Plenty of golfers have had roller-coaster careers. Hal Sutton's was a roller coaster, Turbo Drop and bumper cars rolled into one. At 25, he was a PGA and Players champion, a prodigious, self-assured talent driven by a demanding father. At 35, he was on the tail end of what would be an almost decade-long winless slump, with a head full of swing thoughts and a life lacking balance. By 45, he had clawed his way back, holding off Tiger Woods -- like few other have -- in a gripping final round at TPC Sawgrass, before assuming a Ryder Cup captaincy that would drive Sutton from the game.
At 55... well, that brings us to today, and if you had visited Sutton on a recent morning at his tidy, four-bedroom bachelor pad in Shreveport, La., you'd have found a man who looks much as he did when he won his only major, 30 years ago. He's a little wider around the middle, but he still has lumberjack's forearms, that full, sharply parted coif, and piercing blue eyes. Sutton, who's as intense as ever, reflected candidly about his turbulent past, but grew most animated when discussing the future -- golf's future. The distance-crazed game has lost its way, he says, and it's time to set things right. Here's how Sutton plans to do his part to enact change, why the U.S. Ryder Cup team is still struggling, and how the PGA Tour helped make Tiger Woods a superstar -- at all costs.
In the wake of all the negative press you received after Europe thrashed your Ryder Cup team in 2004, you all but swore off the game for five years. Why, in 2009, did you return to play the Champions Tour?
The only reason I'm playing right now is I want prove to myself one more time that I can do it. But I don't have this thing where I feel like I need to win 10 times. I've had a successful career, and if it's over with, that's okay. It's funny, I had somebody say to me the other day, "You're not even going to be in the record books. You'll have to look to find your name."
But you won a major and 13 other PGA Tour events. What did he mean by that?
That time passes you by. Your accomplishments just get so far back there; the latest and greatest is what's important.
Do you feel that way, like the game has passed you by?
No, I don't think it's passed me by. I think my body is saying, "I don't want to do this as much anymore." [Sutton had a hip replaced in 2012.] I have to be honest -- I don't have the desire or the passion to spend four hours a day practicing. If you want to be great, you've got to do that. But I personally believe that what I do with my game is far less important than what I might help somebody else do with their own game. I've got a couple ideas about things I want to do right now that involve using what I know to help others.
Can you elaborate?
I'm going to do some playing retreats at Boot Ranch [Sutton's course in Fredericksburg, Texas], where people come in and I teach them not how to swing, but how to really play golf. Nobody knows what their strengths and weaknesses are and how to play to their strengths. They don't even know on which side of the tee to tee it up, and why they should tee it up over there. It'll be a two-day deal, I won't take any more than four people at one time, and I'm going to do it alone. I'd like to do the majority of it with young players, because I think that's who you can help the most -- although a guy that's 40, 50, 60 years old, who's a pretty decent player but can't get any better through instruction, if he learns a little bit about how to play, he's going to get better. You watch on Tour -- the guys who lay up, they lay up to a specific spot. Nobody else does that. Nobody.
Because it's no fun.
Let me tell you what's fun in golf -- low scores. I mean, the manufacturers have tricked people into believing that distance is everything. There is no place on the scorecard that says you need to hit it 350 yards. No place. It's a joke what's going on today in the world of golf. In my opinion, we've cannibalized ourselves. We have fewer golfers, and we're eating away [at the game] because rounds take too long, and we're all out of whack with what our priorities are. I want to put respect back into the game. I want to put some understanding back into the game. There's not enough people doing that sort of thing.
How do you think the governing bodies should have intervened -- by dialing back the ball?
The ball, clubs, everything. Distance became most important. Manufacturers started driving the game. And they were about the all-mighty dollar. You can't let somebody whose whole basis is money choose the direction of the game. See, the USGA needed to step up and say, "You can't do this. This is outside the limits of the game."
You're referring to the surge in high-tech equipment?
Yeah, [the clubmakers] tricked everybody into believing they were hitting the ball farther by putting a different number on the bottom of the club and changing the loft of the club. That's a lie. That's not how you make somebody better. That's what was driving the game -- they changed the lofts of the clubs, because they realized everything had gotten so distance driven.
But we can't go back now, can we? You can't tell a 15-handicapper that you're going to lop 15 yards off his drives.
But most of them don't get any of that [distance]. The people who hit it a really long way are the kids who create [clubhead] speed. All the middle-aged guys who are paying the bills -- they're not getting anything out of this. They may think they hit it 10 yards farther, and that's probably with their irons, and they were tricked there.
Let's talk about your 1983 PGA Championship win. You've said the memory that most sticks with you from that week is making three straight bogeys, on 12, 13 and 14, on Sunday, which let Jack Nicklaus get back within a stroke of you. Why does that resonate?
Because just two weeks earlier I'd lost a six-shot lead at the Anheuser-Busch [to Calvin Peete]. He'd shot 68, I shot 77. At the PGA, I was winning pretty much from start to finish. Then all of a sudden come three bogeys in a row. Me and everyone else who saw me fall at the Anheuser-Busch said, "Well, is he going to do it again?" So I picked myself up by the bootstraps, finished with four pars and won.
Nicklaus met you on the 18th green and said, "Congratulations, I have a feeling this is going to be the first of many."
Yeah, well, it wasn't. [Long pause] We all get through our life and we look back and we'd like to change some things. And we feel like if we had changed those things, we'd have had more successes.
In a bid to find happiness during those years, you spent money liberally. You bought a Porsche, a house, an airplane.
Yeah, I started spending money and riding horses, something that took a lot of time. And oh, by the way, I'm competitive, and I don't want to do anything if I'm not good at it, so that means I've got to do it a lot. So that's the way I went. I've already proven I can play golf, so let's try this over here. I used to go see Byron Nelson at Preston Trails. I said, "What's the best advice you can give me?" He said, "Try to keep balance in your life." But I needed more explanation than that, because I was too stupid to get it.
You've been divorced four times, dating to 1984. When you went winless from 1986 to '95, was disharmony in your personal life the cause of your professional struggles, or vice versa?
It was a bit of both. People that strive for perfection -- really strive for it -- they're striving for it in all areas of their life. They're supposed to get it. When you strive for perfection, it's almost a way of life. You can't get away from it. Your clothes have to fit just right. Everything's got to be just right. We live in a selfish world; there's very little selfless going on. If you're selfless, it's hard to achieve goals.
Could you see yourself marrying again?
Yeah, I could. I believe in marriage. I think it's the best way to go through life if you've got the person that wants the same things.