Alameda native James Hahn wins big on the PGA Tour
Alameda native James Hahn wins big on the PGA Tour
James Hahn had the most remarkable look on his face late Sunday, standing on the 14th green at the Riviera Country Club in Los Angeles. This was the third hole of a sudden death playoff for the Northern Trust Open.
Moments earlier he was staring at the ground, looking quite a bit stunned, very much like he wondered what he had just done. He was waiting for the reprisal, and it came – a groan from the crowd.
He looked up with an expression on his face very much like that of a kid who just got caught with his hands in the cookie jar. But this was no ordinary cookie. Hahn’s life had just changed, dramatically.
Hahn had just become a winner on the PGA Tour, and he no longer had to worry about that week-to-week tension of earning enough money to hang on to his exempt status for the year. The Alameda golfer had the look of a stranger in a strange land as the crowd surrounded him, TV cameras in his face, everyone slapping his back, shaking his hand.
Moments earlier, Hahn sank a difficult, snaking, downhill 25-foot putt for a birdie 2. Dustin Johnson had a much shorter putt than Hahn, and Hahn expected him to make it – but he missed. And Hahn was a champion.
“I couldn’t look,” Hahn said. “In a way, I wanted Dustin to sink his putt. I was paired with him throughout the day, and he helped me all the way. If I wasn’t paired with him, I would not have won.”
Johnson shook his hand, and Hahn looked petulant. Then reality hit – he had just won $1.2 million, and full exempt status for the remainder of this year, and the next two years, allowing him to remain on the tour - and to qualify for its big-money purses.
“How does it feel to get into the Masters?” asked Peter Kostis of CBS. In addition to the money, the victory also earned him an invitation to Augusta National, which is being held the second week of April. Hahn did not know how to answer.
“All I was thinking about all week was the birth of our first child in three weeks,” Hahn answered. “We don’t have a name yet. Maybe we’ll name her Riviera.”
In so many ways, this was the most improbable victory, on the most unlikely stage. Just a few years earlier Hahn had run out of money playing the mini-tours, and he came home to Alameda looking for work. He tried selling real estate, wearing a suit. That didn’t work. So he took a job stocking the shelves at Safeway for a while. He sold shoes at Nordstrom’s in Walnut Creek and Pleasanton.
“I was pretty good at selling shoes,” Hahn said. “That was a job I enjoyed.”
He earned enough to get back into golf on the Canadian Tour, then the Nationwide Tour, where he eventually earned a spot on the PGA Tour. The past two years were nail biters, with Hahn barely earning enough to keep his exempt status.
But Hahn survived, with a sense of humility that became him.
“Nobody knows who I am out here,” Hahn told the press. “And that’s just fine. I rather enjoy the anonymity.”
Hahn expanded on the theme on the phone Monday.
“Guys like me don’t make it out here on Tour,” Hahn said. “I don’t come from a wealthy family or a pedigree in golf like a lot of guys out here. I come from small-town Alameda, playing the local muni for one dollar green fees as a junior. So I’m playing for a bigger purpose – for all the guys like me who don’t make it. Anonymity is just fine. I didn’t come out here with a big name and that pedigree.”
Hahn was in the mix all week at Riviera, much to his own surprise. But he made par on his final hole in regulation play, when he was convinced he needed a birdie to stay alive. He did not expect his score to hold up while the other players came in. So he went up to the crowd by the practice putting green and started signing autographs when he was done, instead of going to the range to keep loose.
As Hahn tells it, he found out about the playoff in a weird, but common way.
“I heard a commotion, so I asked the guy who had just handed me his hat for an autograph, is there a playoff or something?” Hahn said. “The guy said, Yeah – Dustin Johnson, Paul Casey and some other guy. So I said thanks, handed him his hat, and went on down to the playoff.”
That guy must have wondered when he saw Hahn’s name on his hat.
The first hole of the playoff was the 18th hole. Hahn hooked his drive into the left rough, a long ways from the green, and figured it was all over for him that day.
“I just wanted to make par,” he said. “I did not want to be thinking bogey on the flight home.”
His second shot took a lucky, hard bounce and reached the front of the green. He two-putted for his par. Then he became a fan, and rooted for Dustin Johnson.
“On the first tee Dustin talked to me about becoming a father,” Hahn said. “I’d never met him before – he’s a star out here, not like me. He gave me advice about diapers and things like that. Made me very comfortable all day. I would not have won this tournament if I wasn’t paired with Dustin. He supported me all day.”
Johnson had hit his second shot close, and he looked to be the winner. But he missed the putt.
All three golfers went to the 10th hole, a reachable par 4 with a very slender green surrounded by huge bunkers, a hole which had become quite controversial through the week.
Earlier in the week Hahn was practicing on that hole when a UCLA student in the gallery told him he had done a statistical analysis of that hole. He told Hahn that those who laid up short of the green had higher scores than those who went for the green with driver.
“I don’t know why I listened to him,” Hahn said. “But I decided to go for it with driver all week after he told me that. It’s just like Alameda, North Course, the third hole, going over the trees to the green. Or the fifth hole, where I always went over the water to the green. I don’t lay up on holes like that.”
So Hahn took driver out, and the crowd gasped. But he had done that all week, with good success. He ended up with a fairly decent lie in the rough, behind that fickle green to the left. Casey laid up short and left, in good shape. Johnson had a horrible lie in thick rough over the green, behind a massive bunker.
All three ended up with makeable birdie putts. Johnson hit a remarkable flop shot and was closest to the pin. Casey missed his putt. Both Hahn and Johnson sank their putts.
The two golfers advanced to the 14th, where Hahn won the tournament.
Ironically, Hahn’s wife, Stephanie, was not with him this week. She stayed at home in Arizona, and did not watch the tournament on television. Hahn called her to tell her he was going to buy her a new car. She had an old Volkswagen with 130,000 miles on it. She said she didn’t need a new car because she likes her car.
Then he told her he won.
Hahn became the first Cal alum to win on the PGA Tour. But he is not the first Alameda golfer to win on the tour. That honor belongs to Matt Bettencourt, who won the Reno/Tahoe Open in 2010.
It won’t be long before James Hahn returns home to Alameda, to play the new Mif Albright 9-hole course, a course he helped save from the wrecking ball by making the case to keep the course on national television, a few years ago.
His old friend Dong Yi might join him, just like the good old days, with one change: James Hahn will no longer be anonymous in Alameda.
Ron Salsig can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.