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Hal Sutton Interview: Sutton on Tiger and Phil at Ryder Cup, media criticism and how equipment companies 'trick' golfers

Jack Nicklaus, Hal Sutton, 1983 PGA Championship
CARL IWASAKI / SI
Sutton [right] after holding off Jack Nicklaus [left] at the 1983 PGA Championship.

You were just 25 when you won the PGA. Did having so much success at an early age hurt you?
Yeah, I think it did. At the time that I came along, I was just one step closer to people like Tiger coming along, as well as other kids who believed they could have early success. But I didn't believe I could make it. When all the eyes got on me, I wasn't equipped at that point to do it -- mentally maybe more than physically.

You believed that at the time?
No, looking back. At the time, I thought I could do it. But I had never dealt with opinions like I heard then. Basically I had dealt with two opinions up until then: My dad's and Floyd's [Horgen, Sutton's college coach]. And then everyone else started casting opinions about me. I'll never forget that they wrote an article about me and how I could never win Augusta because I hit the ball too low, and, hell, you know what I started doing? Trying to figure out how to hit it higher so that you -- or someone like you -- would be wrong and I would be right.

You changed your approach because of one story?
One story. So I started adjusting what I did for one tournament. It's a joke how influenced I was, like all kids are to a degree by someone pushing a pencil who has an opinion. The real misconception is that because you're a journalist and a writer, you're actually right. That is a big misconception. That needs to be told to a kid -- you're going to read a lot of things that should be in the editorial section. Stay away from those opinions.

Did you read everything that was written about you?
At the time I did. Then I quit reading everything. I don't read any golf publication, none, because I don't care what you all think. I'm more qualified to know what's going on than you are, so why would I read what you think? I'm not trying to be negative about this.

The press hammered you after your Ryder Cup team lost in 2004 at Oakland Hills. How difficult was that for you?
I quit. It drove me right out of the game. You needed to blame a body, so I caught the blame. So I said, "I'm going to go over here. I don't need you all." That's the only way I could get grounded again, and get focused again on what I know.

So you were fed up absorbing the backlash?
Yeah, I was fed up listening to it. People were saying things they didn't know anything about. There's no one person who can make a difference [in countering Europe's success] right now. Is it a whole lot different right now than it was then? No, it's not. There's nobody turning this around. We've created some real superstars in the U.S. who have failed us when it comes to [the Ryder Cup]. They don't fail because they don't have enough talent; they fail because there's too much for them to do.

You mean Tiger and Phil?
Yeah. I mean Tiger's Ryder Cup record [13-14-2] is not very good at all, but everyone expects him to carry the team. He can't get but five points. That ain't gonna win it. So everyone else has got to perform. One of the reasons I think Europe is better than we are is they know more of the game. They have all the shots instead of half the shots. We've been playing the game in the air constantly. It's easier to learn how to play the game in the air than it is on the ground, so it's easier for them to learn to adapt to our style than it is for us to adapt to their style.

Looking back, what would you have done differently as captain?
[Long pause] I wouldn't have paired Tiger and Phil together. But if I hadn't, we'd have gotten beat anyway, and somebody would have blamed me for [not pairing them together]. I mean, we weren't going to win. They were just playing that much better than us. On Friday evening, after we'd gotten trounced, I'm out there watching the last group, and I've got to go to the pressroom. I've got a headset on and [assistant captains] Jackie Burke and Steve Jones are on the other end. I said to Jackie and Steve, "We've got to sit Tiger or Phil, because we need to make a statement. I've got my opinion on who needs to sit. I need your calls, too." Jackie comes on and says, "Well, hell, Hal, sit'em both, because it ain't gonna make a damn bit of difference." I said, "Why'd you say that?" He said, "When you get in, I'll show you." And he did. He said, "Every American's got their shaft leaning back, every European's got their shaft leaning forward, and we ain't got enough time to teach'em the difference." Do you know why that is? Because every American is taught, by virtue of his environment, to hit the ball straight up in the air like that, and every European is taught to hit [it lower] and maneuver the ground. Oakland Hills requires you to play the ground game, and not one single American could get that figured out.

What was the team meeting like on Friday night? Did you lay into them?
I didn't really lay into them, I just told the truth. I said, "Guys, our side has 12 wives who think they understand the game, but the only reason they're around the game is because you all are. And they're all patting you on the back saying, 'It'll be better tomorrow.' I said, "I grew up in a household where my dad patted me on the back with his fist" -- not really, but that's the way it felt. He was constantly telling me that I wasn't very good. "My job as the captain of this team is to fall somewhere between loving you and beating the s -- out of you. And, oh yeah, you're all supposed to be accomplished at this, and I know you want this, so go prove it."

