HONOLULU – James Hahn has returned from an elbow injury that sidelined him for nearly eight months, but it’s his head that hurts as he goes about trying to retain his PGA Tour card beyond this season.
Playing in his fifth event since he withdrew from the Genesis Open last February with a sore elbow that turned out to be a partial tear of his triceps tendon, Hahn began the Sony Open in Hawaii with a steady 1-under 69 at windy Waialae Country Club. Despite gusts up to 40 mph, Hahn was crafty in cobbling together a round with three birdies and two bogeys.
“I played really smart today,” said Hahn, 38, who drew on his experience growing up playing Metropolitan Golf Links in Oakland, where wind was a constant part of the challenge.
“You really just have to pick your lines and hit good shots and commit to it,” he added.
Hahn, who lost a six-hole playoff to Patton Kizzire here in 2018, began the season on a major medical extension in which he had 17 events to earn 305 points. He played four times in the fall starting in Las Vegas and earned 43 points. That means he still needs 262 FedEx Cup points to keep his card.
But none of that really matters because that would only buy him a few extra weeks. His predicament boils down to this: he must finish in the top 125 on the FedEx Cup standings or he will lose the card he might have just earned.
“I think it's the same amount of pressure as a first-time player, rookie on tour trying to keep his card,” Hahn said of the task ahead of him. “I'm in the same boat. I'm trying to keep my card for this year.
“The way the medical breaks down is at the end of the year they have only keep 125 of us, and whether I keep my medical or don't keep my medical, I still want to be inside that 125. The gist of it is I can fulfill my medical obligations and still lose my card and be in the same boat as someone who just lost their card.”
A two-time winner on the PGA Tour, Hahn started having trouble with his elbow in late 2018, and the Cal-Berkeley product tried to play through it, which wasn’t a great idea. His reasoning was sound enough; he tends to play well in West Coast events. The Scottsdale, Ariz., resident got an ultrasound the week of the Waste Management Phoenix Open, and his doctor told him that the damage wasn’t too severe and that he couldn’t hurt it much more.
Two more starts, however, and he knew something was really wrong.
“I'm at the Genesis Open and remember being on the practice range and it's freezing,” Hahn said. “Dustin Johnson is hitting balls behind me. I'm probably 60 percent [healthy] at that point. I was just like, ‘I can't compete.’ Even on a course like that I can't not compete being 100 percent. Withdrew from that tournament, flew home, got an MRI, and it showed I had a partial tear to my triceps tendon. What I was doing is making worse.”
He shut it down and rehabbed it and also had four rounds of PRP (platelet-rich plasma) therapy, but he was able to avoid surgery. He didn’t touch a club for almost six months. He could not even putt without pain. Shaking hands with anyone was a chore.
“It was probably one of the best summers I ever had,” he said.
That’s because he had the chance to stay home and spend that time with his family. “My daughter is four years old, so a lot of memories there you can’t take back,” Hahn said. “It was a blessing in disguise.”
But now dad has to go to work. After his major medical exemption runs out, Hahn figures he might get three more starts before the end of the regular season. But the plan, of course, is to earn enough points to get into the playoffs. He’s approaching the year as if that exemption doesn’t exist. For all intents and purposes, it doesn’t.
“My plan is to lock up my card and be done with it,” he said. “Of course, there are no guarantees.”
There never are.