On November 17th, Randy Haag received what he called his “highest achievement” when he became only the third golfer in history to win the Olympic Club’s coveted Olympian Award for athletic achievement. Past winners of the annual award have included Olympic medallists and record holders in a wide variety of sports.
In presenting the Olympian Award to Haag, 48, the Olympic Club recognized Haag’s long career as a high-level amateur golfer, his challenge to overcome a freak accident which left him with wrist and back injuries, and his exciting “up and down” 2007 season -- which included a slew of tournament victories, a series of missed cuts and a valiant effort in the U.S. Amateur at his home club The Olympic Club.
Recognized as one of Northern California’s top amateurs (including three times as NCGA’s Player Of The Year), Haag’s career as an amateur golfer has long competed with his business career as a venture capital entrepreneur. To reach his life-long goal of playing on the Senior Tour during his 50s, Haag planned to follow in the footsteps of his former nemesis, Mark Johnson, who turned pro during his mid-40s and competed on the mini tour for several years in preparation for the Senior Tour.
However, while in training for this transition during April 2005, Haag went crashing to the floor when an inflated exercise ball supporting Haag’s back suddenly popped while he was bench pressing 45-pound dumbbells. The injuries to Haag’s wrists and back forced him to change his plans.
Despite extensive rehab, Haag’s efforts to practice and play golf were frustrated by problems with hand control and back pain, especially during his swing and extended periods of physical activity. For almost a year, Haag believed his days of competitive golf were over, and he even considered retiring. However, motivated by his love of the game, Haag decided to return to amateur competition while dealing with his continuing injuries – including with epidural shots into his spin before several tournaments.
Haag’s comeback was partially motivated by a date circled on his calendar, August 20, 2007, when his home Olympic Club would be the site of the oldest and most prestigious amateur tournament in the country, the U.S. Amateur.
“I draw the parallel to the 1999 San Francisco City Championship, both were targets of mine for a long time, I came up with a plan to be at my peak performance for those tournaments,” said Haag. The constant challenge of being dogged by injuries made for an arduous journey to the U.S. Amateur. The route included multiple victories (including three amateurgolf.com events) and a neck-and-neck battle with Casey Boyns for the NCGA Player of the Year award (Boyns clinched by finishing one shot ahead of Haag in the season’s final tourney, the NCGA Valley Am). The route also included frustrating results at several tournaments where Haag either missed the cuts or had trouble with his swing or stamina.
In preparation for the U.S. Amateur qualifying at the Peninsula Golf Club, Haag got in five days of practice rounds on the course, including two days walking 36 holes to see how his back reacted to the stress. He even scouted out the hole locations the night before the qualifier, rolling putts at the holes from all angles to get so nothing the next day would surprise him. It didn’t help much on the first hole.
“I stuck my approach shot a foot from the hole and it released and rolled 30 feet past,” said Haag. “Then my putt rolled clear off the green. They must’ve triple cut and double rolled those greens, because I still had to make a four-footer for bogey.”
The opening bogey was quickly overcome, as Haag recovered with three consecutive birdies, but faced a do-or-die putt on the final hole.
“The pressure was definitely cranked up, I don’t think I slept at all the night before,” said Haag. “After 35 holes I just had the feeling that I needed a birdie on the last hole, and I did. When I made that six-footer… it was just a special feeling that’s hard to describe. I had put so much into taking that first step of getting in.”
The first step had been taken, but there was still plenty of work left. And at exactly the wrong time, the first day of U.S. Am stroke play, Haag’s injuries went from growling to barking at him.
Fog delayed the opening start times four hours, which Haag used to rush to his doctor’s office in Los Altos (an hour away) to receive a cortisone shot. He sped back to the course, arriving just before his tee time.
Morning fog disrupted the scheduling, forcing Haag to finish the final four holes of stroke play on Day 3 at the Ocean course (before the start of match play later the same day). Needing to shoot even par over four holes to make the cut, Haag bogeyed the 15th hole, but came back with a birdie on the 440-yard par 4 16th hole. He finished out with a pair of pars to qualify for match play at 48th of 64.
After leading by two holes on the back nine, Haag eventually bowed out in the first round to eventual quarterfinalist Derek Fathauer on the 18th hole, but not before he became the main attraction of televised match play’s opening day. He was followed by a large group of fellow club members, as well as his mother, Shirley, who walked every hole with him.
“That’s what amateur golf is all about, there’s no money involved, but there is still the competition, between Casey (Boyns) and I (for the NCGA POY) and at the Amateur,” said Haag. “It’s not like other sports where you’re passed your prime at 25 years old.”
As for the future, Haag said he’s looking forward to using his exemption earned at the Am to compete across the pond at the British Amateur, held this year at Turnberry. However, Haag is less optimistic about playing professional senior golf.
"My injuries will most likely keep from achieving my dream, beginning with the goal of playing on the Champions tour, as I still am very limited to the number of days I can play, practice and work out."
With his determination to overcome adversity, Haag’s 2007 comeback proves that he is still a force to be reckoned with in both the national and Northern California amateur golf scene.