Sports: Daddy Dearest

Whatever you think of Marc O’Hair by the end of this story, remember this: A very strong chance exists that without him, his 23-year-old son Sean would not be one of the young stars on the PGA Tour today. Even Sean concedes this. No one better perceived just how talented his boy was or professed to love him more than Marc O’Hair, which is why he plowed his savings into securing young Sean top instruction. So what did he do that was so wrong?

Children and parents are seldom in accord when it comes to staging athletic careers. For every success story such as Tiger Woods, there are countless calamities, such as Todd Marinovich, who was engineered by his father to become an NFL quarterback until finally he quit the game in frustration. And then there is Sean O’Hair and his driven dad, who six years ago yanked his son out of the Leadbetter Golf Academy in Florida and turned him pro at the age of 17 — just prior to what would have been his senior year in high school. For the four years that followed, the two of them crisscrossed America, Sean playing Monday qualifiers on the Nationwide Tour — golf’s minor leagues —
during which he cashed only about $5,000 in checks and piled up some staggering expenses. Inevitably, tensions flared between father and son, leading the elder O’Hair to deliver some embarrassing tongue-lashings and even strike his son in the face so hard, Sean has said, that his nose was bloodied — “20 times, at least.”

The two have spoken just once since Sean was married three years ago and moved with his bride, Jackie, to the Philadelphia suburbs. With Marc no longer involved in his career — or life — good things began happening for Sean. He qualified to play on the PGA Tour last season and was named its rookie of the year. He won his first professional tournament, and for the season earned $2.4 million in prize money. He and Jackie also had their first child — which has enabled Sean to see his own father through a sharper lens. As he looks down at his daughter, Molly, whenever he comes home to their house in West Chester, he is reminded that a part of him remains connected to his father.

“He taught me how to be a hard worker,” Sean says, as sunlight pours into the dining room at Delaware County’s Concord Country Club, where he is picking at a plate of food. “He taught me, ‘If you want it, go after it.’ And he taught me, ‘As hard as you think you’re working, there’s somebody out there working harder.’”

His voice is quiet.

“I think about him from time to time.”

But there is no thaw in the air today. Outside the clubhouse, the sloping landscape is covered with snow as the lean golfer arranges his plans for the day — none of which, on this winter afternoon, include picking up the telephone and calling Marc O’Hair. In fact, Sean just returned last evening from a week of practicing in Florida, during which he saw his mother and sister but not his father. With a new PGA Tour season just a few weeks away, he has been preoccupied by the ordinary challenges of young adulthood: getting his new house in West Chester set up, and later in the day going out for a Christmas tree.

“Do you know where I can get an artificial tree?” he asks his friend, Scott Cannon.

“Why would you get an artificial tree?” Cannon replies with a chuckle. “Get a real one.”

“Real trees are a fire hazard,” Sean says. “And we just moved into this place. Getting it together has been a chore.”

At six-foot-two, 165 pounds, Sean has the sort of long, lean body designed to produce power off the tee. But in conversation, he has the shy innocence of someone who hasn’t reached full maturity yet — and he knows it. “I am far from being seasoned,” he says, with an easy smile. Free now of the type of parental hazing not seen since Robert Duvall dressed down teenage Michael O’Keefe in The Great Santini, he has come to a point where golf is once again a joy to him.

Golf has engaged Sean for as long as he can remember. He was less than two years old when Marc, a large, intimidating man who worked selling shutters, constructed a club for him to swing — and Sean began breaking tables with it. The family lived near a golf course in Texas, and Sean would spend his summer days there on the driving range and putting green. “It became a way of life for me,” he says. At 12, he moved to Arizona, began receiving instruction from swing coach Steve Dahlby at the Troon North Golf Club in Scottsdale, and soon became an exceptional junior player in local events. “It was clear he had the potential to be a special player,” says Dahlby. When Sean started displaying that talent in national events, he attracted the attention of Gary Gilchrist, director of golf at the $40,000-per-year Leadbetter Academy. Gilchrist invited Sean, then 15, to enroll, at which point Marc O’Hair cashed out of his shutter business and packed up the moving van to Florida.

