James Hahn: The long and winding path to glory

Here’s how I ended Sunday’s post on the final round of the Northern Trust Open:

We will not lack for other competent pursuers on Sunday. There are seven big names lurking just 4 shots back at 4-under: Dustin Johnson, Jim Furyk, Vijay Singh, Jordan Spieth, Angel Cabrera, Bubba Watson and Ryan Moore. And the eighth guy at 4-under, 3rd-year player out of Berkeley, James Hahn, didn’t get there by accident.

James Hahn got special mention because while most people might not have known his name, I’ve been writing about him since he came out on Tour in 2013. His name was in a post I wrote about Russell Henley’s improbable start to his career in 2013. He won the Sony Open going away and then came right back with a first round 64 at the Humana Challenge in Palm Springs. That put him one back of the three leaders, one of whom was Hahn who finished T4 when all was said and done. 

I also wrote about Hahn working on understanding his swing by exploring the Seve Ballesteros’ YouTube swing library. Hahn also popped up when he ended up on YouTube himself when he broke into the Gangnam Style dance after making a birdie on the 16th green at Phoenix.

And now James Hahn gets his name in lights for winning the 2015 Northern Trust Open at Riviera Country Club in a 3-way playoff with Dustin Johnson and Paul Casey. It was his first win. It was heart warming because he did it with a birdie on the third playoff hole against the prodigious Johnson. They all parred the 18th, Johnson and Hahn birdied the 10th and Hahn literally could not watch as Johnson tried to top Hahn’s birdie on the par-3 14th.

Not to mention that Sunday’s weather had turned cool and humid with the coming rain, the rain put everybody in rain suits and under umbrellas for a couple of hours and the leaders pretty much all left their approach shots into 18 a full club short; the ball just wasn’t going anywhere.

And while he definitely didn’t get there by accident, he didn’t get there easily. He remembers the day when he was barnstorming the mini-tours and had no money. It keeps him in a good mood and grateful to be on the Tour:

Just kind of look at myself in the mirror some days and tell myself that I’m not even supposed to be here.  Come from a small town.  Didn’t do well in college.  Was never an All‑American.  Sold shoes for a living for a while.

Yeah, and then just one day, the putts started going in and started playing a little better.  Won a couple golf tournaments, and now I’m here.  So for me, I can still remember the day when I was grinding on the mini‑tours and I didn’t have any money.  Didn’t want to ask any family for money or any sponsors to see if they could help me out.  It was just one of those things that I figured, I would just do it myself and be accountable for myself.

Yeah, and just take advantage of certain opportunities, kind of like what I did today.  So played a year in Korea, two years in Canada, three on the Web and this is my third season on the PGA Tour.  So I think I’m trending in the right direction.

Listen to him for a while and you realize that he’s both smart and funny. And in the same way that he was open to Seve’s videos, he has also been open to non-traditional and spiritual methods of improving…which came in handy this week in getting his putting up to snuff, the key to his victory:

I did a little research, statistical stats, last night.  And me and Dustin were the only two players inside the top, I think it was the Top‑12, that had a negative strokes gained putting.  And I was at negative point nine and I think he was at negative point three, so I was worse than he was.

Talked to my wife about it.  She’s like, well, that just means you’re striping it.  I was like, okay, that’s pretty cool.

So I was trying to draw on all the good memories that I’ve had of when I was making putts and when I was putting well.  Saturday, I didn’t putt that well, but — there’s a really good friend of mine, one of my best friends.  His name is Joe Brazel  (ph).  We used to watch this DVD back in college, I think it’s “The Secret,” any of you guys heard of it?  It’s about the Law of Attraction.

I remember one day, this is back when I was grinding on mini‑tours, that I would write down on a sticky note, “I will putt great today.”  And I would just put that everywhere it would possibly go for the entire day, right next to my toothbrush, on the mirror in the bathroom, put it on the toilet seat, put it everywhere, put it on the door before I left.  I kind of did a little bit of that yesterday.

