Commentary

Ace kick started Jason Bohn's career

Originally Published: April 26, 2011
By Jeff Bradley | Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine

"Get up, man," Jason Bohn's college roommate said, kicking him in the leg a couple of times. Asleep on the floor, Bohn groaned, rolled over and told his roommate to go away.

"No," his friend said. "Get up. We've got to go to the golf course. Now."

[+] EnlargeJason Bohn
AP Photo/Patrick SemanskyJason Bohn lifted a trophy after winning a PGA Tour event for the second time at the 2010 Zurich Classic.

This was nearly 20 years ago. Bohn had left Lewisburg, Pa., for the University of Alabama with the dream of becoming a professional golfer. It's a dream that eventually came true for Bohn, a seven-year veteran on tour who this week will defend his title at the Zurich Classic of New Orleans at the TPC Louisiana.

But on the morning of Nov. 1, 1992, the last thing Bohn felt like doing was hitting golf balls.

"The night before was Halloween," Bohn recalled. "I was 19 and we'd been to a bunch of costume parties. Alcohol was involved. All I wanted to do was sleep."

But he and his friends had signed up and paid for a fundraiser at the course. "It was an event to raise money to restore Jemison Mansion," Bohn said. "A home that burned in the Civil War."

A week earlier, Bohn had borrowed $10 for 10 chances to hit a golf ball into a 10-foot circle from 135 yards. For every ball he could hit into the circle, he'd get a shot the following weekend to participate in the semifinals of the contest.

"I hit one ball in the circle, so I had one shot in the semis," he said. "I hadn't thought about it again until that morning."

So Bohn got up, threw a sweater vest over a T-shirt and trudged out to hit one shot.

"There were 150 shots to be hit, and the 12 closest to the pin would take part in the finals," he remembered. "I went third, hit my ball to 3 feet, 8 inches, went to the range and took a nap. Our coach, Dick Spybey, did not like the way I looked. He knew what was up and was not happy with the way I was representing the program."

A red-shirt freshman who walked on to the Bama team in 1991 and had yet to participate in an NCAA match, Bohn woke up from his nap to learn he was one of the 12 closest to the pin in the semifinals. So it was on to the finals, a $1 million hole-in-one contest that would take place on the second hole, a 135-yard par-3.

On the way to the hole, it was explained that there were prizes for all 12 finalists. "We were psyched. There were big-screen TVs, things like that," Bohn remembered. "Then Coach Spybey tells us if we accepted any prize with a value of more than $500, we'd forfeit our NCAA eligibility."

Spybey then joked that it was all or nothing for his players, so Bohn looked over and said with the slightest of smirks, "Looks like I'm going pro, Coach, thanks for everything."

What were the chances? More than a million-to-one, probably. Bohn took a deep breath, then another, drew back his 9-iron and hit an unintentional "heel cut." He watched the ball land on the green, check, roll and then hit the flagstick.

Then it disappeared.

Next thing he remembers he was romping halfway to the hole and belly-flopping in the grass, where he was mobbed by his roommate. It was a moment played on sports newscasts across the country -- as close as you could come to a viral video back before there was YouTube.

"Every year on Nov. 1," said Bohn, who has earned $8.8 million on the PGA Tour since 2004, "I break out the tape and watch it. Because there's no way I'd be where I am today without that shot and that money. Not a chance."

Bohn had made his way to Tuscaloosa without so much as a partial scholarship offer from a school south of the Mason-Dixon Line. He earned a little bit of financial aid after red-shirting as a true freshman, but was still going to have to fight his way into the Tide's starting lineup. And now, suddenly he was staring at something only the most successful and well-known amateur golfers ever get to see, a bankroll to try to launch a career.

When a college athlete makes the decision to leave school early and turn pro, typically, the verdict comes after sleepless nights, hours of crunching numbers, weighing pros and cons and many heart-to-heart conversations with parents, coaches, friends and advisors. Bohn made his life-changing decision in a nanosecond, even though there was no good reason to think he'd ever sniff the PGA Tour. And it was a no-brainer.

[+] EnlargeBohn
Ropbyn Beck/AFP/Getty ImagesIn eight tournaments so far in 2011, Jason Bohn has made six cuts, but only finished inside the top 25 once -- at the opposite field event in Mexico.

