The good-looking, well spoken champion of the legendary AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am seemed destined for golfing stardom. He was at the helm of the 2006 tournament. But now, just five years later, the show will go on without Northern California’s Arron Oberholser.
It’ll be a form of torture, but he plans to watch the telecast from his home in Scottsdale, Arizona.”I turn on the tournaments and my teeth start grinding,” says Oberholser, who has had four surgeries on his left hand since October 2007. “I force myself to watch events because it keeps me mentally engaged, it keeps me in a tournament mode. But it’s no fun. And Pebble is one of the hardest to watch, because I love that place so much.”
Oberholser’s career has been derailed by a catastrophic series of injuries. His 2001 season on the minor-league nationwide tour was curtailed by wrist problems. But he pushed on, winning on three continents as he worked his way to the PGA Tour, finally arriving for good in 2003. With a precise, controlled game and deadly putting stroke, Oberholser quickly established himself as a consistent contender on tour. A ninth place finish at the 2005 U.S. Open and a strong 14th in his Masters debut in ’06 earned him a rep as a player who excelled on tough setups. But by far, the highlight of the first act of Oberholser’s career was his victory at Pebble Beach.
“To win on that course is a big deal for any player,” he says. “With my ties to Northern California, with all the friends and family who were there to cheer me on…I hate to use the cliche, but it really was a dream come true.”
And yet, Oberholser was unable to defend his title in 2007 due to a back injury, one more betrayal by his brittle body. He played most of that summer with hand pain, gutting it out to grab a fourth place finish at the ’07 PGA Championship, which pushed him into the top 25 in the World Ranking. But he curtailed his season to have surgery to remove part of a small bone from his hand.
Oberholser returned to play eight events in ’08, but that July, needed a second surgery to remove bone spurs and repair cartilage damage. He turned up for the start of the 2009season but played only three tournaments before pain drove him from the course.
Ultimately it would take two more surgeries, in May and October of 2010, for Oberholser to be, as he says, “pain-free for the first time in ages.” Along the way another bone was removed from his left hand. With a chuckle, he says, “I’m pretty sure I’m the only pro golfer in the world missing two bones in his hand.”
Oberholser is a glass-half-full kind of guy and he says the saving grace of all his time away from tournament golf—he’s played one event since February 2009—has been getting to spend every day with his toddler son Ethan. It is a bitter irony that his wife, the former Angie Rizzo, cut short her LPGA playing career due to the lingering effects of back injuries sustained in a car crash.
“For Angie, it was almost a relief to walk away from the game,” her hubby says. “She was tired of the grind and she didn’t have the same fire to compete that I do. For me, not getting to play golf again would be a death sentence. I love the game so much and love the competition. My mind still wants to fight. If my body won’t let me, it will be a ver y bitter pill to swallow.”
Oberholser is “cautiously optimistic” he’ll be ready to play again in the fall of 2011. He has targeted for his return the low-key Pebble Beach Invitational, what he calls one of his favorite events in golf. Oberholser is not worried about having lost his stellar short game; unable to make a full swing since his surgeries, he spends hours chipping and putting and reports that his feel remains. But he concedes that nothing will be the same as he attempts to baby his rebuilt hand.
“If I can get back to playing full time, I will have to adjust my schedule,” he says. “I doubt I’ll ever play more than three weeks in a row. I’ll have to avoid courses with a lot of rough. It’s very likely I’ll be restricted to hitting only 30 or so practice balls, which may not be all bad. That would be like being a kid again, where you just show up on the tee and take a few practice swings and away you go. I have a tendency to over-think and over-analyze things.”
His active mind has led to some loose talk that Oberholser would be a natural as a TV commentator if his hand doesn’t hold up. “That’s a cool thing to hear, but I don’t know if that’s for me,” he says. “You have all of the travel but not nearly as much excitement.” Oberholser’s many fans around Pebble Beach will be rooting for a speedy recovery to share in that excitement.