Fear Factor

January 31, 2005

In golf, bogeys hurt. But bogeys never hurt anybody the way they hurt Sean O'Hair.

For him, a bogey might mean a backhand to the face, a bloody nose, another mile to run, another silent 500-mile car ride. Because Sean O'Hair had the world's toughest coach to answer to when he made a bogey--his dad, Marc. "No kid should ever have to go through what I went through," says O'Hair, 22, a rookie on the PGA Tour. "I can't tell you how many times I wanted to quit. But what was I going to do? I read about women who stay [with husbands or boyfriends] even though they're getting beat up all the time. I think that was me. I was always afraid of my father. He's 6'3", 230. He's a big guy."

At 16 Sean was the nation's second-ranked junior amateur. At 17, prodded by his father, he pulled out of his Bradenton, Fla., high school, turned pro and set about trying to qualify for events in golf's bush leagues. Grinding 90,000 miles a year in his Ford sedan, Sean's father was his coach, trainer, cook, high school teacher and full-time tormentor.

Though he was never in the service, Marc treated his son as if he were in the army. Reveille for Sean was at 5 a.m., followed by exercise, then a strict practice regimen before playing a course, with Marc caddying. For every shot he finished over par, Sean would have to run a mile after the round. (One time Sean played in New Orleans when it was 93°, shot 80 and had to run eight miles. Playing the next day, he could hardly walk.) After the punishment run, there was weightlifting and then supper, which was chosen and cooked by Marc on a portable stove in their hotel room, followed by homework and bed.

"I had no friends," Sean remembers. "I had no driver's license. I had nothing. My life was golf, golf, golf. It was just so tense. How are you supposed to play good in all that?" He usually didn't, and often there was a price to pay on the way to the next Red Roof Inn. "Anytime I disagreed with my dad, he considered it back talk," says Sean, "and he slapped me around."

Though he refused comment when I contacted him, Marc admitted to The Orlando Sentinel that he had hit his son. Sean told me his dad's smacks gave him a bloody nose "20 times--at least." And that was just the physical pain. "It's weird, but when I got hit, I thought I was the problem," Sean says. "I thought he hit me because I was bad."

He felt trapped. When Sean was 17, Marc made him sign a contract giving the father 10% of Sean's earnings "for life." Sean also signed an agreement to pay his dad back "about $100,000" to cover various expenses. "I felt like I had to sign. What else was I going to do? I was 17."

Then in 2001 Sean met Jackie Lucas, a Florida Atlantic University golfer, on a course in Coral Springs. For two weeks he couldn't bring himself to ask her out. After all, at 19 he'd never been on a date. It took him three months to kiss her.

She couldn't believe Sean's life. "It was boot camp," says Jackie, 23. "There wasn't a single decision he could make for himself."

"She opened my eyes," Sean says. "She made me understand that I didn't deserve this, that I had a right to be happy."

Finally, on the road one night in 2002, Marc said something ugly about Jackie. For the first time Sean got in his dad's grill. "I was scared," he says, "but I didn't back down." Sean told Marc to shove it. Their relationship was done. Sean went out and bought his first pair of jeans. Six months later he and Jackie married.

You'd be amazed how freely you swing when 230 pounds comes off your back. Sean and Jackie took all their wedding-gift money and tried a mini-tour in New England. Golf became what he did, not who he was, and he started to love the game again. At the second stage of Q school last fall, he birdied the last three holes to make it to the final round, then finished an astonishing fourth to earn his PGA Tour card. He's played two tournaments, including the Buick Invitational last week, and made one cut. Pressure? The Tour is tiddlywinks compared to the pressure he has known.

Sean hasn't spoken to his dad in two years, and Marc told the Sentinel he may send copies of the contract with his son to major media outlets. "I intend to crucify him in the media," says Marc, 52, "because what he did to me is not right."

And guess what? Sean doesn't care, "as long as he stays out of my life." See, Sean's too busy being happy. He and Jackie just bought a house in Boothwyn, Pa. His new caddie--Jackie's dad, Steve--only kids him about bogeys, then takes him out to dinner. Even better: Jackie is due on Feb. 17. "I know one thing," Sean says. "If I ever give my kids money, I'll never expect anything back."

He misses his mom, Brenda, and sister, K.D., who live with Marc in Lakeland, Fla. Word is, 16-year-old K.D. has a killer voice. She sang the anthem at an Orlando Magic game. "We think she has a chance to be something special," Marc told Golf World last week.

God help her.

If you have a comment for Rick Reilly, send it to reilly@siletters.com

"Anytime I disagreed with my dad, he considered it back talk," says Tour rookie Sean O'Hair, "and he slapped me around."

COLOR PHOTOPETER READ MILLER

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)