One Step Ahead

Tuesday June 12th, 2007
"My name's on the trophy forever," Ogilvy says. "It doesn't really matter how it got there."
Patrik Giardino

IF THE 1974 U.S. OPEN at Winged Foot was a massacre from the start, the 2006 edition was an ambush with the end in sight. When play ceased Sunday evening, Open dreams littered the 18th hole like broken glass. Harrington. Furyk. Montgomerie. Mickelson. One by one they cracked, making way for an easygoing Aussie named Geoff Ogilvy. The 29-year-old acknowledges the series of 12th-hour blunders that opened the door for him, but offers no apologies. "My name's on the trophy forever," he says. "It doesn't really matter how it got there." How it got there, of course, was not just dumb luck, but courtesy of some of the most clutch shotmaking you'll ever see. Ogilvy's road to glory wasn't always this smooth. By his own admission he was a lousy student growing up in Melbourne, and for years he struggled with his temper. The recent birth of his daughter has helped soothe his inner beast, he says, and the perks that come to major champions — including a trip to Kauai, Hawaii, for the PGA Grand Slam of Golf, where we caught up with Ogilvy — haven't hurt either. Wearing shorts and flip-flops and sporting tousled hair that hinted he'd just rolled out of bed, Ogilvy dished about Winged Foot, Tiger Woods and making small talk with George W. Bush.

There's a perception that you won the U. S. Open solely because of other players' mistakes. How do you see it?

I finished how I needed to finish. There's always going to be that question mark, [or rather] not question mark, but I mean, my name's on the trophy. But, yes, I got a bit fortunate. I've never seen a replay of Monty's [chunked 7-iron approach at 18 that led to a double bogey], but that evidently was a bit out of character, and Phil's [gamble at 18] was in Phil's character 10 years ago. But my name's on the trophy forever. It doesn't really matter how it got there.

You and Mickelson are friends. What was it like having a television camera in your face as you were watching him collapse on the 72nd hole?

By the time I got to the scorer's hut, I'm looking in [at the TV] and Phil is attempting his second shot. I just wanted to make sure I got my card right, so I didn't really have a sense for what was going on until his next one went in the bunker. Then they zoomed in on the lie and it started becoming apparent to me that something wasn't going quite well for him. It's hard, you know, to watch someone do that, but at the same time you do watch. It was weird, a very strange way to win a tournament.

Have you spoken to Mickelson about how things played out?

Not really. I know Bones [Jim Mackay, Mickelson's caddie] really well. We've made a few small mentions about it, but it's a hard thing to talk about. I'm sure in a few years time when Phil's won another five majors it'll be a bit easier for him to swallow. We can talk about it then, but I'm not going to bring it up because I feel kind of badly about it.

Has it put a strain on your relationship?

We're fine. We're no less friendly than we were before.

READER QUESTION* Do you feel like you still need to prove to yourself and others that you can execute at a major when it's all on the line? — Charles Seil, Sykeston, N.D.

When you're playing in the last few groups on the weekend at a U.S. Open, you're thinking you have a chance to win. It's in the back of your mind at least. The only point where I thought maybe I'm not going to do this is when I was walking down the 15th fairway and Phil hit it out of the rough close on 14. By the time I hit my second shot on 15, I heard the cheer. So he goes two up ... but then [at 17] we hear Phil bogeyed 16 and all of a sudden I'm only one back.

So at that point you thought you had a chance?

Yeah, I refreshed my thoughts about having a chance. I don't know how different it would have been if I knew I was one shot in front, if I knew I had to make par. But I played those last four holes thinking about winning the U.S. Open. It would be nice to win another one day and come down the stretch five shots in front, so I'd get more credit.

In retrospect, of your chip-in at 17, your pitch shot to six feet at 18 and the ensuing par putt, which shot was most clutch?

Each one was big at the time; all three of them had to happen. The chip-in is what really put me back in the tournament. I was walking up to that shot thinking I was gone. Monty had just holed a 50-footer in front of me to go one in front and if I make bogey I'm two behind. But I still thought if I can just get this up and down and birdie the last I have a chance. But then came the chip-in, and I thought, "If I can birdie the last I might win this."

How did you remain so poised when everybody around you was self-combusting?

Playing a golf course that difficult helps to distract you from the reality that you're actually contending in the U.S. Open. You say to yourself, "This is a pretty tough hole. I've got to just play this hole. It could end right here." That helps — though it didn't feel as smooth as it looked probably. [Laughs] It always looks better than it feels.

Does Oakmont sound like a good setup for you?

