My life in the game I love and still cherish at 66

Payne Stewart Award

Payne Stewart Award: Jay Haas

Editor’s note: Jay Dean Haas was born on Dec. 2, 1953, in St. Louis. He won the NCAA golf championship in 1975, joined the PGA TOUR in 1977, picked up his first win in 1978 and has been a stalwart on PGA TOUR and PGA TOUR Champions since. He won nine times on PGA TOUR and 18 on PGA TOUR Champions. He played on Ryder Cup teams in three decades, including making the team in 2004 at the age of 50. He also captained the United States to victory at the 2015 Presidents Cup.


We asked Jay to write about his life in golf. Here is what he wrote:

My first recollection of getting into golf is of my Uncle Bob (Goalby, who played on the PGA TOUR from 1952-71 and won the Masters in 1968), putting a club in my hand I think the summer when I was 5 years old. And I remember him telling me to … he showed me how to finish. On my left foot and my right toe, right heel up in the air. And my belt buckle to the target. And that was my first lesson.

Until I was maybe 10 years old that’s the only thing he talked about, and holding a nice pose. Finish and point to the target.

When I was 7, my family and I took a trip down to Orlando to play in the National Pee Wee Tournament. It was at a course called Rio Pinar. And they used to hold the Florida Citrus Open on the PGA TOUR there before it became the Arnold Palmer and before it moved to Bay Hill.

Anyway, I remember I finished third. Two guys beat me by a shot and one of them was a guy named Bill Lewis, who was the brother of Jack Lewis, who ended up playing on the Walker Cup Team. And being the golf coach at Wake Forest for a time. And then a guy named Scott Every, the uncle of Matt Every, who is now playing the PGA TOUR. So there’s a connection there. Those names stick in my head.

I remember getting this third-place trophy. The base of it is maybe 4 inches tall, and the golfer on there is maybe another 3 or 4 inches. You could slip the little engraved plate that said third place in and out of the wooden base. I remember polishing that thing on my shirt the whole way back to Illinois in the back of the car. So I was hooked.


Jay Haas signs autographs at the Dominion Energy Charity Classic. (Getty Images)

That was my first real memory of playing golf and being in a tournament. Then I started going with my dad on the weekends to play. I had my bag … it was so small that it maybe had three or four clubs in it. And he had a pull cart or a push cart, whatever you would say, and he would wrap the strap of my bag around his umbrella on his bag and so I just walked along and grabbed a club outta there.

I was 7 or 8 and probably shooting in the 60s or 70s for nine holes from the women’s tees or something like that.

I enjoyed the game right away. I liked hitting balls around the backyard. I had the Wiffle balls, the little practice balls. And I’d hit two or three of those and go chase ’em and hit ’em back and forth. Who knows how long I really did it? It seemed liked for hours but probably not. But I enjoyed doing that and I was pretty good at it. I could get a ball up in the air and kinda got it. In my mind I was doing well with it.

And my Uncle Bob at the time was traveling on the PGA TOUR. So he’d come back every month or six weeks and he’d say, “Well let’s see how you’re doing?” I’d take a couple of swings with the Wiffle ball or once in a while I’d hit a real ball of his and he’d give me another little tip to work on about my grip or something like that. And I’d practice that until he got back again.

I enjoyed it. I enjoyed the solitude of it, I guess. And I just enjoyed making the ball go where I wanted it to go.

I grew up in Illinois near the St. Louis area and they had a really good junior program there and I was one of the better players at my age. So that fed my desire to play and get better. It was fun to maybe win a trophy.


Jay Haas speaks with Jack Nicklaus at the 2015 Presidents Cup. (Getty Images)

I’m not real sure when I first shot par or around par but probably when I was 13 or 14, something like that. That made me think that I was at least making progress. I was never a big kid so I didn’t hit it very far. But I hit it in play and was a pretty good chipper and putter.

Just to shoot decent scores each time was something that kept me coming back. I was getting better. I wasn’t leveling off. Seemingly each year I got a little bit better.

In the offseason in Illinois, it’s cold. I didn’t play a lot. I played basketball. And then each spring I’d come back out to golf. And I’d get a little bit longer perhaps and stronger and my scores would get better.