I just told myself, “I will putt great tomorrow.  I will putt great tomorrow.”  And I just kept saying it.  I was watching the Matrix yesterday and in between commercials I just kind of closed my eyes and I was like, I’m going to putt great tomorrow, I will putt great tomorrow.

And you just kind of convince yourself that you will putt great.  I’m not sure if you guys — I’m not sure if they even showed me on TV early on, but made a greasy 12‑footer on 1 for birdie.  Made another 8‑footer on 2 for par.  Made a greasy, like 6‑footer, double‑breaker on 3.  Made one from off the green on 4.  So that doesn’t really count as a putt. And then that’s kind of how my round started.  I was like, wow, this stuff really works (laughter).

If this was the greatest achievement of his career, he also had some moments that left him wondering if he was ever going to be able to play the game for a living:

Yeah, I had played my first year on the Korean Tour, played two years on the Canadian Tour, and it was my first year on the Canadian Tour that I was struggling.

And I thought, these guys were really good.  My game definitely needed improvement at that point.  I had just under $200 going into Edmonton that week, and I’m sitting there in my room on my — I’ve got to borrow money to pay for my caddie fee.  Like it was a little embarrassing.  I was going to borrow money from my parents to get a flight home.  And I’m sitting there on the computer going on Craigslist and I start looking for jobs.

It kind of just hit me, like, hey, you have an opportunity to do something with your life.  And I was wasting it just hanging out with friends, partying on the weekends.  I wasn’t putting the time in.

And kind of committed to myself that if given the opportunity, given the opportunity again that I wouldn’t waste it.  That week, I had one of the best weeks of my life and finished eighth, and that kind of rolled over into, you know, a couple more weeks, and finished out the season keeping my card.  I thought, that was, to me, a very successful season.

That amounted to eighth place and $3,000:

That week?  Eighth place, I think it was like $3,000.  But to me — it was Canadian, too.  But to me at that point, like $3,000, you might as well have just given me $1 million.  I could play golf; I could keep playing golf.

And then I remember exactly a year later, I was at that same golf tournament, and I had like $2,000 at this point and I thought I was a millionaire still.  I was like, dinner’s on me, guys.  Got $1,000 in my bank account.  Don’t worry about it.  And had good memories going into that golf tournament and kind of, you know, seeing exactly a year ago where I was and how much work I put into it and to be able to still play golf at that point.  That was a big, big goal of mine to just keep playing golf at that point.

And I actually won that week in Edmonton.  To me, I have kind of good vibes there, and that started off my career, really, because then I qualified for Q‑School, went through all three stages, got my Web.com Tour card, and then from there, it was just a matter of time.

And there was another edge he had on Sunday that doesn’t seem plausible until you listen to him tell the story:

I told my caddie before I teed off, I was like, I love the rain, absolutely love it.  I feel like it’s — not to be spiritual about it, but I feel like it’s God’s way of just kind of washing the streets and making everything fresh again.

Because that’s what happens in the Bay Area when we get a lot of rain, the streets are clean, spotless.  I absolutely love it.  I remember days when I was living at home I would go to Metropolitan Golf Links and it would be raining every single day and I would be the only guy on the range.  I would go home and look at myself in the mirror and say, you know what, you worked hard today, you deserve to go to sleep, you deserve all the good things that happen to you, because I think I put a lot of time into this.

When it was raining today, kind of brought me back to being very spiritual and just saying, I love this.  It’s golf.  It’s not a fair weather sport.  We don’t play indoors.  It was coming down sideways for a little bit.  I was like, “God, that’s a little too much.”

But it stopped, and yeah, it turned out to be a beautiful day.

Not to mention $1.2 million worth of beautiful that will come in very handy in about three weeks time. Hahn is embarking on a four-week disappearing act to be with his wife when they have their first child in three weeks, a baby girl. Continuing to develop his sense of perspective, he’s more excited about that than the $1.2 million.

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