A few days before Christmas the Tournament Players Club at Valencia was visited by a Santa Claus in spikes. Big and jolly, his nose reddened by the sun, Jason Gore turned up at his home club to hit a few balls, have lunch and spread holiday cheer. In the clubhouse he stopped to gossip with a woman who works in the pro shop, and upon reaching the dining room he said hello to every waiter on the premises. When it was time to work on his swing he set up shop not in an out-of-the-way corner of the driving range but just down the line from the paying customers. Newcomers stole furtive glances and talked excitedly into their cellphones, but course regulars wandered over to bust Gore's chops. ¬∂ "You want a game on Friday?" one asked. ¬∂ "Nah, I'm not hitting it any good," Gore said. ¬∂ In fact, he had been pounding drives to the far expanses of the range. Now, with a few of his boys looking on, Gore made his usual effortless swing but purposely topped the ball about 10 feet. Laughter all around. ¬∂ Gore grew up in Valencia (a bedroom community 30 miles northwest of Los Angeles) and married a woman he had known since high school. After winning the Pac-10 individual title in his first two years at Arizona, he transferred to Pepperdine because he was homesick and wanted to spend weekends with his parents. Gore is now a 31-year-old PGA Tour winner, but he has hardly outgrown his little hometown. He still regularly tees it up with friends at Vista Valencia, the par-61 he's been playing since he was a kid, and he lives about 200 yards from the TPC in a modest stucco house that looks more or less like every other house on the crowded block. "I travel so much I need to feel as if I have some roots," says Gore. "This is home. This is where I feel comfortable." ¬∂ A few days before New Year's Eve, Gore was in a much less familiar environment--the swank Ritz-Carlton in Kapalua, Hawaii, where he was given the keys to an oceanfront suite and a shiny Mercedes courtesy car. He was on hand for the Tour's season-opening Mercedes Championships, a working vacation with no cut and last-place money of $70,000. The exclusive setting would have been heady enough for a player who seven months earlier was a frustrated minor leaguer, but Gore was also cast as one of the stars of the show since Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Retief Goosen had exercised their rights as independent contractors and skipped the event, while Ernie Els was not eligible after going winless on Tour in 2005. So it was a feature on Gore that anchored ESPN's preview show, and it was his visage that adorned the front page of the USA Today sports section on the morning of the first round.
The journey from Valencia to Kapalua neatly sums up Gore's unlikely career arc. He began 2005 playing a Southern California micro-mini-tour on borrowed money while contemplating quitting the game. After working on his swing and his attitude, he played his way into the U.S. Open, during which he stole hearts as the likable unknown who hovered near the top of the leader board for three rounds only to blow up on Sunday with an excruciating 84. That figured to be the last anyone would hear from Gore, but with newfound resolve he went back to the Nationwide tour and tore off three consecutive victories--including shooting a 59 at the Cox Classic--to earn a promotion to the big leagues. Three months after lumbering to his 84 at the Open he won the PGA Tour's 84 Lumber Classic, punching his ticket to Maui.
The magnitude of it all hit Gore on the eve of the Mercedes while he was taking in the ocean views from the Plantation course during a practice round. "It was like, Holy smoke!" he says. "It pretty much knocked me off guard. All of a sudden you flash back to everything that's happened and everything you've dreamed about for so many years."
Perhaps Gore was a little too awestruck by his surroundings: Once the tournament began he was blown away by the high winds and the elevated expectations. He didn't break 80 until the final round and ultimately finished 28th, which doesn't sound so bad except for the fact that there were only 28 players in the field. The sun set early on Gore's chances. On the 13th hole of the first round he made a quintuple-bogey 9, losing two balls in the waist-high grass that frames the Plantation course. He went on to shoot a seven-over-par 80 and then matched the score during the second round in blustery conditions that playing partner Brad Faxon called "as tough as it gets." After shooting 81 on Saturday, Gore somehow remained upbeat, saying, "I've been hitting good shots but am getting nothing out of it. I'm not happy with the results, but I sure am happy to have the opportunity to be here." On Sunday, Gore finally went snowman-free, but his 79 not only left him 36 strokes behind Stuart Appleby, who won the event for the third consecutive year by defeating Vijay Singh in a playoff, but also a couple of shots worse than anybody else in the field. Typically, Gore took it all in stride, saying, "You can learn a lot during a week like this." That is the kind of enlarged perspective that comes from having taken 20 years to become an overnight sensation.
Gore took up golf at 12, his interest piqued by tagging along while his father, Sheldon, a printing executive, took lessons. The game came easily to Jason, and by his senior year at Pepperdine he was one of the best amateurs in the country. He led the Waves to the 1997 NCAA championship and would have won the individual crown were it not for a sloppy double bogey on the final hole. After back-to-back victories at the California Open and the state amateur he turned pro at the end of the summer. With his length and touch Gore seemed like a can't-miss prospect, but then life got in the way.
