From selling shoes to winning on PGA Tour, James Hahn writes unusual story
By By Marla Ridenour
DUBLIN, Ohio – James Hahn followed the stiletto-heeled tracks of Jimmy Choos and Christian Louboutins back to his professional golf career.
Broke and without a sponsor to keep alive his dream, Hahn restocked his bank account by selling $600 designer shoes at two Northern California Nordstroms.
Hahn, 33, had other unusual jobs before his victory at the Northern Trust Open in February earned him a spot in his first WGC-Bridgestone Invitational this week at Firestone Country Club. The graduate of Cal-Berkeley got his real estate license and worked for a mortgage broker. He put on a suit and toiled as an assistant account executive at an advertising agency, living 10 minutes away with his parents to save money.
But blessed with a charismatic personality and a strong work ethic, he proved to be a natural fitting Jimmy Choos and Christian Louboutins in the Salon department in Nordstrom's Walnut Creek and Pleasanton stores. Had he been working full time, he said he could have made six figures a year.
"He was one of the nicest, most genuine people I've ever met in my life. People are just drawn to him," said Joe Brazell, one of Hahn's best friends from college who was his boss for a while. Brazell is now planning director for design at Nordstrom headquarters in Seattle.
"It is one of those one-in-a-million stories – you don't hear about guys coming on the tour the way he did. He's got an incredibly positive attitude, he works his butt off. I'm super proud of him, but I'm not too surprised."
Hahn was not a star on the Cal golf team. In fact, he spent much of his time on the bench and quit before his senior year. Hahn said "extra-curricular activities got in the way, college life," so he finished his degree in American studies and turned pro.
He said he regrets the decision to this day, especially since the Bears won the NCAA title after he left.
"The running joke was they finally had to kick James off the team to win a championship," Hahn said at the Humana Challenge in January, 2013. "It hurt a lot ... it was just a bitter taste in my mouth because I was so happy to see them win. That kind of lit a fire under me and I wanted to prove everyone wrong.
"I was not going to let my senior year define my golfing career. It was just another chapter in the book."
Chapter Two came about a year and a half later, when Hahn ran out of money playing mini-tours. He decided to use his degree and was hired at West Advertising in Alameda.
He dressed up for work, even though he didn't have to, toiling from 8:30 a.m. until 6:00 p.m. He called it the hardest and yet one of the best jobs he ever had.
"We did anything from print ads to TV commercials to newspapers and magazines. I was in charge of making sure the client liked all the ideas we brought to the table and making sure of all the revisions as well," Hahn said at the Memorial Tournament in June. "It's very tedious. The client would have 10 different requests. 'I don't like the way this looks. Make this a little smaller. I don't like the font.' You have to be very detail-oriented and take your time to check and double-check because you're trying to make them happy.
"It was one of those experiences I will never forget."
In the winter of 2006, Hahn realized he wanted to give golf another shot, but the regular hours at the advertising agency left him little time to practice. He'd already worked for a time at Nordstrom in Walnut Creek, so Brazell convinced him to sell shoes in Pleasanton.
"That was a great experience, being able to open our department and close it down," Hahn said. "It was great to also be in charge of other people whereas in the advertising business I had a boss and a boss's boss.
"The weather wasn't good enough for me to practice, so I figured I'd do as many hours as I could. I surprisingly made more money selling shoes than I did at advertising and my hours were more convenient where I could go work out in between shifts. Once the weather got better I put in my two weeks notice and told them, 'I need to get back into playing golf.' "
Brazell figures it was a make-or-break time for Hahn.
"I definitely knew it was a, 'This was going to be my last shot' sort of thing," Brazell said. "But he's also very frugal. So I knew he was going to be able to last as long as he possibly could."
Hahn's father owned a driving range in Northern California, and Hahn started playing at 4. He'd wanted to be a pro since he was 9. But it was a slow climb. One year playing in his native Korea, which he left when he was 2, was followed by two years on the Canadian Tour and three on the Web.com Tour. In his third year on the PGA Tour, he was winless until the Northern Trust Open at Riviera Country Club, where he beat Dustin Johnson and Paul Casey in a playoff and pocketed $1.2 million.
Even that day, he realized he was still going to be best known for the "Gangnam Style" dance he did after a birdie at the 2013 Waste Management Phoenix Open. It has over 360,000 views on YouTube.
But Brazell knows there's more in store for Hahn. A U.S. Open qualifier in 2012, Hahn played in his second and third majors this year, but missed the cut at the Masters Tournament and Open Championship. He also had a tie for sixth at the Greenbrier Classic and a tie for 11th at the RBC Canadian Open. Going into the Quicken Loans National last week, he stood 35th on the FedExCup points list and 97th in the World Golf Rankings.
"I have no doubt he's going to win multiple majors," Brazell said by telephone from Seattle. "His personality, he has an amazing work ethic and when you combine that with how talented he is and his ability to remain positive and take all of this in, it's a recipe for success."
Even after his million-dollar victory, Hahn and his wife, Stephanie, didn't head straight to the Nordstrom shoe department. Stephanie gave birth to their first child, a daughter, in March.
"I don't think we can afford Nordstrom, to be honest," he said after his victory. "We are more of a Foot Locker kind of people. I get shoes from Under Armour; she goes to DSW and buys a couple pairs when they are on sale."
Hahn believes his past helps him value what he now has.
"It's a great experience for me looking back," he said. "I don't know how many of these guys on tour have had a real job. Some have probably worked at a golf course, but when you wake up and put a suit on to go to work, I feel like it is a totally different level.
"Seeing how much work goes into any daily job and seeing it in relation to what I do for a living, this is easy, this is good."
Brazell, who still keeps in touch with Hahn and watches every tournament he plays on television, said Hahn isn't embarrassed by the unusual ways he's earned a living.
"I think he takes those things that have happened to him, that have been challenging, as learning lessons," Brazell said. "It was meant to be. It's just part of his journey."
This article was written by Marla Ridenour from The Akron Beacon Journal and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.