By Jeff Shain, PGATOUR.COM Contributor
FORT WAYNE, Ind. – Arron Oberholser pulls the glove from his pocket, briefly running his thumb over a thin, 2-inch-square bulge of memory foam sewn into the base.
“There’s not much there,” the 38-year-old veteran said Friday. “Not much to it.”
On that little cushion, though, is where Oberholser’s career rests.
Without it, the force of impact irritates nerves near his wrist, eventually causing two fingers to go tingly and lose grip. The pad absorbs the shock, freeing Oberholser to let loose without worry.
“It’s been pretty good so far,” he said.
And how. After a hurried trip to the Hotel Fitness Championship – he didn’t think he was eligible for the Web.com Tour Finals – Oberholser has cruised with rounds of 68-66. At 10-under-par 134, he lurks just one shot behind leaders Trevor Immelman, Michael Putnam and Patrick Cantlay.
“One over-par hole in two days, when I haven’t played,” said Oberholser, whose only blemish thus far at Sycamore Hills Golf Club came with a double bogey at Friday’s next-to-last hole. “I’m kind of speechless.”
Oberholser now has more rounds in the 60s this week than over the past two seasons. Four seasons, really, when you consider he didn’t hit a competitive shot in 2010 and ’11. He hasn’t played a full season since 2007, when he had the first of five surgeries to his left hand.
Just this past April, Oberholser feared he was truly finished.
A promising start at the Shell Houston Open crumbled into another missed cut, his hand growing increasingly numb as he gutted out a second-round 75. Even before catching a flight back to Phoenix, Oberholser phoned up executives at the Golf Channel, where he’d been doing some in-studio analyst work.
“I think I’m done,” he told them, adding that he’d like to expand his TV role if they had work available.
Oberholser’s hand specialist, though, had one more proposal. Dr. Peter Campbell suggested a glove with extra padding in the affected area, opposing the base of the thumb.
In retrospect, the idea was remarkable for its simplicity. Oberholser’s problem stemmed from losing a chunk of his hamate bone, leaving the nerve vulnerable. In a way, it’s surprising no one had suggested it sooner.
But there was a caveat: Oberholser was one of the few pros who played without a glove.
“I hadn’t worn a glove since I was 14,” he said, noting that his mom raised him as a single parent.
“We couldn’t afford them when I was a kid. She didn’t know much about golf, so she said, ‘You’re going to have to figure out something else.’ So I just started playing without a glove. It felt good and I played well, so I didn’t think anything of it.”
After all these years, Oberholser was concerned a glove would mess with his feel. On the other hand, he was flat out of options.
“If this works, this is the only way you’re going to be able to play golf,” Campbell told him. “It may not work, but this is the last straw.”
Oberholser said it took a “good, solid month” to get used to wearing a glove and the feel of swinging the club with it.
“I didn’t know how I was going to be able to come into the ball – if I could feel where the clubhead was and feel where the impact was going to be,” he said. “There was some trepidation, for sure.”
The pad, just 1/8 of an inch thick, doesn’t alleviate the problem entirely. Some days the hand feels fine during warm-ups; on other days a dull ache makes it harder to grip the club. But either option was still better than what he’d been experiencing before, when the ring finger and pinky on his left hand could go numb.
“At the top of my backswing, I was losing my grip,” he said. “It’s hard to play golf that way. Well, you can’t play golf that way.”
With 10 starts still left on his medical exemption, Oberholser turned his attention to the start of the new PGA TOUR season in October. It wasn’t until last Thursday that his wife, Angie, suggested he look into playing the Web.com Tour Finals.
“They’re probably not going to let me, based on my status,” he told her. “But I’ll call.”
To his surprise, TOUR operations chief Andy Pazder said he was eligible if he wanted to enter. “I was shocked,” Oberholser said. “Shocked.”
So shocked, in fact, that Oberholser didn’t get much time to prepare. He had to book flights, find hotels, round up a caddie. Fortunately, a close friend had a free week to make the trip to Indiana.
“I told myself at the beginning of the week that I have nothing to lose,” he said. “I’m just out here trying to find out where my game is. So far, so good.”
Oberholser carded four birdies and an eagle in Thursday’s 66, then added six birdies in Friday’s first 16 holes before his stumble at No.8. His approach shot flew left of the green, and he needed two chips to get the ball on the putting surface.
“I think my body was a little tired,” Oberholser said. “I’m not used to walking 18 [holes], and so I just kind of pulled it. That left me a tough shot.”
His TV work has come to good use, too. As he pored over statistics to get ready for his studio work, Oberholser began to get a sense of what makes the PGA TOUR’s best rise to the top and began to work it into his own practice.
Such as what? “I’m going to keep that to myself,” he said. “While I’m still playing, I’ll keep that to myself if you don’t mind.”
If the past two days are any indication, that time frame might run a few more years than even he imagined.