SILVIS, Ill. — Sitting behind a trophy, his wife and in-laws in front of him, Sean O’Hair was very much a man at peace.
He’s having the success his father demanded, winning the John Deere Classic on Sunday for his first victory in only his 18th career start, a day before his 23rd birthday. But he’s found a way to win and be happy, a balance that didn’t seem possible when he was growing up.
“That’s really the main thing why I think I’ve succeeded so quickly, is that I’m in such a great situation with my family. I’m happy and I’ve got a great relationship with my father-in-law and mother-in-law, and my wife is my best friend,” he said after shooting a 6-under 65 on Sunday.
“I had a tough situation when I was a kid. That’s the easiest way to put it,” he added. “It just was not a happy situation, and there was a lot of pressure there. I just think now it’s the exact opposite. How can you not succeed?”
Starting the day five strokes back, O’Hair climbed into contention quickly with three birdies on his first nine. He got to the top of the leaderboard with a 14-foot putt on No. 14, and his victory looked secure when he blasted out to within 2 feet for another birdie on 17.
But after being so steady all day, O’Hair made things interesting.
“(On) 18, especially a guy in my situation who never won before, you’re definitely almost puking,” he said, laughing. “My hands were so sweaty, I was more concerned about keeping my hands dry than anything.”
He nearly put his second shot in the water, forcing him to scramble to make par. With his ball on the hazard line, O’Hair took a “baseball swing” with his 8-iron and chipped within 10 feet.
But with Hank Kuehne and J.L. Lewis still two groups behind him at 15 under, O’Hair had to wait. If either made birdie on 18, it was going to a playoff.
Lewis folded first, putting his second shot in the water. Kuehne hit a monster drive, leaving him 94 yards to the hole. He flew the green on his second shot, but could still make birdie with a 24-foot putt.
“Hank is the type of player that performs his best under pressure. Whenever you put something in front of Hank, he’s pretty much going to do it,” O’Hair said. “I was really sweating it out.”
Kuehne left his putt 2 feet short, though, and O’Hair embraced his wife, Jackie. The victory also earned him a spot in the British Open.
O’Hair, who earned $720,000, had a 16-under 268 total on the TPC at Deere Run. He opened with rounds of 66, 69 and 68.
Kuehne (68) and Robert Damron (67) finished one stroke behind O’Hair, and Lewis (72), defending champion Mark Hensby (64) and Wes Short (66) were another shot back.
“Unfortunately I wasn’t able to win,” Kuehne said. “But if I had to get beat by somebody, he’s a great guy and a solid kid and a very, very good player. So I’m very happy for him.”
The tournament had lost much of its buzz after Michelle Wie failed in her attempt to become the first woman to make a PGA Tour cut in 60 years, missing by two strokes. But some of the electricity was back Sunday thanks to O’Hair, a one-time prodigy with a story of his own.
O’Hair may look like he’s still in high school, but his personality and game are well beyond his years, forged by a childhood that was anything but. His father, Marc, pushed him relentlessly, seemingly more interested in raising a pro golfer than a son.
O’Hair was up running every day at 5 a.m., and on the course from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. For every bogey on his scorecard, his father made him run a mile. He was pushed to turn pro at 17, before he’d even graduated from high school.
“What am I supposed to do — say, ‘Oh, Seany boy, you don’t have to get up early today?’ The military, they know how to build a champion,” Marc O’Hair told The Orlando Sentinel in December. “Somebody who slacks off, that’s a loser. The typical high school kid is hanging out at the mall. That’s a loser.”
“My turning pro, a lot of people wouldn’t agree with it at 17. I don’t even know if I agree with it, to be honest with you,” O’Hair said. “Some of the experiences I’ve had have made my game better and, in other ways, they’ve made my game worse.”
And one of those experiences turned his life around.
O’Hair was 19 when he met Jackie, a junior playing at Florida Atlantic, on a practice range. Their first date hardly had the makings of a great relationship; he sat on one end of the couch, she on the other, neither of them talking while they watched a movie.
But O’Hair found love with Jackie, whom he calls his “guardian angel.” More importantly, he found a life with her family.
“That was the best thing that ever happened to me,” O’Hair said. “The great thing is, no matter what my situation is as far as career-wise would be, meeting them I would be happy as a clam.”
Jackie and Molly, their 5-month-old daughter, travel with O’Hair wherever he goes. So do his in-laws; Cathy Lucas walks the course with Jackie, helping with the baby. Steve Lucas is O’Hair’s caddie and the father figure he’s never had.
The only thing missing is his father. The two haven’t spoken since Dec. 28, 2002, O’Hair’s wedding day.
“I don’t really know, to be honest with you,” O’Hair said when asked what he’d say to his father. “I haven’t really thought about that. I’m just enjoying it with my family here, and hello to my mom back home.”