On the morning that Gore was to fly to the Boise Open for his pro debut he was awakened by the screams of his mother, Kathy. At age 52, Sheldon had suffered a heart attack, and not even his son's desperate attempts at mouth-to-mouth resuscitation could bring him back to life.
Jason was extremely close to Sheldon, a big, garrulous guy who was so beloved in the community that about 500 people turned out for his funeral. A month after burying his father, Jason embarked on his pro career, but his heart wasn't in it. "My dad was always at every tournament. I always played for him," says Gore. "Without him there I lost my way for a while." Seven years, to be exact.
As Gore knocked around the Nationwide tour and the nether regions of the PGA Tour--he finished 178th on the money list in 2001, 177th in '03--his struggles confounded those who knew his game. "He was always such a big-time talent, none of us could believe Jason was simply out there taking up space," says John Geiberger, Gore's coach at Pepperdine.
After finishing 126th at Q school in December 2004, Gore finally made some moves to salvage his career. Notably, he put his trust in Mike Miller, his best friend since they had attended a Get High on Life summer camp together at age 12. Miller played for UCLA and has always been a fixture in Gore's Friday-afternoon grudge matches at Vista Valencia, which feature R-rated trash-talking "where absolutely nothing is off-limits," according to Miller. He knew Gore's swing better than anyone and set out to remake a handsy action that relied on timing into a more compact, more repeatable move powered by Gore's tree-trunk legs. After a few weeks of working with Miller, Gore had a wider stance, a stronger grip, a more upright posture and more flex in his right knee.
Thanks to his natural athleticism, he quickly incorporated all of these changes. There have been plenty of chuckles about Gore's 6'1", 235-pound physique, many of them from the man himself. According to Gore, Woods's chiseled body "should be donated to science; mine should be donated to science fiction." Gore has always been big--he was nine pounds, four ounces at birth--but he was nimble enough to win dozens of BMX trophies as a kid and play shortstop into his teens. (Gore still counts the time he hit three home runs in a Pony League game as one of his athletic high points.)
To hone his new swing Gore swallowed his pride and set out last January on something called the A.G. Spanos mini-tour. To do so he was forced to borrow $12,000 from a friend. (By then his wife, Megan, had stopped teaching kindergarten to care for their son, Jaxon, who was born in October 2004.) Gore also began working with Preston Waddington, a psychoanalyst, not a sports psychologist. "It goes way deeper than 'Be the ball,'" says Gore.
"Jason was driven by shame," Waddington says. "When he would walk through the locker room he would keep his eyes on the floor because he felt he didn't belong. Because he was failing at golf, he also felt as if he was failing as a father, failing as a husband. It was very moving stuff." They also talked a lot about Sheldon--discussions that would bear fruit a few months later at Pinehurst.
Gore's improved swing and healing psyche all came together over three magical days at the U.S. Open. Gore went to Pinehurst 818th in the World Ranking but instantly became the people's choice with his overpowering game, ever-present smile, endless quips and couch-potato body. He was John Daly without the vices. In the exacting conditions of the final round Gore's game unraveled, but he still won an important private battle.
"In the past whenever I had a setback in my career I always fell back on my dad's death as an excuse," he says. "Sunday at Pinehurst, I finally got past that. It was my first Father's Day as a dad, and I could have hid behind that, but I finally let all that stuff go. I miss my dad, but life does go on, golf goes on. I know that someday we'll meet again, and that's good enough for me."
The closing 84 dropped Gore from a tie for second to 49th, but when Waddington called him a couple of days later for their weekly chat, Gore "wasn't at all distraught," says Waddington. "Jason said, 'You know what, for three days I was the best golfer in the world.' When I heard that I knew he'd be O.K."
Riding that wave of confidence, Gore embarked on his record streak on the Nationwide tour and then stormed to victory at the 84 Lumber. To clinch that win he needed a knee-knocking two-putt from 92 feet on the 72nd hole, but Gore's most impressive moment of the week actually came a few days earlier at the pro-am party, where he brought down the house by singing Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me. The Elton John ballad has been in Gore's repertoire since college, when he spent more time crooning at karaoke bars than studying at the library.
Gore's newfound success has come with complications. Says his agent, Ralph Cross, "The interest in Jason has been off the planet--from fans, media, tournaments, corporate sponsors, you name it. He has been a little overwhelmed by all the attention and he's having to learn, on the fly, how to navigate a new world."
The Mercedes was a reminder that there will be plenty of bumps along the way, but this week Gore gets a fresh start at the Sony Open in Honolulu, and then it's home to Valencia. He won't be flying on a private plane, as many of his colleagues do, but for a change Gore won't be crammed into coach, either. "I've finally moved up a class," he says.
More PGA Tour coverage, including Alan Shipnuck's Inside Golf, at SI.com/golf.