think I’ve got my best golf ahead of me. That’s kind of what answered that question for me. I don’t want to just hang around and be one of these struggling journeymen. I did that early in my career, and I don’t want to do that again.”
He began working with Washington psychologist Julie Elion this summer. For the Web.com Tour Finals, the four tournaments he played to earn one of 25 cards, he put father-in-law Steve Lucas back on the bag. At home outside Philadelphia, he began working on his putting with the pro at White Manor, John Dunigan, who used to teach O’Hair’s wife before she went to Florida Atlantic.
It was humbling to return to the Web.com Tour, but O’Hair saw it as the only way back.
“A gut shot,” he said. “It was like, ‘Do I really want to do this?’ There were a lot of tears this year. It was hard. It was hard on my wife. It was hard on me.”
O’Hair wasn’t the only player who had to start over.
Ryo Ishikawa, who played on the previous two Presidents Cup team and began racking up wins on the Japan Golf Tour when he was 15, for years had it easy. He received three special invitations to the Masters. He received rock-star status and could get whatever sponsor exemption he wanted. But he failed to keep his PGA Tour card. So as contemporary Hideki Matsuyama was getting ready for the Presidents Cup, Ishikawa was at Web.com Tour events in Indiana, Ohio and North Carolina.
He has his card again. He earned it.
So did Heath Slocum, who just four years ago made a 20-foot par putt to win The Barclays over Woods, Els, Steve Stricker and Padraig Harrington.
“In a 12-year career, you can take a lot for granted,” Slocum said.
All of them are at the Frys.com Open, wanting to get a head start on what feels like a second chance. It doesn’t figure to be easy. Jack Nicklaus said last week, “We’ve got more good young players than we’ve ever had before.”
O’Hair is 31, the father of four. His world ranking is No. 301. He has a long way to go, and the Frys.com Open is only a start.
But at least it’s a start.
“I was in this situation and could either say, ‘I should be here’ or ‘I should be there’ and kind of sulk about it,” O’Hair said. “But instead I thought, ‘You know what? I’m here. It is what it is. And I need to make the best of it and I need to humble myself to where I’m just any Joe Blow. I need to earn my spot again. I was glad I did that.”