Forgive Hal Sutton, when he looks back on his lone win in a major, if he sometimes feels like a man watching a film about someone else’s life.
Nearly three decades have passed since the 1983 PGA Championship, and so much has changed. Back then, Sutton was known as "the Bear Apparent," and he lived up to that billing by besting his idol, Jack Nicklaus, by a single stroke at the year’s final major at Riviera. That same year, he won the Players Championship at Sawgrass, with birdies on the par-3 17th in all four rounds. He was a star ascendant, the Tour’s leading money winner, a 25-year-old on the cusp of a long and lucrative career.
“I was a probably a better player then than I am today,” Sutton said one recent morning, prior to the start of the 3M Championship in Minnesota. “But I’m more at peace with who I am today. One thing learn as you grow older is that what happens on the golf course is not what matters most in life.”
The younger Sutton didn’t make that distinction. He looked for fulfillment in the trappings of success. In victories on the course, and in acquisitions off it. He bought houses, cars, a jet airplane.
“But then you realize,” Sutton said, “that stuff isn’t going to buy you happiness.”
The blistering start to Sutton’s Tour career gave way to middle years of under-achievement. From 1986 to 1995, he failed to net a win, and salvaged his Tour card only by using a one-time exemption for players in the top 50 of the money list. Off the course, failed marriages brought disappointments, too.
“To play golf at the highest level requires a kind of single-minded focus and dedication,” Sutton said. “But it doesn’t always allow you to lead a balanced life.”
As Sutton found that balance, his game, missing in action, reappeared. In 1998, he won the Valero Texas Open. In 1999, he was the MVP of the victorious U.S. Ryder Cup squad. Then in 2000, a second triumph at the Players Championship, in which he held off Tiger Woods (“Be the right club today!”) in a final round that felt like two-man match play. This time, success came with more mature perspective.
“I look back on that win today, and it was probably the high point of my career,” Sutton said. “I’d beaten the best player in the world head-to-head. It was more money than I’d ever won in a single event. But what does that all mean? That money is long spent, and the memory of the win, it’s almost like a blip.”
In the years since, there have been other setbacks. An intensely criticized captaincy of the 2004 Ryder Cup. A recent divorce from his fourth wife, Ashley. But life soldiers on, and so does Sutton. After a nearly six-year hiatus from the game, he is back competing on the Champions Tour. He has made 11 of 13 cuts this season, and is almost fully recovered from the left hip surgery he underwent nine months ago.
“It’s finally getting to the point where I’m almost pain-free,” Sutton said.
Chances are there won’t be another major. As if that matters. At 54, Sutton now measures success by a different scorecard. He puts less stock in golf shots than he does in his friends, his family, his faith.
“You never know what golf is going to bring you,” Sutton said. “But when you have balance in your life, you’re in a lot better position to handle whatever comes your way.”