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Hahn wins 'best story' with victory at Riviera

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LOS ANGELES – Here in the shadows of Hollywood, in the minutes leading up to a nearby celebration of the year’s greatest collection of storytelling in films known as the Academy Awards, an unlikely story unfolded from a crowded leaderboard filled with easier, trendier ones.

There were tales of major champions on the mend. Narratives of retribution and recovery, of experience and youth.

Names like Dustin Johnson, Sergio Garcia, Jordan Spieth, Retief Goosen and Paul Casey. Popular players with built-in plotlines.

Spoiler alert: James Hahn won the Northern Trust Open on Sunday. Flipped the script, really. Earned his first career PGA Tour victory on a leaderboard that might as well have been draped in red carpet.

Those hoping for the clichéd Hollywood ending were probably left asking one important question:

Who is James Hahn?

Hahn was the tournament’s low-budget indie answer to those blockbuster hits. He’s never won a major, isn’t romantically linked to any starlets and didn’t jump straight to the PGA Tour from college.

No, less than a decade ago, this dude was a shoe salesman.

True story.

He was 24 years old and waiting for his golf career to take off. Before it did, he took a job working in the salon shoe section at two Nordstrom’s stores – one in Walnut Creek, the other in Pleasanton.

“I sold a lot of shoes,” he says now with a smile. “I was pretty good at it.”

Who is James Hahn?

A few years later, Hahn was playing the Canadian Tour. His career still hadn’t taken off.

His bank account was so depleted that he started looking for real work. Something completely out of golf that wouldn’t depend on him dropping numerous birdie putts to get paid.

“I had just under $200 going into Edmonton that week,” he recalls. “I've got to borrow money to pay for my caddie fee. Like, it was a little embarrassing. I was going to borrow money from my parents to get a flight home. And I'm sitting there on the computer going on Craigslist and I start looking for jobs.”

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He found one, but it wasn’t on Craigslist.

Hahn finished in eighth place that week, bankrolled a cool $3,000 and kept playing professional golf.

“At that point, like $3,000, you might as well have just given me $1 million. I could keep playing golf."

Who is James Hahn?

He’s the guy who did that dance.

Poor Hahn. Two years ago, in an effort to get into the spirit of things with the frenzied crowd at TPC Scottsdale’s 16th hole, Hahn punctuated a birdie by doing the “Gangnam Style” dance, which has been immortalized forever in a YouTube video that has now been clicked more than 338,000 times.

Forget the three years as a PGA Tour regular, forget the nine previous top-25 results. Most fans know him as the guy who did that dance.

“Everyone wants me to do the dance,” he laughs. “I don't think they even know my name.”

That was still true on Sunday, even as he was preparing for a three-man playoff at Riviera.

“I was signing hats after the round,” he says. “I asked some guy, I was like, ‘Hey, like is there a playoff? Like, what's going on?’ He's like, "Yeah, yeah, yeah, it's Dustin Johnson, Paul Casey and some other guy.’ I was like, ‘Yeah? OK, cool. Here's your hat.’”

Who is James Hahn?

Following the third round, he checked his tournament statistics and found that, along with Johnson, he was one of only two players in the top-12 who was in the negative in strokes gained putting.

So he called his wife, Stephanie, and told her this news.

“She's like, well, that just means you're striping it. I was like, OK, that's pretty cool.”

During that same phone call, he made Stephanie a promise. She’s been driving a 2005 Volkswagon Jetta for a decade, but he promised he’d replace it with a strong finish.

“This thing is a piece,” he says. “I mean, this thing has 130,000 miles on it. I said, ‘If I finish top‑five, I'm going to buy you a new car.’ … So I think I need to go buy a new car when I get home.”

Stephanie is pregnant with the couple’s first child, a baby girl due in three weeks. They don’t have a name picked out, but in the afterglow of his win, he offered an impromptu suggestion.


Who is James Hahn?

He’s the guy who matched each of his competitors’ pars on the first extra hole, then matched Johnson’s implausible birdie on the second – getting up-and-down from the left rough on the mystifying 10th hole.

On the third playoff hole – the par-3 14th – Hahn hit his tee shot to 25 feet, but Johnson was 10 feet closer. Still playing the part of unlikely hero, he holed his putt, then looked away as Johnson attempted his to keep the tournament going.

“I couldn't look; I was so nervous,” he recalls. “My heart rate was going 120 beats per second.”

When Johnson missed, the guy who’d been a shoe salesman, who once had less than $200 in his bank account, became a PGA Tour champion.

“Just kind of look at myself in the mirror some days and tell myself that I'm not even supposed to be here. Come from a small town. Didn't do well in college. Was never an All‑American. Sold shoes for a living for a while. Yeah, and then just one day, the putts started going in and started playing a little better. Won a couple golf tournaments, and now I'm here.”

Who is James Hahn?

As it turns out, here at Riviera, in the shadows of a night reserved for celebrating the best storytelling, he was the best story around.