It's fashionable to pretend that you became a Jason Gore fan when he won the Boise Open in 2002, but most of us only became aware of the Nationwide tour irregular last month when he shared the 36-hole lead at the U.S. Open, and only fell in love with him during round 3. With the PGA Tour's finest stuck in neutral on Saturday, salvation arrived in the unlikely shape of a 31-year-old qualifier heaving his 240-pound body onto the 18th green and flashing a smile bright enough to illuminate Pinehurst No. 2 at night.
After sinking the birdie putt that would put him into the final pairing on Sunday, the world's 818th-ranked player turned to his caddie and asked, "Did I just point that ball into the hole?" When his caddie said yes, Gore muttered, "What a cheeseball!" Thus a new national hero was born.
Inevitably the cheeseball melted in the heat of the final day, shooting an 84 that dropped him to 49th and back into obscurity. In pro golf, obscurity is a western New York town named Findley Lake, where Gore resurfaced last week at the Nationwide tour's Lake Erie Classic.
The consensus is that sudden fame hasn't changed Gore, nor will it. "Jason is Jason," says Nationwide veteran Scott Petersen. "He could win $10 million, and he'd be the same guy." Gore insists the only difference between then and now is confidence: A newfound self-assurance helped him shoot a seven-under-par 281 at the Classic, seven strokes behind winner Esteban Toledo. The tie for 10th was Gore's best finish this season.
"Confidence is about all I got out of Pinehurst," Gore says. "I didn't get a single endorsement. I didn't get a bodyguard. I didn't even get a new car." He still drives the same 2004 Ford Expedition that was broken into on his way to the Open. "Fortunately, insurance covers the cost of the stolen speakers, the DVD player, the PlayStation, the iPod, the three TVs and my wife Megan's clothes," Gore reports. Alas, his purloined underwear is irreplaceable.
Still, the cracks he has endured for losing his BVDs were nothing compared with the snickers he heard last week for losing his cellphone at Las Vegas International on his way to Findley Lake. "What's up, Jason?" Kevin Durkin deadpanned on the practice range. "I called your cell, but a woman named Shoshana answered."
"Hey, I left my phone at the Vegas airport," Gore protested. "I didn't leave it at a Vegas strip joint!"
He hopes the teasing dies out before the celebrity, which shows no signs of fading. "At least now when I walk a course, people shout, 'Great job, Jason,'" Gore says. "The truth is that before Pinehurst, all they ever yelled was, 'Look, the vice president's playing!'"
In reality Gore's Pinehurst meltdown cost him a place on the PGA Tour. A top 15 finish would have given him a free pass to next year's Open; had he taken home the $700,000 second-place money, he would have been all but assured of a Tour exemption in 2006. "If I had played better on the last day, great things would have happened," he says. "I didn't, so I have to work my way back to the PGA Tour."
Since turning pro in 1997, Gore has earned a Tour card twice--at the 2000 Q school and by finishing sixth on the Nationwide money list in '02--but couldn't keep it. This year Gore has made $41,579, putting him 57th on the Nationwide money list with 16 events remaining. "My plan is to enter them all," he says. "I'll play a tournament at a time, a shot at a time. As clichéd and generic and boring as that sounds, that's what I have to do."
Even if he fails, he'll always have Pinehurst. "It seemed as if I had the whole world on my side," Gore says. "I wasn't just some minor leaguer--I felt as if I was the crowd favorite."
So what's the secret to his appeal? "Maybe it's that I'm not cookie-cutter," he says. "Or that I smile a lot, that I like to have a good time, that I love my wife and baby boy, and that I'm a little portly."
Gore takes it all in a stride that is surprisingly light and agile. "I'm simply a big guy," he says. "I was thrown into a tool box, and I'm a monkey wrench. The minute people stop making fun of me, I'll be worried."
After his roller-coaster Open and before rejoining the Nationwide tour, Gore returned to a near hero's welcome in Valencia, Calif.
Wife Megan and son Jaxon were happy to get off the road.
Gore was glued to an Open replay at his club, Valencia.
Valencia had lots of good cheer on tap for Gore.
Family friends put their congratulations in writing.
Before long the Gores were ready to hit the road again.
"I left my phone at the Vegas airport," Gore protested. "I didn't leave it at a Vegas strip joint!"
Photograph by FRED VUICH; SKY EXTENDED BY SI IMAGING
The warm embrace of the crowds that propelled Gore at Pinehurst (left) continued to buoy him at Findley Lake (inset) in western New York.
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