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The road less traveled: Peter Uihlein explores golf's outposts and learns about himself

  • 51f34d4bca915010320f6a7067007ef4.jpg

    Peter Uihlein, of the US, putts on the 18th hole during the last round of the Madeira Islands Open Sunday, May 19 2013, at the Santo da Serra golf course, in Machico, Portugal. Uihlein shot a 15-under-par total of 273 to win the tournament. (AP Photo/Helder Santos) (The Associated Press)

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    Peter Uihlein, of the US, holds his trophy after winning the Madeira Islands Open Sunday, May 19, 2013, at the Santo da Serra golf course, in Machico, Portugal. Uihlein shot a 15-under-par total of 273. (AP Photo/Helder Santos) (The Associated Press)

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    Peter Uihlein, of the US, tees off towards the 14th hole during the last round of the Madeira Islands Open, Sunday May 19, 2013, at the Santo da Serra golf course, in Machico, Portugal. Uihlein shot a 15-under-par total of 273 to win the tournament. (AP Photo/Helder Santos) (The Associated Press)

The quotation from the proud father was a version of Ralph Waldo Emerson's famous words, "Go instead where there is no path and leave a trail."

The path of Peter Uihlein took him inside a cage below the surface of the Indian Ocean, where a Great White Shark with jaws wide open approached while closing in on a tuna. The jagged, triangular teeth gnashed at the tuna's head against the cage, and the former U.S. Amateur champion could see black eyes roll over to white.

"That was the coolest," Uihlein said. "When I knew I was going to South Africa, that's the thing I've always wanted to do. We were in Mossel Bay. I was told it was a good cage dive, so we did it. We were out there for five hours. They chum up the water, and there were six or seven of them. It was incredible."

Uihlein spoke on his way from Gatwick to Wentworth, a familiar path for the best on the European Tour.

The 23-year-old out of Oklahoma State earned a spot in the BMW PGA Championship with his two-shot victory Sunday in the Madeira Island Open in Portugal, his first win since he turned pro in December 2011 and set off on a course where few Americans venture.

It started with the Gujarat Kensville Challenge in India.

In the last 18 months, he has been to Korea and Kazakhstan, Finland and France, the Czech Republic and Copenhagen.

Uihlein tried Q-school on the PGA Tour as an amateur and didn't get out of second stage, leaving him no status on any tour. Most young Americans, especially with his pedigree as a U.S. Amateur champion and two-time Walker Cup player, would try to make the most out of sponsor exemptions on the PGA Tour, or even try to work their way up through the Web.com Tour.

Looking at golf through a wide lens, and with the advice of those who see golf on a global landscape, Uihlein headed to Europe and beyond.

His father is Wally Uihlein, chief executive of Acushnet, which makes Titleist golf equipment. His agent is Chubby Chandler of International Sports Management, whose stable began with Lee Westwood and Darren Clarke and now includes a couple of South African stars in Louis Oosthuizen and Charl Schwartzel. He began working with Butch Harmon and his son, Claude Harmon III.

There were times when travel, failures and solitude could have made him question what he was doing so far from home.

"Based on the guys I have around me — Butch, Chubs, my dad — they've been doing this a long, long time," Uihlein said. "If they say it's the right thing to do, who am I to question what they say? I had no doubts."

Frustrations?

"Name me one golfer that doesn't get frustrated," he said with a laugh.

He says he is not the least bit envious of Jordan Spieth, the 19-year-old from Texas who started out trying to make it through sponsor exemptions. Spieth was closing in on Web.com Tour status when he tied for second in the Puerto Rico Open and tied for seventh in the Tampa Bay Championship, which earned him unlimited exemptions on the PGA Tour. He now has locked up his card for 2014.

Two years ago, Bud Cauley left Alabama and earned his card without ever going to Q-school.

"Those guys played well with the opportunity, and that's what it's about," Uihlein said. "To do what Spieth did, you have to be a great player, and you have to be ready to come out and play well in a few events. They both played great. But for every one or two of those guys, there are 20 who don't pull that off."

Before there was a Hogan Tour — now called the Web.com Tour — it made more sense for players without a PGA Tour card to travel the world in search of a game. That's what Payne Stewart did. Corey Pavin spent his first year out of UCLA on the European Tour and won the German Open by beating Seve Ballesteros.

These days, the options range from the Web.com Tour, the eGolf Tour in North Carolina, the Hooters Tour in the South. Uihlein chose to travel to obscure outposts in golf, and even in some down times, there have been few regrets.

"It helps you grow up as a player and a person," he said. "There are so many different variables every week. It's all about becoming a more well-rounded player, and not a one-dimensional player. You might hear someone say, 'Hilton Head sets up well for them.' I don't want that stereotype."

Uihlein started slowly. He made only one cut in the five European Tour events he played — a tie for 57th in the Avantha Masters in India — but at least secured status on the Challenge Tour, which is Europe's version of the minor leagues.

It sounds exotic traveling the world, yet there were times when his confidence took a beating, just like any golfer. He withdrew from the Hassan Trophy after opening with an 83 and didn't play for nine weeks. Part of that time was spent with Harmon in Las Vegas.

Harmon said the problems were his driving and confidence, and one was easier to fix than the other.

"He's worked his butt off," Harmon said. "The kid always has been able to play, he just lost his way a little bit. I've talked to Wally. We thought the European Tour was the way to go. Young kids get spoiled over here. You get over there, you play in bad conditions on different courses, and you appreciate it more. He's doing the right thing, and I'm real happy for him."

With his win in Portugal, Uihlein now has a full European Tour card, which can only help get him to where he eventually wants to be, back home in America.

Even now, Uihlein is in no hurry. He is seeing the world. He is learning. He takes nothing for granted.

"If you're OK with being a little lonely out there, it's definitely the route," Uihlein said. "It's a different route for an American, but I think you'll see it more and more."

Uihlein started this year by playing seven straight weeks that took him from India to South Africa to Kenya and back to South Africa for two weeks, and then to Puerto Rico and Florida before taking a five-week break. He shares a home in South Florida with Brooks Koepka, who plays the Challenge Tour in Europe, and Matt Broome, a childhood friend who is playing the PGA Tour Latinoamerica.

"We have a house rule that whoever wins a tournament has to buy a jet ski," Uihlein said. "Brooks won a Challenge Tour event a few weeks ago. So now we're going to have two jet skis at the house when I get home."

And then he'll be back on the road again, leaving a trail.