NAPLES, Fla. — The road less traveled brought Peter Uihlein back to a familiar place. He was home in South Florida, finally, after a remarkable golf season that took some unexpected turns while covering six tours in 18 countries, three U.S. states and Puerto Rico.
In the hours before the New England Patriots kicked off on Monday night — his kind of football — he kept busy by replying to messages on Twitter congratulating him for being the first American to win European Tour rookie of the year in the 53-year history of the Sir Henry Cotton Award.
“Pretty good start,” Uihlein said.
He might not be the last American to win the award.
As Uihlein (YOO’-line) was wrapping up his season with three more stamps in his passport — Shanghai, Turkey, Dubai — four Americans earned European Tour cards at Q-school in Spain. Uihlein knows them all. One is John Hahn, whom Uihlein beat in 19 holes to advance to the quarterfinals of the 2010 U.S. Amateur that he won at Chambers Bay.
“Looks like I’ll have some company next year,” Uihlein tweeted last week.
While this doesn’t constitute a mass exodus to Europe, it’s at least a trickle. One reason behind more Americans trying to get European Tour cards is because the PGA Tour now only awards Web.com Tour cards at its Q-school. For those who want to try, Uihlein and Brooks Koepka left a global trail to follow.
“We’re an option for American guys, especially now that Q-school works a little strange,” Matteo Manassero of Italy said. “They can come here and get a full card. I’m happy to see Peter making the effort here. He deserved all the success he got. It’s a different tour. But if you make an experience here as an American, I think it can help.”
Uihlein and Koepka, his roommate whenever they both make it back to Florida, both started the year on the Challenge Tour. Uihlein won the Madeira Islands Open in Portugal to get his card. He had a pair of runner-up finishes in September and ended the year at No. 14 on the money list.
Koepka won three times on the Challenge Tour for an instant promotion.
“Peter and Brooks have both come over and taken very well to the lifestyle,” Thomas Bjorn said. “They’re two very good kids. Peter, first of all, is a brilliant golfer. I think he realized when he started playing in Europe that, ‘Hang on here, I can compete.’ It’s always a tricky thing when you’re a young guy. You might think you’re good and you find out you’re not that good. Or they find out they’re better than they think they are.”
Uihlein didn’t set out to make a name for himself, but that’s what happened.
Even as one of the top amateurs in America, he invariably was referred to as the son of Wally Uihlein, the longtime chief executive of Acushnet, makers of Titleist equipment and FootJoy shoes. He developed his own identity as a two-time Walker Cup player and U.S. Amateur champion. And now? Mention “Peter Uihlein” to the general golfing public and he’s known as the American who’s cutting his teeth on the European Tour.
“Nothing wrong with that,” he said. “It’s sweet.”
Uihlein might not be traveling to all corners of the globe if he had made it through the second stage of Q-school. And the quicker path to the PGA Tour still might be to toil on the Web.com Tour for one year. Good players shouldn’t need longer than that.
Then again, that’s assuming the sole purpose is to get to the PGA Tour as quickly as possible.
“I think it’s more than that,” Uihlein said. “It’s being a global player. It’s being able to play golf all around the world. Take Ernie Els. He plays in every country. You see his name everywhere. He’s received in different parts of the world. It’s a good experience.”
The trail created by Uihlein and Koepka is not for everyone, and both have said as much.
American players can go home on Sunday and stay for a few days before heading back out to the grind. Uihlein went from India to Johannesburg at the start of the year. In one stretch this summer, he went from Germany to Ireland to France to Scotland. That’s a lot of time in strange hotels that don’t carry the Boston Red Sox network.
“It can get lonely,” he said.
But looked what it has produced — rookie of the year, a European Tour winner, a player tested in different conditions and different countries. Uihlein is 24.
“He’s been an absolute star the whole year,” European Tour chief George O’Grady said. “He’s enormously popular with all the other players. It must be tough for him playing all these different countries. He’s learned from the cultures, the food, the frustrations of travel. And he’s a hell of a good player. I imagine he’ll graduate to the PGA Tour one day. Hopefully, this will stand him in good stead.”
His work is not over. Uihlein started the year at No. 384 and is up to No. 64. Even if he gets in a majority of the majors and World Golf Championships, he still has to perform in them to make headway toward a PGA Tour card.
But odds are he’ll be better off when he gets there.