As a freshman in high school I had a decent record and my scores were OK. I got better as each year progressed. And then by the time I was a senior I was one of the better players in the area and in the state. I won the state high school championship.

When I was a junior I went to Wake Forest to look at the school with Uncle Bob. He knew Jesse Haddock, the golf coach there just from hanging around Greensboro. And he knew Lanny Wadkins, who had gone to Wake. Lanny finished second to my Uncle Bob at the Heritage in 1970 while he was at Wake. I think that got Bob’s attention that there were good players at Wake Forest.


Jay Haas as a collegiate golfer at Wake Forest University. (Wake Forest Athletics)

And you know the whole time he’s feeding me, “You can play. I’ve seen people come and go. And you’ve got what it takes.” He was always pumping me up about my game and my talent and my abilities. It just made me feel like I could … that was what I wanted to do. I loved watching him hit a ball and thinking someday maybe I could do the same.

We had a great team there at Wake, with Curtis Strange, Bob Byman, David Thore, Bill Chapman and Bill Argabrite. Jesse had had many great teams prior to us being there. But they’d never won the NCAAs. And when Curtis was a freshman he won the individual title and we won the team championship (in 1974). And the next year we won the team again and I won the individual.


Jay Haas with fellow TOUR pro and college teammate Curtis Strange. (Wake Forest Athletics)

Certainly winning the NCAA is something I cherish. We played against the best teams those years and more often than not we came out on top. Curtis and I still talk about it, you know? And still brag about it. We were pretty good back then. So many people love college and enjoy the whole thing, and I’m in that boat. I thought it was a great time.

Turning pro was just the next logical step, and I felt ready. I had to go to the Tour Q-School and I made it my first year. It was a totally different set up back then, with the top 60 players being exempt and then Monday qualifiers, the rabbits, as we were called. You had to get your TOUR card and that allowed you to go to Monday qualifying. And each week was different. There were some weeks there were 20 spots, some were 35 spots. Some only had five spots. Just depending on the tournament and how many players from that top 60 would play in that event.

It was a grind. It was a tough road. There were no guarantees at all. I think I won just over $31,000 my first year, which was 77th on the money list. So that was … I did OK and had a few good events. And then I won my next year (the 1978 Andy Williams-San Diego Invitational), which gave me the confidence that I could do it, that I made the right decision. And that I was gonna at least have a job for a while.

We didn’t know it at the time, but I guess you could say I came along in an era between two big eras. Jack Nicklaus was a bit older than me, and Tiger Woods is quite a bit younger, but I did play with both. There was some overlap there. And there were some great players in my era. Tom Watson was dominant for a long time. Greg Norman, too.

The purses … they weren’t stagnant, but they were creeping very slowly. They got a little bit more each year. One tournament would wanna try to be the best or, you know, the biggest prize money. And the next one would try to follow suit. I remember the tournament at Westchester was the first $300,000 total purse event. Everything else was like $200,000 back then, tops. And then it became $300,000 and everybody was like, ‘Oh my God.’ Not one player missed it. It was $54,000 for first prize. And people were looking at that and going, ‘Oh my gosh, what if you won that event? You’d just retire, right then. Right? For $54,000.

But then Tiger came along and all of a sudden … I think maybe it was in the late ’90s all the TV contracts were up. And they renegotiated them. With Tiger and his amazing talent and good looks and everything … I mean he was just the pied piper. We hitched the wagon to him for sure. And it’s amazing what happened to the prize money then.


Jay Haas with Tiger Woods and former President of the United States Bill Clinton at the 2009 Presidents Cup. (Getty Images)

The game definitely changed over the years. I say that the swings of the ‘60s and ‘70s and even into the ‘80s were more elegant. There were not many guys who swung so hard that they lost their balance and things like that. And the speed. We didn’t talk about clubhead speed or ball speed. There was no such thing back then, you know? It was just guys. There would be one or two guys, and you would go, ‘Wow, he’s long.’ A long way back then was 270.