I don't know. I wouldn't have thought any U.S. Open would set up well for me. I thought Winged Foot was the last place I was going to win. But they get so narrow [with the fairways] sometimes that it almost gives the advantage to guys like me who don't hit it straight. [Ogilvy finished 119th in driving accuracy in 2006.] That sounds ridiculous, but the guy who hits 80 percent of his fairways hits only 50 percent in the U.S. Open, so he's in the same position as me. In other words, the stronger, not-so-accurate hitters are almost at an advantage at the Open because everybody misses a lot of fairways.

That hardly sounds fair.

They've probably gone overboard a couple of times, but I thought Winged Foot was perfect. With the graduated rough, at least there was a relationship between the quality of the tee shot and the ease of the second shot, which I think sometimes is a bit too black and white — it's perfect or completely dead. Rough's always more exciting to watch if guys can get out of it and move it up the near green. I don't agree with [having to hit] wedge back to the fairway.

Do Aussies see your win as redemption for all the misfortune Greg Norman suffered in the majors?

I don't know if my win was any redemption for Norman, but I think Australia has been hungry for majors, and hopefully I've recaptured the Australian public's imagination. They got used to seeing Norman up there every year. Whether he was winning or losing, they still had something to watch at the majors. Now there's a whole bunch of Australians who can do a lot.

Can you fill Norman's shoes?

No chance. Norman's larger that life. That would be like trying to fill Tiger's shoes or Arnold's shoes. Norman's Norman — there's never going to be another. Scotty [Adam Scott] could come close. He's got the whole package, and it's only a matter of time before he wins a big one.

2006 was a brilliant season for Australians in general. Much of that is attributable to Australia's state-funded golf institutes, like the one you attended in Melbourne. Is your farm system better than America's?

The system I went through is the only one I know, so I don't know if it's better. But Australia seems to be maximizing its potential at the moment — maybe not maximizing it, but at least more so than the U.S. We should only have about four people on Tour because we've only got 20 million people in Australia. [Twenty-one Australians have PGA Tour cards in 2007.] The U.S. has 300 million people. So we must be getting more out of our players than the U.S.

How do the institutes work?

No stone is left unturned. You're not pushed into anything, but you're given the opportunity to [learn about] nutrition, fitness, psychology. You've got great coaches for your technique. There are seminars on every single aspect of life — financial planning, travel, relaxation, everything to do with golf. It's unbelievable. They say, "This is here. If you want to take it, you have the opportunity to do all this stuff."

In May 2006 you attended a dinner at the White House honoring John Howard, the prime minister of Australia. How'd you score an invite?

I was playing the Byron Nelson and I got a phone call from my office, and they said, "We've got an invitation from the White House here." It was for Tuesday night or something and at this point it's like Friday. So I'd have to fly home, have one night in Scottsdale, then fly all the way back across the country. I was like, "Aww, really?" I didn't know what the invitation was. Then I was told it was a state dinner with only about 100 people going, including the President and the Prime Minister of Australia. So I said, "Oh, I think we better go to this one." [Laughs.] It was just ridiculous. I sat at a table with the President, John Howard's wife, Rupert Murdoch, Condoleezza Rice. Why I was there was just bizarre.

Why were you there? This was before you had even won the Open.

My best guess is that the president likes to have someone nonpolitical [at his table] who he can talk with about the basketball, or something else. Someone who's not going to start asking questions about the economy and stuff. And so they must have said let's pick an Australian because of John Howard. Let's see — a golfer! Here we go!

How do you make small talk with the president?

Yeah, I don't know. The president was great. He has dinners like that every night so he's good at getting the ball rolling with people he hasn't met before. But I guess you speak second to the president; you wait for him to ask you a question. Obviously, he wanted to talk about anything but what was going on in the world.

In an interview last year you called Bush 'a bit dangerous.' Did you tell him that at dinner?

I said that before I met him. He was a much nicer guy than I expected, the kind of guy you want to have a few beers with — a really cool guy.

So you didn't tell him?

No, I didn't tell him I didn't agree with his foreign policy. I stayed away from that one. [Laughs.] What do I know, anyway? I just go by what I read in the newspapers.

PGA Tour pros are generally a conservative lot. Did your anti-Bush comments cause you any grief?

No, [the article] was printed in Ireland. Every pro has his opinions, and they're all different. Our opinions really don't mean anything because all we do is hit a golf ball around.

But you're a U.S. Open champion now. Your opinions mean more than they used to.

That's just ridiculous, because what do I know? It's silly, really. If you wanted to ask me what it feels like to hit a five-foot putt on the last hole of the U.S. Open I've probably got a valid opinion, but on anything else I don't.

But you've been dubbed as a good quote, an insightful thinker.

I don't think I have any good insights. I think I can just b.s. better than most.

Do your sponsors ever try to rein you in?

No, not really. You have to stay away from political comments, but apart from that you can say whatever you want.