For every Tiger Woods and Michelle Wie, who got millions of Nike dollars the minute they announced their professional status, there are hundreds of golfers who begin their pro careers each year by writing checks rather than cashing them and begging for sponsors rather than picking and choosing them alongside their management team.

"Is it all about the money?" Bohn asked with a laugh. "Only 100 percent. It's sad, but it's the truth. The hole-in-one gave me the opportunity to pursue a dream. A $50,000 check every year for 20 years gave me an annual budget, and the opportunity to be my own sponsor. I didn't need to go asking anyone for help and, mentally, that was huge. Without the money, I doubt I'd have even made an attempt. Was I lucky? You bet I was."

Everyone knows the saying, "You drive for show and putt for dough" and remembers what happened to Judge Smails when Al Czervik said, "I'll bet you $100 you slice it in the woods." Money changes everything on the golf course and the sport makes no apologies. At the highest level, what is the only stat that really matters? The money list.

But to get started as a pro, which usually means going out on what are known as the mini tours, is when it gets really expensive. For example, "Anyone can become a member of our main Pro Series tour by paying the $2,000 membership fee," explained Ryan Waters, a regional director for the Hooters Tour. "Then weekly entry fees for members for the events are $1,150. For non-members, we hold Monday morning qualifiers for the 10 open spots. The weekly event entry fee for a non-member is $1,350."

That doesn't even get into things such as travel expenses, caddie fees (if you want to splurge for a caddie, that is) and tour qualifying school (which can cost a player more than $10,000 in entry fees) every fall. "You have to play so well just to break even on the mini tours," Bohn said. "But I didn't feel the same pressure as many of the other guys. The money wasn't in my head so much. I've seen firsthand what that can do to a guy."

As much as the $1 million ace was a lightning bolt, Bohn said, "The most important thing was that it enabled me to grind."

Bohn hung around Tuscaloosa until he'd graduated in 1995 with a degree in finance.

"That decision to stay in school," said fellow PGA Tour player Ryan Palmer, "shows you exactly why Jason has made it. Most guys would've just started spending the money. He was patient, and came up with a financial game plan. It was a genius decision."

He worked at a country club in Tuscaloosa where he fine-tuned his game for the mini tours and, by 2000, Bohn had won a couple times on the Canadian Tour. He made the jump to the Nationwide Tour, the PGA's equivalent to Triple-A baseball, in 2003. But that's when he thought, financially, he'd reached the end of the road.

Bohn had zero regrets, but with only limited status on the Nationwide Tour, Bohn was growing weary of struggling to break even. "At that point, I'd turned 30. I was driving to as many events as I could to save money," he recalled. "Sharing rooms with another player in a two-and-a-half-star hotel. On the Nationwide, that's when you get a little bit of money from your equipment company, but it's not a big number. Before that, the only thing you get is shoes and balls. So, I was ready to hang it up, when my wife bought me a plane ticket to Pennsylvania, where I grew up, [to] try to Monday qualify for an event in Scranton."

Bohn qualified and finished in the top 25 in Scranton, which got him into the next week's event. He did the same thing the following week. And the following week.

"And the next thing you know," Bohn said, "I was losing in a playoff. Then I won in Chattanooga. And I ended up finishing ninth on the Nationwide money list, which got me on the [PGA] Tour."

In 2005, Bohn won the B.C. Open, which got him two more years on the tour. He held on to his status with the help of some medical exemptions (he has back issues that still hinder him on occasion) in 2008 and 2009. Then last season, he got win No. 2 in New Orleans, which got him into the Masters and set him up for the next two years.

"The best thing about winning," Bohn said, "is that you get a year to fire at flagsticks without worries about staying inside the top 125. So that's what you'll see me doing this year, playing free and easy. It's in those make-or-break years, when every shot, every putt is going to determine if you keep your spot on tour, that's when you see guys getting worn down, thinking of every dollar out there."

The last of the $50,000 checks will come in October of 2012 and Bohn will donate it to a charity near his home in suburban Atlanta. He's also planning his own $1 million hole-in-one contest.

"It's the least I can do," Bohn said, "after all that money's done for me."

Jeff Bradley is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.