James Hahn on Pressure, Money and Making It in Pro Golf

Ted JohnsonAnalyst IMarch 9, 2011

Now in his second year on the Nationwide Tour, James Hahn is a good bet to graduate to the PGA Tour.
Now in his second year on the Nationwide Tour, James Hahn is a good bet to graduate to the PGA Tour.Hunter Martin/Getty Images

For most 29-year-olds, knocking down close to 200 large would put them above just about all of their peers. At first glance you could say that about James Hahn, graduate of the University of California who grew up in nearby Alameda, where he wore out the Chuck Corica Golf Course.

But that by-the-boot-straps script only cuts it so far, as James Hahn is not all that satisfied with his career, which happens to be professional golf. Now in his second year on the Nationwide Tour, he is considered one of its stars and is expected to finish in the top 24 in earnings by the end of the 2011 season, which would give him a promotion to the PGA Tour.

In talking with Hahn on Tuesday as part of the media day for the Fresh Express Classic, held in April 11-17 at the TPC San Francisco course in Hayward, Hahn provided some insight into the world of aspiring professional golfer. His winnings in 2010, $196,475, only begin to tell the story.

Consider on the final round of the Nationwide Tour Championship, the tour’s final event, Hahn four-putted the final green to end his day with a 77, 10 strokes worse than his third-round score. That ending capped a six weeks worth of fourth-round mishaps in which he averaged 75.5 on the final day in the four tournaments he made the cut.

He finished 29th on the official money list, about $23,000 off the cut for PGA Tour promotion. Over the 28 weeks he played, that means Hahn needed to make about $1,200 more per tournament, and he would have been banging balls with the big boys.

Or, as golf fans know, $1,200 a week on the Nationwide Tour would be about three or four strokes every tournament. Since tournaments last four days, that’s a stroke a day—one more putt to drop, one less ball sneaking into a water hazard.

And you wonder why he—or just about everyone who chooses this life—has that laser focus when he steps to the first tee of every tournament. Every shot counts.

The cliché about pro golfers is that they have to dance for the dinner every day. In other words, if they don’t play well over the first two days of the tournament, they don’t make the cut to advance to the final two and that means they don’t get paid. Oh, they still have to pay their expenses—you know, air fare, hotel, food, dry cleaning and caddie fees.

Don’t discount the last one on that list. The going rate for a caddie is $750 a week, Hahn said. There’s more—making a cut brings a bonus, about three to five percent of the player’s earnings. A top-five finish brings seven percent, and a win means the caddie gets 10 percent of the winnings.

“So you can see that I was writing some big-time checks last year,” said Hahn. Of course, that comes with four top-10 finishes in 2010 and how important is a caddie?

“Very,” Hahn said. “It’s so good when you get a good one, but they’re hard to find and keep every week. I do my own yardages and I read my own putts, so I don’t want someone to tell me after I have made up my mind what to do that "'It’s 166, hit an eight-iron.'"

Pro golfers have bad days, and that just adds to the pressure—the caddie still gets paid, and the hotel still wants its money at checkout and there’s a rental car. It can make for a lot of molar grinding.

“So when it became clear I wouldn’t make the cut, this one caddie gave up. I asked him at one time what the wind direction was. He lit a cigarette, blew it out and said, "'That way, bro.'" He was fired after that.”

Over the course of 2010, Hahn said he racked up $98,000 in expenses, which breaks down to about three grand a week. “And that’s staying in two-star hotels—Ramada Inns, not Ritz Carltons.”

This year’s PGA Tour sensation is Jhonathon Vegas, who graduated from the Nationwide Tour to post a first and second-place finish this year on the PGA Tour. “There’s no difference in the players on the two tours,” Hahn said. “The players here are just as good. And there are players on the Nationwide Tour who are better than players on the PGA Tour.”

Which means, every week is a gut-check to make it to the Big Time. Though he’s not there yet, simple math says that 2010 netted him just under $100,000, not bad for his age. Except that that money goes into the bank in case there are more missed cuts. And there might be debts to pay, either student loans or paying back sponsors who gave him money so he could stay on the road.

That’s the final thing about pro golf—there are no home games. Hahn traveled three out of five weeks in 2010, more than most young corporate fast-trackers and the only way to cut that down is to win more money and become exempt on the PGA Tour.

That’s where the laser focus comes in. “When I get on the first tee, I get so into it I don’t talk to anyone. I’m all alone out there.”