Your father, Harold, drove you hard. He once said, "I did make life miserable for him. ... Between the time Hal was 14 or 15 and 21, pretty near every day I was on the brink of alienating him forever." How is your relationship today?
My dad and I, we're great. We were never ever strained to the point where I didn't want to be around him or him around me. My dad's goal at the time was to keep me right on point, keep me wound tight.

How did he do that?
By constantly judging what I was doing. My dad was one of those parents that when he watched me play golf I knew exactly how he felt I was doing. He was liable to tell some stranger who he was walking around with, "That was stupid what he just did." He was so into it that it would overcome him.

You've got four kids of your own now. Do you find yourself pushing them?
No, because of what I went through. I'm not one of those parents. I watch my kids play basketball, I don't say anything. I'm not going to embarrass them or single them out. I'm not going to say, "What the hell are you doing?! You know better than that!" But I see so many other parents doing it. You don't think Tiger's dad didn't do it?

Speaking of Tiger, one of your career-defining moments came when you stared down Woods in his prime, at the 2000 players. What made you believe you could win that day?
Understanding my strengths and weaknesses. One thing about TPC: You have to go from Point A to Point B to Point C. You can't bypass B. So I knew that by and large Tiger had to play to the same points that I had to. Those were the sort of golf courses that brought him back to the pack.

After launching your 6-iron approach on the 72nd hole, you memorably hollered, "Be the right club today!" Was you that a line you had been itching to use?
That was probably the biggest mystery of my life. That's nothing that was rehearsed. It's just the ball was in the air. I knew I had the perfect yardage for that 6-iron, and when I hit it and looked up, I knew I'd hit it solidly and it was headed right where I wanted it to go. So I was just thinking, Be the right club today -- I don't need any surprises at this moment. It was a moment of passion.

What was the mood like on Tour when Tiger was at his most dominant?
At the time I think everyone else was playing for second. I think there was a sigh of relief when Tiger wasn't playing -- there was going to be another winner. Now, had I been running the Tour, I'd have set the courses up differently and produced a different winner all the time. But when Tiger came along, the Tour played right into Tiger's hands.

How so? With longer setups?
Yeah, and they didn't want him to miss -- ever. I'll never forget sitting in a [PGA Tour] board meeting and I told Tim Finchen, "You don't have to give it to him. He's good enough; he'll earn it. In fact, he loves the challenge."

What did Finchem say?
Nothing. [Pauses] You're just a figurehead being on the board of the Tour -- I mean, fill a spot, fill a seat, we'd prefer you say nothing.

What changes were you lobbying for?
I wanted multiple superstars; the Tour would have been better off. We need several people that don't think that the other guy's got the advantage. I'd have set the golf courses up where one week we'd have had, say, David Toms as a winner. I bitched about it at every board meeting, and the next week it would be the same way. They said, "We're going to do this every week, so you better get used to it."

That must have been discouraging to the shorter hitters.
S -- , that's why the game is where it's at now. If a guy who doesn't really understand the game has a son who's really talented, he's going to tell him, "You've got to be the longest player out there." But the game is so much more than that. When I came up, long wasn't a big deal. Accurate was a big deal.

How does PGA Tour Commissioner Hal Sutton sound to you?
Yeah, right. But I do think this game would be better if a player was commissioner. It doesn't need to be a lawyer. Someone needs to be in that role that understands the game from a player's perspective, because you are commissioner of the players. Everything's gotten too business-related. We've got to feel the game more. A lawyer can't feel the game. I don't know, maybe I'm just dreaming.

Somebody's got to.
Yeah, Columbus dreamed, right? Let me ask you something: Steve Jobs -- did he have "yes people" around him or did he have dreamers?

Dreamers, I suppose.
Right, he encouraged people to think outside the box.

And if they didn't he fired them.
Exactly. He'd say, "I need you figuring out where we need to go that we're not now." In golf, we're going in the same direction. Somebody has got to say something that makes a difference. I'm not being critical of any one individual; I'm critical of the direction the game is going. Years ago I said some of these same things at Tour board meetings.One time, Dick Ferris [former chairman of the Tour's policy board] grabbed me on the way out. He said, "Hal, what you don't understand is that it takes a long time to turn the aircraft carrier around." I said, "You're right, it absolutely does. But first you've got to turn the wheel."
 

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