“The dad had a big heart,” says Gilchrist, now director of the International Junior Golf Academy of the Sea Pines Resort in Hilton Head, South Carolina. “But the problem was, he was with him every day of his life. Every day he was standing next to him; he did not give him a chance to breathe. … Marc is a man of purpose.”

Increasingly, that became a problem at Leadbetter, where students attend school in the morning and later work on their golf skills in groups of eight. When Gilchrist conveyed to the elder O’Hair that some of the other students had come to look on him as a distraction, he told Gilchrist, “We are leaving!” By then, Marc had also become a boorish presence in the eyes of the American Junior Golf Association. When Sean shot a less-than-
stellar 80 in one tournament, his father forced him to run eight miles on a treadmill as punishment. Says Dahlby, who has worked on-and-off with Sean for 11 years, “Sean was under extraordinary pressure.”

Contrary to the advice given to him by Gilchrist — who would have preferred that Sean develop his credentials as an amateur before turning pro — Marc O’Hair shepherded his son out onto the pro circuit, while signing him to a contract that gave Marc 10 percent of Sean’s earnings “for life.” If that raised the question of whether he saw his son as an investment, well, Marc wasn’t about to disagree. With jarring candor, he has said that he sank $2 million into Sean and fully expected a return.

“I look at Sean as my son. I look at him as my business, also,” Marc said in a 60 Minutes II segment called “The Tiger Formula” in 2002. “He likes that. I was in a business for 20-plus years, and I know what it takes to make a profit.” Marc said it ultimately came down to “material, labor and overhead,” and Sean was “pretty good labor.” Viewers cringed.

One did not have to be Dr. Phil to predict how this arrangement would work out. While subjecting his son to 16-hour days that began in the weight room, Marc did not take into account that Sean was still just a teenager, given to the wide swings of uncertainty that accompany that stage of adolescence. “I was getting to that age where I was trying to grow up,” Sean says. “I was trying to go from a young man to a man. … I just wanted to grow up and do my own thing.” That became increasingly hard given his proximity to his father. Marc not only jockeyed his Ford Taurus between tour stops; he caddied for his son, coached him between rounds, and even cooked for him over a hot plate back at the hotel. Says Dahlby, “Think of yourself as a 17-, 18-, 19-, 20-year-old, spending virtually every minute with your father.”

Sean says that the break between them was “a long time in the making.” But it appeared to come to a head when he met and fell in love with a young woman from Delaware County named Jackie Lucas. She had been a golfer herself at Florida Atlantic University, and the two became acquainted one day on a golf course in Coral Springs. “[She] took pity on me like a puppy she found on the side of the road,” Sean jokes. Jackie persuaded him that he had to set certain boundaries with Marc. Uneasy tensions sparked as Sean asserted himself, and ignited into a conflagration when his dad popped off about his son’s interest in Jackie. Marc attended Sean’s wedding in December 2002, but he and Sean did not speak again until last Christmas.

With their wedding money, Sean and Jackie set out in a motor home on the New England-based Cleveland Tour, and then on the Gateway Tour in the Southwest. Jackie served as Sean’s caddie. “The weight I had been carrying around fell from my shoulders,” he says. And his performance began to reflect it. He graduated from the PGA Tour’s rugged qualifying school in December 2004 and began playing on the big-time tour. “I always knew he could do it,” says Jackie, whose father, Steve, now caddies for Sean. “And I will always be there for him, just as I know he will always be there for me.”

Gary Gilchrist says Jackie has provided Sean with unconditional love. “He has someone in his life who has told him, ‘You know what, Sean? I love you even if you go out and shoot a 90.’ His whole outlook has changed.”

Reports of the estrangement between the O’Hairs started leaking out as Sean began his PGA career last season. The Orlando Sentinel published a searing piece that caused Marc to fire back that he had a contract with Sean and planned to send copies to the media. “As soon as he gets famous, I am going to lower the boom,” Marc told the Sentinel. “I have no intention of suing him. … I intend to crucify him in the media because what he did to me is not right.” Marc characterized himself to the reporter, Steve Elling, as “an iron-asshole bastard who made all of his money the hard way, through my own sweat.” Of his demanding approach with Sean, the elder O’Hair added: “The military, they know how to build a champion. … The typical high-school kid is hanging out at the mall.” Sean told Elling, “I basically felt like I was thrown to the wolves.”

