Nationwide, Jason Gore is a major sensation
July 15, 2005
HUDSON, Wis. -- Were it not for his wife's insistence or a simple self-evident fact, Jason Gore would be as anonymous today as he was a month ago, before he became the most lovable guy in golf and, in turn, the Nationwide Tour's surprise drawing card.
Six weeks before he played his way from a sleep-deprived local U.S. Open qualifier into Sunday afternoon's final pairing at Pinehurst, Gore, 31, decided he'd give up the game after eight unfulfilling professional seasons.
"But my wife wouldn't let me quit," he said. "She didn't want me around that much."
Megan -- his wife, high school sweetheart and "the greatest person I ever met" -- kept the faith. Gore, the self-described Californian "cheeseball" who "brings a little NASCAR to the tour," said a former college roommate, persevered because he didn't know what else he would do.
"I'm unemployable," Gore said.
Instead, four days at Pinehurst changed his life. He arrived at his second U.S. Open -- and his first since 1998 -- feeling better about his game after working with a sports psychologist on his head and with a former high school teammate on his swing. But he had other matters on his mind. A thief had broken into his SUV in Asheville, N.C., and stole Megan's clothes, his computer and soiled underwear -- almost everything except his golf clubs and golf shoes. His caddie had those because, traveling with his 8-month-old son, Gore had no room in his vehicle.
"What was I thinking when I got to the Open?" Gore asked, repeating a question. "I was thinking: 'I really miss the air conditioning in my car. Where's my stereo? What's my wife going to wear?' "
By Friday night, he shared the second-round lead with two-time U.S. Open champion Retief Goosen and PGA Tour veteran Olin Browne after shooting a 67. By Saturday night, the big hitter with an underappreciated soft touch had played himself over Pinehurst's mystifying slopes and table-top greens into Sunday's final grouping with Goosen.
By early Sunday afternoon, every golf fan in America knew about him after NBC and Bob Costas told his story: A two-time Pac-10 individual champion who transferred to Pepperdine about the time pee-wee golf buddy Tiger Woods arrived at Stanford, Gore won the 1997 NCAA team title and made the Walker Cup team the same summer. The next summer, he awoke on the morning he would fly to his first pro tournament and discovered his father, Sheldon, dead from a heart attack.
That day -- Gore told a national television audience -- gave him a ready-made excuse to underachieve on the golf course for years.
"And I took it," Gore said after a practice round at Troy Burne Golf Club, where he will play this afternoon in the Scholarship America Showdown's opening round.
Gore's final-round 84 dropped him to a 49th-place finish that Sunday. It also turned a potentially monumental payday into a $20,000 check, a modest finish that convinced him to return to the Nationwide Tour in an attempt to win back his PGA Tour card.
For days after the U.S. Open, his agent answered telephone calls seeking interviews and speaking requests and offering PGA Tour exemptions nonstop. Gore appeared on ESPN's morning "Cold Pizza" program, had his picture flashed across the cover of Golfweek magazine and has been shadowed by Sports Illustrated.
He and agent Ralph Cross turned down PGA Tour exemptions and chose instead to return to the Nationwide. The odds are infinitely better that he can finish among the developmental tour's Top 20 money winners, thus earning a PGA Tour card next season, than make the PGA Tour's top 125 money winners.
A 10th-place finish two weeks ago in upstate New York and Sunday's comeback, $108,000 victory at the Pete Dye Classic in West Virginia have moved him from 57th to seventh on the Nationwide money list. His rediscovered swing and newfound fame also has attracted measurable galleries for a quiet tour that sells the big names its players might someday become.
"Whether I'm that guy or not, I hope people come out and see how good this tour is," said Gore, when asked if he's the gate attraction for which the Nationwide has been waiting.
Fans at Pinehurst roared when he kept himself in contention with a series of back-nine par saves on Saturday.
West Virginia fans followed him by the hundreds last week on the Nationwide Tour. His agent calls him an "an Everyman's guy."
"He's a genuine individual, humble and loyal, and he truly enjoys the stage," said former Pepperdine roommate and teammate Paul Meyer, a Burnsville financial adviser who played high school golf with Cameron Beckman. "And people don't know this, but he's great at karaoke."
Meyer, once a broke college kid, routinely accompanied Gore to a Mexican restaurant on karaoke nights near Malibu, Calif., knowing his buddy would kill with a Garth Brooks song that brought down the house.
"You get someone up there singing, and everybody wants to put on their earmuffs," Meyer said. "Then he'd get up there and get a standing ovation. I knew if I went with him every Thursday night, I'd never have to pay my bar tab."
Jerry Zgoda is at firstname.lastname@example.org.