After 50-year-old Jay Haas sank a long birdie putt at the 17th hole at Shinnecock Hills on Thursday to move into a tie for the lead at the U.S. Open, he saw his wife Jan abandoning him to follow another golfer. But not just any golfer. Their 22-year-old son Bill, who won the Ben Hogan Award as this year's top college player, was about to tee off nearby on his first Open hole.
"I left the house at 5:30 a.m. with Jay. After the 17th hole, Jay was doing so well that he didn't look like he needed any help. So I went with Bill," said Jan, who was followed by the Haas's three daughters, ages 20, 16 and 12, all beaming with family pride.
"It's just wonderful," said Jan Haas. "I don't know what else there is to say."
That is exactly what everybody in golf says. No family is more intertwined with the game. Jay's uncle Bob Goalby, who taught him the game, won the '68 Masters. His brother Jerry Haas played the PGA Tour and now coaches Wake Forest. Jan's brother, Dillard Pruitt, was also a tour pro. Jay Haas, Jr., couldn't be at Shinnecock to watch the old man because the 23-year-old had his own Hooters Tour event to play. If there is a first family within the golf culture, it might be the Haas-Goalby-Pruitts.
Yet just a few years ago, Haas's long, distinguished but slightly unrequited career, which included plenty of victories, and money winnings, but never a major championship, seemed to be fading out. His family was his pride, just as his modest gentlemanly demeanor was his trademark. But the idea that his two sons would develop into aspiring pro players seemed improbable. They were normal kids, average players, at 13. The notion that Haas might play the best golf of his life and contend for a U.S. Open crown at an age when he was eligible to play the Champions Tour would have seemed downright deranged.
But here we are. Haas has been so consistently excellent for the last two seasons, with scads of top-10 finishes on tour and the 15th spot on the money list last season, people have been expecting him to win soon. But at the U.S. Open?
As Haas followed his son around the course Thursday afternoon, the scene around him almost defied belief. Who knows when the best day of your life will arrive or if you'll even notice when it does? But for Haas this might have been it. And he seemed to grasp it. So, he basked.
Common sense dictated that, after his 66, he should get his rest to prepare for a grueling four-day test presumably unsuited to a man "his age." Instead, Haas was not about to miss watching his son Bill hit a 330-yard drive to set up a birdie, not about to pass up a chance to hold hands with his youngest daughter as they walked outside the ropes or laugh with the rest of his brood.
On the Open leader board, his own name stood at the very top. "Nice round, Mr. Haas," yelled fans, many of them adults, who nevertheless were too young to feel comfortable dispensing with the "Mr."
"This is cool. The only way the day could be any better is if [Bill] shoots a good score," Haas said. "If he sees my name up there, maybe he'll say, 'Pffft, if dad can do it, I know I can.' . . . We go back and forth in our matches. But he dusted me last time. He can whip me most any time. He drives 25 to 35 yards longer. . . . I hope he beats me every single time we play. . . .
"Including this week."
So there we have it, a man who has never won a major after 31 seasons of trying would love to finish second -- to his son.
Bill obliged with that solid round. He stood at 3 over par through 17 holes when darkness suspended play. One more par would give him a 73, a total that would make any amateur proud and put him in realistic position to make the cut. Next week, Bill Haas makes his pro debut in Washington at the Booz Allen Classic.
Did his father's score surprise him? After all, Dad has played the Open since '74 and only had one other 66. "Not really -- 66 doesn't surprise me," Bill said. "He made a few putts. He said he hit it great." Pause. "He's good," Bill Haas said.
On Friday, roles will reverse. "I'll watch him in the afternoon after I get done," said Bill.
No 50-year-old has ever won a major championship. When he slipped to 144th on the money list in '00, it was assumed that no just distinction would fall on Haas. Nine PGA Tour wins, seven seasons in the top 25 on the money list, two spots on the Ryder Cup team and the universal respect of his sport would have to suffice, it seemed.
Then, in the last two years, Jay learned to putt, a trick he'd never mastered.
"I worked with Stan Utley. He gave me a different theory on my putting," he said. "One theory, not 50 that I used to have. I used to try something the first few holes and if I didn't make a couple, I tried something else. And under pressure I didn't really know what to stick with."
Now, he hews to the method regardless of "whether I make them or not."
You want to know the tip, right? "The putter should travel on an arc and the putter head should stay square to the arc, not square to the line," Haas said. Think about that enough and you should three-putt for months.
As if putting help wasn't enough, golf's new equipment, which enrages purists but delights the middle-aged, has given Haas extra length he had never had but always craved. Courses that had been a bit too big for him at 30 were suddenly just the right size. Suddenly, after you named the game's dozen best players, the Tigers and Phils, the second-best dozen included Haas.
Over the hill? Haas began dreaming about charging up that hill one last time. At the Players Championship, against a field and on a course as tough as a major, he finished second and sixth the last two years. At the '03 PGA Championship, he was fifth.
"All my career I've felt I could win a major. But I certainly haven't done it," said Haas. "Golf can be soul searching and ego mangling. . . . Jan's told [the boys], 'Don't do it because Dad does it.' She knows how difficult, painful and lonely it can be.
"But it gives them joy."
Right now, it's giving Dad joy, too, as well as perhaps the extra inspiration to do remarkable things.
"It means the world to play in a tournament like this with your son," Haas said. "Like they say, it doesn't get much better than this."
Though by Sunday, it could.