Were you a good student growing up?

Not really. I didn't like school. I don't think they taught us the right stuff. I just never agreed with trigonometry or physics or any of that stuff. It's all bollocks. They should teach you financial planning or nutrition — stuff that's actually going to affect your life. My goal was just to pass, and I did.

When did you realize that golf was your calling?

Golf was always the sport that was going to win out. The appeal was that I could go out after school and play on my own; I didn't need anybody else. I played on Australian Rules football teams and cricket teams and it would frustrate me when one of my teammates would mess it up for the rest of the team — or if I messed it up. That just really annoyed me. In golf, it's your fault and your fault only.

Which brings us to your temper, and your struggle to control it. Where did that rage come from?

It comes from my mum's side. From the genetics side, I can blame her. I always had high expectations for myself and still probably do. And you get frustrated when you don't meet your expectations instantly. I'm no different than Tiger. Tiger's the angriest guy on Tour, but he never lets it affect the next shot. He's angry for five seconds and then it's gone. He'd admit that, too — it's not a detriment.

But there was a time when you'd go back to your hotel room after a bad round and berate yourself in the bathroom mirror.

Yeah, all day I'd be telling myself I was useless. It's bizarre. If somebody else talked to you like that you wouldn't be friends with them. So I just started being more positive. Instead of saying, "You're a bad putter," I'd say, "You're a good putter." It might have been a lie at that particular time, but if you can choose to say one or the other, you might as well say the one that going's to make you feel better.

What was the low point? Did you snap any putters?

A couple of times. I've never actually broken a putter over my knee, but I've thrown it against my bag and bent it a little bit, so I couldn't use it anymore. When you have to putt with your driver for that last six holes that's just embarrassing. Everyone gasps when you walk on to the green and pull your driver out. It's not a very cool thing; it's a bad look. It's just not enjoyable to keep riding yourself like that. At 35, I'd be done. I'd be fishing or hunting or something.

You never sought professional help. Why not?

I've talked to a couple of guys, but none of these [golf specific] psychologists. They're only telling you something that you already know. They don't know how you feel when you're playing your best. They can just sort of point you in the right direction. Deep down, everybody knows what is the right way to think. It's quite obvious: the right way to think is "I'm going to hole this putt" as opposed to "What chance have I got to hole this putt?" You just have to have the discipline to notice that you're thinking badly.

A couple years ago you started spending less time on the practice range and actually got better. What's your secret?

Every now and then I'll spend time on the range if I need to, but I used to start picking at my game too much. If I started hitting it bad, I'd start getting negative and then I'd start picking my swing apart, and by the end of a few hours on the range, I was a complete mess. If I took a week off, the first day I hit balls would feel the best. So I started by just not hitting balls after my round, and I didn't feel like I lost anything. And then when I'd go home and practice during a week off, I'd experiment and just play without any practice on the range. So I started [to realize] maybe you don't need to hit 500 balls a day to be any good.

Try telling that to Vijay.

For every Vijay or Tiger, there are the same number of guys who maybe don't practice at all — Ernie Els, Fred Couples. These guys would probably be annoyed that I said that, but they're not Vijay or Tiger. I mean, they practice, but they're much more chilled out. It's just a matter of finding out where you are. Practice can be a detriment rather than a help. For me, a small amount is good.

You've said you like facing Tiger at his best. That true?

When he's dominating a golf course, it's golf the way it's meant to be played. It's fun to watch, don't you think?

Sure, but not if you're competing against him.

Well, he's harder to beat. But how good is it if I win when he's playing his best? I can say, "I beat the best golfer of all time when he was playing his best."

It must be fun to watch him up close.

Even if he's playing badly he's fun to watch, because he's in the trees and then hitting amazing shots out of the trees. Phil's the same way. He's hit some shots out of the junk that just aren't normal. There are some golfers you play with who you just sit back and watch them play. Phil and Tiger are two of them. No offense to the guys who just pop it up there in the middle of the fairway, hit 80 percent of their greens and hole a few putts here and there, but it's not as fun to watch guys like that.

Could you ever ascend to Tiger's level?

He's always going to be a better player than me by a long way. If we played 100 times, he'd probably beat me 80 times. But if I can beat him 20 times, that would be nice.

You and your wife, Juli, had a baby girl in October. Could fatherhood distract you from golf?

It could, but there are good and bad distractions. I used to go back and mope around the hotel room. I'm not going to do that anymore. It's another outlet that's not golf that I can think about. She's not going to care if I three-putted the last three holes.

But she might care if you win another major. Do you feel like you need to win another to truly prove your mettle?

It'd be nice to win another one because it would give more credibility to the first one. But if I don't, at least I get to sit down when I'm older and say, "I won the U.S. Open."

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