THERE WAS a time when Sean O'Hair was considered one of the best young talents on the PGA Tour. For all of the obvious reasons. Now, that seems like such a long time ago. It happens. Ask Anthony Kim. And it's hardly like he's the only other one.
Once, O'Hair was threatening to crack the top 10 of the world rankings. These days, he's just below 200. He's gone through, as you might expect, a bunch of changes trying to make things right. His former caddie, Paul Tesori, was on the bag for Webb Simpson when he won last year's U.S. Open. That can happen, too. O'Hair used to work with swing coach Sean Foley, who of course became Tiger Woods' new guy. (Speaking of whom, the Golf Channel reported that Woods played his first-ever round at Merion yesterday.) So recently O'Hair has sought advice from Andy Plummer, who teaches the stack-and-tilt method.
All you can do is keep at it, hoping that something better is not too far off. Sometimes, all it takes is that one click to get it going again.
"The hardest thing is just getting over the fact that I was where I was, and here I am now," O'Hair said in a recent phone interview from the road. "I'm having kind of confidence issues. But you can't just keep beating yourself up. After a while that doesn't do much good.
"I think there's been some things that I've kind of mismanaged in my career, and I've paid the price."
The U.S. Open will return to Merion the week of June 10 for the first time since 1981. That was the year before O'Hair was born. The Texas native, who lives in West Chester with his wife Jackie and their four children, is the Tour's only Philadelphia-area player. Yet there's every chance that O'Hair might not be in the field, for the third straight year. He needs to make it through Monday's 36-hole sectional qualifier in Columbus, Ohio. It won't be easy, for someone who has missed the cut in seven of his 15 starts this season (with two withdrawals). He didn't even make it into this week's Memorial, also near Columbus, an event he played in from 2005-11. That was then.
"If I deserved to be in the U.S. Open field, I'd be in right now," O'Hair said. "You have to earn your way. Just because it's at Merion doesn't make it any less disappointing. I'd be just as disappointed if it were being held at Congressional or Pinehurst, or wherever. You want to play in every major. That's why you're out here."
O'Hair's first major was the 2005 British Open, where he finished tied for 15th, 1 week after getting the first of his four PGA wins (the last came in 2011). He missed only three of the next 26 majors. Since then he's missed three of the last four. He withdrew from the PGA last August with a wrist injury after playing 15 holes.
This year he's been in the top 25 twice, but not since early March.
O'Hair has played Merion "maybe" 10 times. So if he does get in he wouldn't have quite the advantage he had the 2 years the AT&T National was held at Aronimink, his home club. Still, he'd at least get to sleep in his own bed each night, which is something nobody else could say. He'd also be dealing with more ticket requests. Not that he'd be complaining.
"That would be a good problem to have," O'Hair acknowledged. "As long as they'd leave me alone while I was working. The worst thing about it is I'd probably have like a 40-minute drive every day. But I'll take it."
If he continues to struggle, O'Hair will end up back on the Web.com Tour, with no guarantees. Whatever the future holds, he sounds prepared to face it. He's not 20-something anymore.
"Every player's going to have hurdles," he reasoned. "Even Tiger. If you look at it, very few players, or really any player, has gone on a constant upward path. You just can't do it. This is my ninth year out here. Shoot, you look at so many guys who've won a lot in their late 30s and early 40s. So at the end of the day, when people ask me what's going on, I simply tell them I've got my best years in front of me. I'm just in a little bit of a lull. And it's not something that I take lightly. Or something that I'm giving up on. Nothing like that, at all. I've been pretty patient with it. I don't foresee that being an issue.
"I can't be miserable, when I don't get my own way. I'm doing what I enjoy doing. It's been good to me, and it's going to be good to me again. I don't even think about that. I'm going to do whatever I have to do, to get back to where I want to be. I talk to a lot of guys who've had to do that. And they've come back even stronger. I think I've always appreciated how good I had it. But now I get that even more. You definitely find out who your friends are."
And so it goes. For every guy who indeed makes it back, there are many more who are rarely heard from again. It's the nature of the food chain. And all you can hope is that you're one of the fortunate ones.
It's a journey. And it's about survival. O'Hair seems to have a pretty solid grasp on the concept. He knows this profession he chose at a very tender age was never meant to be fair. He's learned his lessons, as anyone who followed the relationship with his estranged father understands. But he made it. Now he just has to make it back.
Maybe Merion can become one of those starting points.
"I'm not going to sit here and say it's been a fun couple of years, because it hasn't," O'Hair conceded. "But a lot of people have been very supportive. You can't live or die by a tournament, or a season, a week or a month. It's such a long career. You can't be like, 'Oh my God, I have to be doing this or that.' That puts too much pressure on you. It's a process.
"When I first came out, I owned my game. I knew what worked for me. I was comfortable. Then you just start relying on too many people, instead of looking to yourself for answers. I'm glad I'm finding this out at the age of 30, instead of 35 or 40. I've been playing this game my whole life, basically. I know where I don't want to be. But I can't get back to where I was just like that. It can't happen overnight."