Sean shocked even himself by how well he played last year on the PGA Tour. “The whole experience is like a blur to me now,” he says. The highlight was winning the John Deere Classic and earning an invitation to the British Open (where he placed 15th). As Sean continued to blossom as a player, he candidly fielded questions regarding the split with his father. And as they came up again and again, the disenfranchised former shutter salesman fumed. He accused the media last year in a 17-page fax to the Golf Channel of being “leftist and liberal” and staging an “attack on me [that] has been one of the most prejudiced, one-sided stories in the history of sports.” Marc O’Hair said in the same fax that he stood by his decision to steer Sean into professional golf at 17 instead of sending him to college. “The kids now are worse than when I was in college back in the ’70s,” he wrote. “Their disrespectful, hedonistic, Godless attitudes along with their tattooed and pierced bodies scared the hell out of me. … Thank god he stayed away from that life [and] got married as a virgin.” Oh, yes: He also declared that Sean was free and clear of their contract.

Ruefully, Sean has always said, “My dad comes on strong.” But he has developed a better understanding of Marc, and acknowledges that his dad is psychologically troubled. “Clinically, he is bipolar,” says Sean. “Some people look at someone who’s bipolar and think, ‘Well, it is their fault.’ Bipolar is totally a chemical problem, like someone who’s a diabetic.”

He’s hopeful that his dad — who declined to comment for this story, saying he promised his wife he would no longer do interviews — continues to take his medication. But Sean knows that can be problematic, because it not only “takes away the lows — the bad stuff. It also takes away the good stuff, that excitement, the fire inside.” And it was precisely that pattern of grandiose projection that has led the two of them to where they are today.

“I think he had high expectations for me,” says Sean. “He knew I had the talent to do it. I just think he wanted it for me, and he wanted it quickly. You try to take some positives out of that. And a positive is that he believed in me. He sacrificed for me. There are not a lot of parents who would have done what he did.”

Having Molly, Sean says, has changed his view of his dad, leaving him open to a possible reconciliation at some point. “Couple years ago, maybe even last year, I had no interest in doing anything. I was angry. … But you know what? I truly believe Dad is sorry for some of the things he did. And I am sorry for some of the things I said. He did some things to piss me off, and I did some things to piss him off. ’Cause the fact of the matter is, this is not someone I had a run-in with on the street.”

But Sean is looking ahead, and not at what happened a year or even a week ago. He says he proved to himself and others last year that he belongs on the PGA Tour, and that he is no longer assailed by the fears he once had. Grinning, he reels them off: “Fear of failure. Fear of what if I’m successful? Then what happens? Fear of an opponent. Fear of a golf course. Fear of a putt. But I kind of learned, ‘What are you so scared of?’”

Nor is he fearful any longer of the power his dad once held over him. Marc still appears to him occasionally in dreams, and his voice still pops into his head, always reminding him: As good as you think you’ll be, there’s always someone better. But the young man who once wiped blood from his nose is uncertain how to proceed when it comes to a reconciliation. Both Jackie, his wife, and Steve Lucas, his father-in-law and caddie, have encouraged him to work out the relationship, if only to remove the complicated burden that an estrangement from a loved one always entails. But former Leadbetter teacher Gary Gilchrist says Sean can’t be sure Marc won’t again try to be the controlling force he once was. And he adds that there’s a larger lesson in the story of Sean O’Hair for parents who have talented children: “Remember, one day they are going to grow up and think for themselves.”

Sean did. And he is.

“Hopefully,” he says, “this is something we can work out. Because, you know, I would hate to have a situation where he would die and I would be left thinking, ‘What was that all about?’

A sad smile crosses his face as he adds, “Really. Seriously. Life is too short.”

Mark Kram Jr. is a sportswriter for the Philadelphia Daily News. His work has appeared in Best American Sports Writing (Houghton Mifflin) three of the past four years. E-mail: