Parents gone wild

Sports views

Posted: Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Four tournaments into his PGA Tour career, and Sean O'Hair is done talking. Not about golf, because he'll gladly tell you about the 30-footer that went in on No. 7, or the drive he drilled down the left side of the fairway on the ninth.

It's the other stuff, the ''bad stuff,'' that O'Hair doesn't want to discuss.

The ''bad stuff'' is one reason he had a sports psychologist walking with him at Pebble Beach last week. The ''bad stuff'' is why O'Hair hasn't talked to his father in two years.

O'Hair is a 22-year-old rookie on the PGA Tour with a story that will startle some, and be all too familiar to others. It's a story that millions can relate to, the story of a domineering father who had plans for his son and who went to extremes to make it come true.

When O'Hair told it before, he talked of long days on the road with his father, quitting high school to become a pro golfer at the age of 17 and then struggling to get into minor league tournaments. The two put 91,000 miles on a Ford Taurus trying to make O'Hair good enough to make the PGA tour.

Sean O'Hair talked about his father running his life with a military precision, getting him up at 5 a.m. to run and making him practice hours upon hours. When he failed — and he failed often — he would sometimes have to run a mile for every stroke he was over par during a round.

Father and son were interviewed in 2002 by ''60 Minutes II'' and Marc O'Hair estimated he'd spent $2 million trying to make his son into a professional golfer, selling his part of a business and moving the family from Arizona to Florida when Sean was 15 so he could attend the David Leadbetter Golf Academy.

This wasn't just fatherly love. O'Hair had a business interest in his son, and a signed contract giving him 10 percent of his son's earnings for life.

''I was in a business for 20-plus years, and I know what it takes to make a profit. You've got the same old thing. It's material, labor and overhead,'' the father said, adding:

''He's pretty good labor.''

O'Hair wasn't good enough, but he grew tough trying. He came out of nowhere to earn a tour card at qualifying school in December and now is the second youngest member of the PGA Tour.

The card came at a cost. Since marrying his wife two years ago, he's been estranged from his father. He's about to become a new father himself, and his wife's father now caddies for him.

And, while originally eager to tell his side of a nasty family breakup, O'Hair now politely declines to answer.

''What's been said has been said,'' O'Hair said after his opening around in the Pebble Beach National Pro-Am. ''I just want to concentrate on golf now.''

O'Hair concentrated well enough last week to use a third-round 65 to earn $40,015. He needed the boost in confidence, after shooting an 83 in the first round in Phoenix a week earlier.

His father, who could not be reached for comment, boasted to Golf World magazine this year that his vision of making Sean into a PGA Tour player worked even better than he thought.

It also left O'Hair with a burden he will long struggle to shed.

''The most unfortunate potential effect is the young person is going to grow up feeling valued or loved not for who they are, but for what they accomplish,'' said Dr. Dan Neuharth, who wrote the book, ''If You Had Controlling Parents.''

''For the rest of your life you think you have to be a certain way for people, not just be yourself. It's hard to trust people after something like that.''

With every bit of success, O'Hair will be asked about his relationship with his father. He won't be able to escape his past, just as Vijay Singh is still linked to an alleged cheating incident 20 years later.

That's why it was troubling when his attorney-agent, Michael Troiani, threatened last week not to allow O'Hair to speak to a reporter ''when he becomes a star'' because he had asked about the ''bad stuff.''

Hopefully, Troiani was trying to be protective, because O'Hair hardly needs another controlling authority figure in his life. And, hopefully he has a better understanding of law than he does about the way the media functions and the world works.

You see, people want to know about O'Hair's triumph over adversity. They want to cheer when he has success and feel his pain when he fails.

Neuharth estimates 15 million American adults suffer from issues related to growing up with controlling parents. Many struggle to understand why they have problems.

''If you grow up with a very dominating parent you don't really know that is abnormal. You think everyone grew up like that,'' he said. ''When people find out that it's essentially not their fault, it can be really helpful.''

One way they find out is by hearing stories like O'Hair's, and knowing they're not alone.

O'Hair doesn't need to become the poster boy for parental control issues. But he'd be wise not to run from the questions that will come at every tour stop.

It may not be fair, but it's just one more burden he'll have to bear.

Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at

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