AUGUSTA, Ga. – Contrary to popular belief, Peter Uihlein’s first golf club was not a Titleist.
It was a Fisher Price.
“My parents have footage of me in a walker, swinging a plastic club,” he said. “I’ve been playing golf ever since I can remember.”
Uihlein brings stout credentials to his debut at Augusta National. He qualified for the Masters by winning the U.S. Amateur on his 21st birthday last summer at Chambers Bay. Two years ago, he was picked for the Walker Cup team and delivered a 4-0 record to help lead the Americans to victory. He is No. 1 in the world amateur ranking.
Uihlein also brings more name recognition than most amateurs at the Masters.
He is the son of Wally Uihlein, one of the more powerful figures in the golf industry as the chief executive of Acushnet, the parent company of Titleist. It is not quite the burden of being the son of Jack Nicklaus or the grandson of Arnold Palmer. Even so, Uihlein has had to deal with the perception of privilege for most of his junior golf career.
“It’s hard to miss it,” said Uihlein, who is finishing his junior year at Oklahoma State.
Clubs, balls and shoes, however, can only take a kid so far.
Passion for golf can’t be taught.
Both of Uihlein’s sons, Jonathan and Peter, took to golf at an early age. Dad tried to make it fun, calling it a “stick-and-ball” game with no promises where it would lead. Peter still remembers the games they played that kept golf interesting. He was allowed to essentially set up his own course and make his own par.
“He moved me from the 80-yard marker to the 100-yard marker, and as I got better, 150 and 200 yards,” Uihlein said. “We had games that kept me interested, and if I made a par or made a birdie, it kept me excited. I do remember making what I believed was a hole-in-one. It was from 80 or 100 yards. I hit a driver and it went in. I was pretty young.”
When he was 9, Uihlein started to win 12-and-under tournaments. What really got his father’s attention was when the boy had not played for three months because of school and the New England winter, then went to a junior event at Doral. At age 10, he did well enough to get into the final group with a kid from Northern Ireland named Rory McIlroy. Uihlein finished third.
Before long, Uihlein was bent on a career in golf and asked his parents if he could attend the IMG Leadbetter Golf Academy in Florida.
“It was tough for the family,” Uihlein said. “It split them up a little bit. But I wanted to play with some of the best players. I wanted to be one of the best. And I figured I could do that six months out of the year. I love New England. But it’s hard to get work in and be ready for competition. Golf is what I wanted to do, and they let me follow my dream.”
His mother moved to Florida and missed seeing her older son grow up. His father travels so much on business that at times, his brother would fly into Massachusetts to look after Jonathan.
“It was tough,” Wally Uihlein said. “It worked for us. We would not recommend it unless you went into the process eyes wide open.”
The education continues, on and off the golf course.
Like most U.S. Amateur champions, Uihlein faces a busy summer. He wants to win an NCAA title for Oklahoma State. Then comes the U.S. Open, a spot at the AT&T National on the PGA Tour, a week of vacation in Britain before the British Open, the Western Open and then his title defense at the U.S. Amateur.
The toughest decision after that? Which classes to take for his senior year at Oklahoma State.
It’s rare these days for a prominent amateur to finish all four years and get a degree. Uihlein is majoring in economics. He said he will stay all four years. “If I can go more, I would,” he said.
Ryan Moore was the last big-time amateur to stay in school. Matt Kuchar, a U.S. Amateur champion who starred at the Masters and U.S. Open in 1998, finished up at Georgia Tech and debated staying an amateur. Phil Mickelson won a PGA Tour event as an amateur and stayed all four years at Arizona State.
Far more common are the accomplished amateurs who turn pro. Rickie Fowler left Oklahoma State after two years, and he went from Q-school to the Ryder Cup in one year.
“A lot of guys play well in a tour event – one event – and they think they’re ready,” Uihlein said. “Look at Justin Rose. How many cuts did he miss. It’s impressive to get where he is. And I’m sure he wasn’t even that far off. These guys are really good. They’re all great. I don’t see anything wrong with wanting to stay four years and getting an education. The PGA Tour is not going anywhere.”
Uihlein will tee it up Thursday with Mickelson – the defending champion always plays with the U.S. Amateur champion – and Geoff Ogilvy, who already has seen the kid play. They had a practice round at Innisbrook last month and when asked for a scouting report, Ogilvy watched Uihlein rip a 3-iron stinger off the tee and said, “What more do you need?”
“I’ve seen plenty of ‘can’t miss’ players who miss,” Ogilvy said. “But he’s got as good a chance as anyone else. I haven’t played with a young kid who doesn’t hit it miles. But Peter is special. He’s a sensible kid. He doesn’t look like he gets overwhelmed.”
Uihlein has set modest goals for the week. He wants to soak up the experience and have fun. He wants to make the cut, and being low amateur would be ideal. One of these days, he wants to return with a green jacket on his mind.
“Just being here is pretty special,” he said.
Getting back would be even better.
The kid has been swinging away since he had a plastic club in his hand. Golf is all he ever wanted to do.
But he’s in no hurry.