December 1, 2008

Back at school for Tiger's former rivals, friends

Ted Oh hoping to get back to where he once belonged

LA QUINTA, CALIF. -- Six degrees of separation are five more than are required to link a wide swath of the field here to Tiger Woods, whose considerable wake is littered with the debris of careers gone awry.

Jeff Hart is in the field at the PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament. Woods played his first two professional rounds with Hart, at the Milwaukee Open in 1996. Chris Tidland is here, too. Tidland once made six consecutive birdies to erase a four-hole deficit with six to play to Woods in a quarterfinal match of the Western Amateur, and birdied the second extra hole and still lost, to a Woods' eagle. Notah Begay III, Woods’ friend and former Stanford teammate, is playing as well.

Then there's Ted Oh, whose Tiger ties run deepest, to adolescence and a spirited rivalry, when the two were growing up in the greater Los Angeles area -- Woods in Cypress, Oh in Long Beach. They were widely regarded as the two best juniors in the country and Woods wasn’t always No. 1.

So how was it Woods look a linear path to heretofore uncharted heights, while Oh, who played in the '93 U.S. Open at Baltusrol as a 16-year-old, took a detour and became lost in the hinterlands of professional golf?

"He was always better than me," Oh said Wednesday, after shooting a five-under par 67 on the Nicklaus Tournament Course during the first round, two shots off the lead. "Growing up, when we started figuring out how to cut the ball, he’d already perfected it. Same with the lob shot. He was always a couple years ahead of everyone."

Oh, 32, recalls a rain delay at the Boys Junior Americas Cup.

"We’re all stuck in a room, just having fun," he said. "All of a sudden the rain stopped and the first one out there was Tiger. People think he’s talented and gifted, but he also outworked everybody."

After the Baltustrol Open, Oh won a prominent junior tournament, then returned home to find a letter awaiting him. It was from Jack Nicklaus, who predicted success for him, but also warned him that the game is a fickle one of ups and downs and that he can be expected to experience both.

"I remember reading it and thinking, 'this game is so easy. I’m 16 years old and playing in the U.S. Open. Nicklaus doesn’t know what he was talking about.' Now I know what he means."

Oh has been yearning to get to the PGA Tour since turning pro in 1998. For the past nine years, he has played both the Korean and Asian tours with enough success to make a decent living for his family (wife Jeanny and daughter Nikki Madison, one), but largely failing to gain on a PGA Tour career.

"It’s more than frustrating," he said. "It just felt like, gosh, when am I going to get out there? I watch TV and see my junior friends and college friends, and think, 'man I really want to be out there.'|"

Albert Einstein once described insanity as "doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." A virtual marksman with his woods and irons, Oh spent 90 percent of his practice time on his long game, leaving 10 percent for a short game that has been his perpetual nemesis. "This time I changed it around," he said. "I’ve spent more time on my chipping and putting and I’ve really improved."

Oh, incidentally, re-read the Nicklaus letter before coming here. It's framed and hanging in the home of his sister, Julie, who is caddying for him this week.

"I spent 10 years learning that Nicklaus was right," he said.