- John Peterson was a three-time All-American, an NCAA champion, and has a top 5 in a U.S. Open. Now, just 29 years old and healthy, he's on the brink of retirement. Why?
We’ll join John Peterson’s golf journey in the summer of 2012, when all was going according to plan.
Peterson was 23 years old and, by pedigree but also by raw talent, one of America’s best young professional golfers. After qualifying for the event through local and sectional qualifying—the night before locals, he slept on a friend’s couch and ate a Hershey’s bar for breakfast because he was, in his own words, “dead broke”—Peterson took fourth in the 2012 U.S. Open at the Olympic Club. Despite a three-putt double-bogey on the 70th hole, he had finished just two shots behind champion Webb Simpson.
In the third round, he aced the 12th hole for just the second hole-in-one ever recorded in a U.S. Open at Olympic. When the ball dropped, he tossed his club and tossed his body into his caddy in an impromptu chest-bump-type manuever. Unbridled, youthful joy.
“We were off and running,” Peterson says without a hint of excitement. This is, in the truest sense of the word, his past. A fond memory.
The summer earlier, Peterson had established himself as one of the country’s best amateurs. A three-time All-American at LSU, Peterson put a big fat exclamation point on his college career by winning the 2011 NCAA individual championship. Two months later, he took second in a Web.com Tour event and made headlines when he suggested the best college players could beat the best players on the PGA Tour.
After that U.S. Open, had you told John Peterson what his reality would be six years later, he’d have a hard time believing you…or maybe he wouldn’t. More on that in just a second.
That reality: John Peterson is giving himself two more tournaments—this week’s FedEx St. Jude Classic and the Travelers Championship—to make roughly $100,000 in prize money. (He gets those two starts via a medical exemption for a bone issue in his hand that first started bothering him in 2015.) If he makes the money, he keeps at least some status on the PGA Tour.
If he doesn’t? That’s it. Done. Retirement. At the age of 29, when most golfers are beginning to hit their prime.
“I just haven’t liked professional golf,” Peterson says.
When watching from afar, life on the PGA Tour seems like the life. You’re following warm (but not too warm) weather around the country, playing on perfectly manicured golf courses in front of thousands of people. And, of course, playing for a $1 million grand prize each and every week.
There’s another side to the story. Long, lonely weeks on the road. Playing for your livelihood has a funny way of sapping the joy out of it. For some.
“I never played golf as a kid to be a pro golfer,” Peterson says. “I played it because it was something my friends and I could do together, and I wanted to beat everybody. It wasn't ever about money.
“When I turned pro, all the sudden everything changed. It's just you. You and your caddy and nobody else pulling for you. Matter of fact, everybody is pulling against you. You say good luck on the first hole but you don't mean it.”
Seven months ago, something—someone—else arrived who made the whole traveling thing that much more painful: his first child, Luke. After six months of “sitting around and only ever wanting [his] wife,” Peterson’s starting to feel a bond with his son. That makes packing the bags, the nights in the nondescript hotels, that much more difficult.
“I hate it,” says Peterson, who is not one for verbose descriptions. It’s straight to the point with this straight-shooting Texan. “My wife will tell you I'm the most miserable person to be around when we have to go to the airport. I don't want to be gone 35 weeks a year and not see him grow up.”
It’s difficult to listen to Peterson talk like this and not ponder whether he’d feel the same way had his career stayed on the promising trajectory of years past. Had he been one of those players hand-selecting their schedules and flying their families to tournaments on private planes, the conversation would be different. For a couple different reasons—the injuries, yes, but he also speaks broadly about “not treating it like a job” as much as he should have early on—the results just never came. He managed just one top-10 finish on the PGA Tour after the 2012 U.S. Open, a T8 at the 2013 Zurich Classic, and has largely hovered in the no-man's land between the Web.com and PGA Tours.
Peterson also has the luxury of having another well-paying gig lined up. He has options. For so many other professional golfers, whether on the PGA or the Web.com or any of the other countless circuits, golf is and always has been everything. If they can’t be a touring professional, they’ll teach or coach, all the while never truly relinquishing the dream. They don’t know what they’d do without the game and can’t fathom leaving it entirely.
Peterson’s father-in-law is well-established in the Dallas/Fort-Worth real estate game, and he’s offered Peterson a job running business development. Peterson is, after all, the ideal person you want representing your company in a foursome with potential clients. An affable, self-aware (give Peterson a follow on Twitter for some readily available examples) former NCAA champion and PGA Tour pro under the age of 30—he’s corporate golfing gold.
“That’s probably more my speed, to be honest,” he says. “Get out there, couple beers, play some golf with some guys who might wanna invest. At least I’d be here in town.”
This all sounds like a man who has made up his mind and accepted that his golf journey will soon expire. But his game might just get in the way. Just last month, Peterson opened the Wells Fargo Championship with a 65 and led by two. He shot 66-64 in January's Sony Open before fading over the weekend. He’s made four of five cuts this year despite his heart clearly not being 100% in it.
Which begs the question: Does he even want to win? Does he want to make the requisite money and keep his PGA Tour status?
“I’m not pulling for either outcome. I’m trying as hard as I can because it’s still my job. But once I don’t have status, after my last round,I’m done. There’s no mulling around, trying to grind it out on the Web.
“Not everybody is cut out for it.”