This is meant to pose a question about Tiger Woods. But let's begin with Hal Sutton.
Hal Sutton was just 25 years old when he beat Jack Nicklaus by a shot to win the PGA Championship at Riviera in 1983. "I have a feeling this is the first of many," Nicklaus said after it ended — Nicklaus was always so graceful in defeat. And there was a point to his words. Sutton had won the U.S. Amateur, the Western Amateur twice, he had been named college golfer of the year, had been called "the next Jack Nicklaus" so many times that it was kind of hard not to believe it. "The Bear Apparent," Sports Illustrated called him. Others called him "Prince Hal."
Hal Sutton was 42 years old when he beat Tiger Woods by a shot to win the Players Championship in 2000. That was Woods' magical year, when he won three of the four major championships, won the World Golf Championships by 11 strokes, won a total of nine times on tour and, by most accounts, played golf better than it had ever been played before. Sutton beat him straight up. He needed to hit a good shot on the 72nd hole to win, and he pulled his 6-iron, and he shouted "Be the right club today!" with the ball in the air. It was the right club.
There is no other golfer, as far as I know, who beat Nicklaus and Woods straight up, in the big moments, with both golfers in their relative primes (Nicklaus was 43 but still strong). There is only Hal Sutton.
Only ... what happened to Hal Sutton in the years in between?
His golf game disintegrated, that was the most obvious thing that happened. The Sports Illustrated story referenced above, titled "The Fall of Prince Hal," appeared in 1988 — the worst for his golf game still came AFTER that story. Sutton did not win a tournament between May 1986 and September 1995. In that time frame, he missed the cut in 13 of the 26 major championships in which he played, and he has never again finished Top 3 at a major. He almost lost his tour card in 1992, and for all practical purposes did lose his way. After his renaissance, Golf Digest would write about a reporter ("who must have been on loan from the police beat," the author snarled) who asked Sutton how he filled his time during the years when he "left the game." It was a generally miserable time.
Why did it happen? There were theories, of course. His swing betrayed him. His low trajectory shots were not built for week-in, week-out play. His short game wasn't quite as good as it needed to be. He stopped making putts. He stopped working as hard on his game. One of the popular opinions among golf analysts and players was that Sutton was never that good in the first place. "It was a little unfair for people to project him as a dominating player," Nicklaus said in '88. "He's just not as powerful as guys like [Seve] Ballesteros and [Greg] Norman, and his putter has hurt him."
And then, there was something else ... something that would cryptically be called the "wild life" in the various stories written about his decline. Prince Hal, it was said, lived a Wild Life in those younger years. A Wild Life, capitalized, was more or less understood in those years, much the way that a fadeout in old Hollywood movies suggested that Rick and Ilsa had sex. Wild Life meant fast cars (in some of the stories, Sutton admitted his weakness for Porsches), and late nights and parties and hangovers and lots and lots of women. In those days, for the most part, Wild Life was left to the imagination. Sutton would marry and divorce four times. He was cruelly called "Halimony" by some of the players, and at the end of the Sports Illustrated piece there is the story of a mean bit of gamesmanship by Fuzzy Zoeller, who, it appears, was a big-league jerk long before he made his infamous "That little boy is driving well and he's putting well ... tell him not to serve fried chicken next year [at the championship dinner]" crack about Tiger Woods.
"Hey Hal," Fuzzy said at a pre-tournament shootout at the Memorial, "how many of your ex-wives are in the gallery?"
Even after Sutton put his life and game back together — found God, straightened his drive, started making putts, won some tournaments, became Ryder Cup captain — he did not want to revisit the old Wild Life. You couldn't blame him for this, of course. The closest, as far as I know, that he ever has come to really discussing those days was on this religious site.
"But golf did not bring me personal happiness, so I began to look to other things for my happiness. With all the money I had made I thought I could buy happiness. I've always loved fast cars, so first I bought a Porsche. When that didn't fill the emptiness, I bought a house. When that didn't do it either, I bought an airplane. None of these things brought me the happiness I was looking for."
Again, you have to read between the lines. When my friend, sportswriter Ken Burger — who will admit to having lived a WILD LIFE, all capital letters, filled with divorce and alcoholism and the rest — wanted to talk with Sutton about their rough pasts, Sutton bristled. "What do you know about it?" he snapped.
"Plenty," Kenny said.
I guess the point is that, in general, the story of Hal Sutton and the Wild Life was kept in code and in shorthand and in closing paragraphs. Of course, Hal Sutton wasn't ever really a big star. He was a promising golfer who won a major championship at a young age, but he wasn't front-page news. Then again, Sutton wasn't the only golfer who lived the Wild Life — or the only golfer whose game probably suffered because of it. There were others, truly great players, who lost their touch and lost their feel and lost their swing, and the other players whispered about the "real reasons" behind it all. But you haven't read those stories, I haven't read those stories — or if we've read them, they were hilarious tales about how Walter Hagen filled bathtubs with champagne, won golf tournaments after long and sleepless nights, all until his putting stroke had, in the immortal words of John Lardner, "been fatally marred by, he said, a 'whisky jerk.'"
It was a different time. It was a different world. "Wild Life" was as far as anyone would go, and often people would not even go that far.
* * *
OK, so Tiger. An editor brought up this question, and I think it's a fascinating one: "Isn't this whole Tiger Woods story entirely a product of the TMZ era? If this is 1955 or 1975 or whatever, none of this happens — the public revelations of infidelity, the crumbling golf game, the divorce, etc. No?"