He should have vanished for good with his $29,879 check, a pat on the back and a rim shot. He was 31-years-old and a lumpy 240 pounds, a golfer ranked 818th in the world who had twice failed to keep his PGA Tour card. He had scuffled since 1999 on the Nationwide circuit and hung in through two rounds of qualifying to make the U.S. Open field at Pinehurst No. 2. With his wife and infant son in tow, he had pulled into an Asheville, N.C., hotel before the tournament, only to have his Ford Expedition broken into. Among the items stolen: his BVD's.
Nothing about Jason Gore demanded awe -- until, that is, he unveiled his fluid swing and his easy smile and displayed a palpable sense that he knew the difference between taking his shots and himself seriously. "Jason is Jason," Nationwide veteran Scott Petersen would say. "He could win $10 million, and he'd be the same guy."
As Gore blithely followed a first-round 71 with a 67, the crowds at Pinehurst and viewers across the country swung to his ample side. When he buried a birdie putt on No. 18 for a third-round 72 that put him in the final pairing with Retief Goosen for the final round, he turned to his caddie and asked, "Did I just point that ball into the hole?" Told yes, Gore muttered, "What a cheeseball!"
When Pinehurst-area merchants presented him with goods to replace what had been pilfered, he broke down on the Golf Channel and cried. Nothing about Gore suggested he was ready to win a major either. That became all too apparent when he strung together a triple bogey and three doubles for a final-round 84 that dropped him from second place to 49th. Thanks for coming, Jason, and feel free to hit the buffet on the way out.
Gore stewed about a finish that cost him a medley of exemptions and several hundred thousand for all of 30 seconds. "Once I realized, Hey, that was quite a wonderful week," he said, "it really didn't matter." Rising from obscurity only to implode on one of golf's biggest stages is not a primary qualification for winning SI's Sportsman of the Year. Showing resilience then succeeding wildly in spite of that failure, however, is.
Gore returned to the Nationwide Tour, where he had earned $29,879 in 2005. Three weeks later, he won the National Mining Association Pete Dye Classic. Then he won the Scholarship America Showdown. When he won his third straight start, the Cox Classic -- at which he became just the third Nationwide player to shoot a 59 -- he earned a rare battlefield promotion back to the PGA Tour. In his first three Tour events Gore finished no higher than 60th.
But last September in the first round of the 84 Lumber Classic in Farmington, Pa., he fired a 65, then held a two-shot lead heading into Sunday. With his margin down to one stroke on 18, he needed to two-putt from 91 feet to avoid a playoff. He lagged to within 22 inches of the cup and won. Jason Gore had a victory.
"Around May-ish I was wondering if I could get formula for my child, if I was going to make a house payment, and now look," Gore said afterward. "They handed me a check for $792,000. It's amazing where a little perseverance and grit and maybe a little ignorance can take you."