And so you know the swings of today, I mean, it’s just unreal the speed that the guys get with the extra length of a driver say now at 45 or 46 inches as opposed to 42 inches. A graphite shaft as opposed to steel. Titanium head as opposed to persimmon. It’s just the combination of that. And then the golf ball. … We used to have to flight the ball so much in the ‘70s and ‘80s. The ball spun a lot. So you had to really flight it down. Guys would be more conscious of that as opposed to hitting it into the air. And now the balls are made … they go through the air pretty good. They don’t curve a lot. If it’s blowing a little bit, they might hit little knockdown shots occasionally. But most of the time they might just take one more club and throw it up in the air and the ball is just pretty unaffected by all but the strongest of winds.

And so it is a different game. You know you hear the bomb and gouge technique where the guys just crush it out there. And they hit a pitching wedge or sand wedges and it doesn’t matter. You look at some of the guys and their stats and he’s got his 5 or 6 or 7 under for the day and he’s hit three out of 12 fairways. It is quite different.

I don’t know if we’re just more aware of it with social media and everything of guys having the aches and pains and back issues. I think the ‘60s and ‘70s guys certainly didn’t feel great. But there was really no recourse, you know? You either went home or you went and played at not 100%. And there was no such thing as a major medical extension.

And so guys might have tendinitis or something and they just fought their way through it. Maybe they didn’t have as many back issues because there swings weren’t as violent as the guys today. You see a lot of the younger players now with knee issues and back issues, things like that. And you look at the slow motion of some of these guys swings and how far their head goes down and back and you wonder are they gonna have issues going forward at a younger age than some of the guys that played in the ‘60s and ‘70s? We don’t know for sure. But at the same time they’re making so much money it almost doesn’t matter if their career is over at 40.

Golf has been great to me. I never could have imagined playing professionally for 40-plus years. Not even close. When I started in 1977, if a guy was in his early 40s, his mid-40s, he was looking for something to fall back to — whether it be a club job or whatever. By that time there started to be a few businesses, corporations sponsoring guys, some airlines were sponsoring players, and they’d do outings and things like that. But that wasn’t as prevalent as it is today. You just started looking for something else to do.

Now the equipment allows us to play longer. Obviously the Champions Tour has been a second life for all of us of age. And you know, here at 66, I’m still competing and still love golf. I still love to play. I’m not just kicking around at my home club. I’m actually getting to play in tournaments that have purses that are five and six and seven times more than what I played for when I was first coming out on the PGA TOUR. I would have never ever dreamed of something like this.

I had a really good year at 49, 50, and I made the Ryder Cup Team as a 50-year-old (in 2004). So I was playing some really good golf. And so, for me personally, I wanted to try to play on the PGA TOUR as long as I could. And my son Bill had just gotten out there and so it was fun playing tournaments with him, practicing with him, staying with him occasionally. That was certainly a fun time. But you know I think with what I’ve seen now with some of the other guys that are in their 50s that have played sparingly on the PGA TOUR Champions and remain playing on the PGA TOUR, I think it’s up to the individual, obviously. And whether they feel like they can still compete.

I played with Ernie (Els, a rookie on PGA TOUR Champions) just a few weeks ago. We played at Newport Beach. We played on Saturday, and we talked a little bit. He’s very excited about playing and being in the hunt again, and he’s excited about having those juices flowing. Is he playing for the money? I don’t think so. He’s playing to compete. That’s what it’s all about, playing in front of a packed house, on stage.

Golf is a hard game to retire from because there’s no manager not playing you, sitting you on the bench. Or there’s no coach or team owner saying, “We’re not gonna sign you.” If you’re a football player and nobody signs you, you’re retired, right? So in golf, you just continue on and if you’re exempt and allowed to play and give it a shot, you just never know. There’s no defense. It’s not like you have to be fast or strong. The ball doesn’t lie. If you hit a good shot, it’s a good shot, no matter who you are

In my dreams I think I can win again. I’ve had a couple decent chances.

At times when I play poorly I think the end is near but then I play well and I go hey, I can still do this. So I don’t wanna set a time on, ‘OK, you’re gonna play this year and then that’s it.’ I just wanna have it sneak up on me and then all of a sudden go, ‘Oh, you’re no good. You need to go home.’


Jay Haas with his son Bill Haas and his wife Jan Haas at the 2015 Presidents Cup. (Getty Images)