In June 2009 I was another Tour player in my late 20s trying to find a place in the game, doing fine, but not exactly beating the world. I mean, I wasn’t even in the field for the British Open at Turnberry that year. I got into our national championship through a 36-hole sectional qualifier. I arrived at Bethpage, on Long Island, knowing I liked the Black course. My first major had been at the 2002 Open on the Black. But my game wasn’t sharp coming in, and I didn’t have high expectations.
The week was long and muddy. We finished with the world at work—on a Monday afternoon—because of all the rain delays. I was going through socks as fast as my caddie, Don Cooper, was going through towels. My Yankees, lucky for them, were on the road. Yep, I’m a Southern boy who roots for Jeter & Co. I was wearing a Nike cap by day and a Yankees cap by night.
I drove it in play that week, I controlled my distances, I putted well. It was good golf. It wasn’t superhuman. On that Monday there were four of us in the mix. There was Phil Mickelson, playing not only for himself but also for his wife, Amy, who was battling breast cancer. There was David Duval, looking to win a second major after a long barren period. There was my playing partner, Ricky Barnes, who actually looks superhuman. And there was me. If you see the finishers’ list, it shows that I won by two. But I know better.
On the final green I said to Coop, “We did it.” You don’t win a U.S. Open alone. Coop was the one who told me to hit a six-iron off the tee on the last hole. The USGA had moved the tees way up on the par-4 18th for the final round, and he knew a six-iron would leave me with 155 yards, my distance in for the first three rounds. I was shaking like a leaf on a tree over that shot. I had been thinking driver—I can’t imagine where that club would have left me. Yes, a winner gets a lot of help, from his caddie, from his family, from his teachers, from his friends. Or I did, anyway.
So what was different when I woke up on Tuesday morning at the Sheraton Times Square? One thing, really: I had my name on a trophy beside the likes of Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus and Ben Hogan and Bob Jones. And because of that, people were suddenly asking me questions, as if my opinion carried more weight, simply because I had won a golf tournament. I found myself having new conversations with new people in new places. Winning a U.S. Open doesn’t change the fundamental nature of who you are, I don’t think. It didn’t for me. But you can’t say your life is the same as it was before. It’s not.
Some interesting and fun opportunities came my way. I got talked into reading the Top 10 List on the Late Show with David Letterman, and I’m glad I did. Sandra Day O’Connor was one of his main guests. She’s a huge golf fan, and she came to the green room to meet me. That was a thrill. John Legend was the musical guest. He had no idea who I was. Why would he? He couldn’t have been nicer, though. The Number 1 item on the Top 10 List was, “Even I haven’t heard of me.” The audience laughed, and I kind of shrugged at the truth of it. At tournaments today there are scads of people who can’t tell me from Ryan Moore. Doesn’t bother me a bit.
Winning at Bethpage got me in at Turnberry. One of my greatest thrills in golf was to stand on the 1st tee at the British Open, the oldest championship in golf, and be introduced as the reigning U.S. Open champion. The fans there were so knowledgeable and respectful. I loved the course but played like an old dog. It was my fifth straight week of golf. I missed the cut, but I didn’t lose my confidence or my swing.
One thing I’ve always known—something my old swing coach, the late Dick Harmon, taught me—is that there is no such thing as the perfect swing or perfect golf. At Bethpage I made a double bogey on the 1st hole from the middle of the fairway. I didn’t play perfectly to win there, and I didn’t try to duplicate my Bethpage play after the U.S. Open. I simply continued to try to play the golf I play.
A month after the missed cut at Turnberry, I finished fifth at the PGA Championship at Hazeltine. I was on the Presidents Cup team at the end of the 2009 season, which was fantastic. I love that us-versus-them mentality, so I relish any chance to be on a team. I also relish any chance to hang out with Fred Couples, our captain. On Monday of that week I played with Hunter Mahan, Sean O’Hair, Fred—and Michael Jordan. What can Michael Jordan teach a Tour player about golf? Everything. I’ve never seen a more competitive human being. It was great to see him in action and to pick his brain. And instead of trying to beat each other’s brains out, like in a typical week on Tour, my fellow players and I came together and won.
I wanted to have a real break between the end of 2009 and the start of 2010, and the group that manages me, Crown Sports, made sure I did. After winning a major it’s tempting and easy to chase money and say yes to everything—exhibitions, corporate outings, speaking engagements—but that’s not me. The actual act of saying no is difficult for a lot of people and for golfers in particular. Golf is a social game and golfers tend to be accommodating. I’m not particularly social, but I try to be accommodating. It’s funny, but winning the U.S. Open probably made me more introverted. My goal, always, has been to let my clubs talk for me.
I was rested and ready for 2010, but the year didn’t go as scheduled. In golf plans often go awry. I wasn’t sharp physically, and I wasn’t all in mentally. There were relationship things going on in my private life that had me distracted, and golf wasn’t my highest priority. I tried my best at the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, but the way I was playing—and the way I was thinking—I really didn’t have much of chance. I don’t love Pebble, and that didn’t help either.
One thing that surprised me was how little the USGA requires of the U.S. Open champion. Really, they give you one main assignment: Get the trophy back to them on time. They couldn’t make it easier. They send you this steel case, like the ones mobsters use to carry cash on TV shows, to ship the trophy back in. They give you the mailing labels. Still, I blew the deadline. The U.S. Open trophy is a hard thing to hand over.
When you’re an American U.S. Open champion, you’re representing your country in some way, and when you’re on a Presidents Cup or Ryder Cup team, you do so even more. That’s a major goal of mine, to play in the Presidents Cup or the Ryder Cup each year. I was upset and disappointed that I hadn’t made the 2010 Ryder Cup team on points. I didn’t think Corey Pavin would pick me because I really wasn’t playing well, and he didn’t. He called and gave me the speech every high school basketball coach does when he’s making final cuts. You know, It was a hard decision and all that. I was upset. Not at Corey, of course. At myself. I had played my way off the team. That hurt.
It didn’t get any better in 2011, which to be honest, felt like a continuation of 2010. Sometimes I wonder if golf is even a sport or if we golfers are even athletes. Our game is such a strange blend of the mental and the physical. It’s like yoga with a ball and a stick. Practice is so mental. Execution on the course is so physical. Or is it the other way around? I don’t know. I’ve seen guys on Tour outthink their physical problems, and I’ve seen guys overcome poor thinking with amazing physical abilities. Some days you’re Bill Gates out there, and other days you’re Rocky Balboa.
When I got to Quail Hollow, in Charlotte, in May, I was neither. I was way up for it—Quail is a U.S. Open–type course and the tournament draws a U.S. Open-like field—but my game was nowhere. My Tuesday practice round at Quail Hollow was a joke it was so bad. I had a late tee time for the Wednesday pro-am, so I decided to head to the practice tee early and try to find something.
My teacher, Mike Taylor, was around. My ball position and alignment were good and my swing felt good, but my customary draw wasn’t there, and it hadn’t been. Finally, I asked Mike, “Is the club square at address?” I thought it was. But he saw that it wasn’t. For the face to be square it actually had to look closed to me. How weird is golf? Very weird. For you, for me, for everybody who plays this insane game.
I took my new “square” position to the course in that pro-am round and started hitting controlled draw shots again. That little adjustment made a world of difference. Of course, it helped that I had the best putting week of my life. Better even than at Bethpage. But without that slight preshot adjustment there’s no way I would have won. It was my first win since Bethpage. I needed it.
Charlotte was a week I started to get my head and swing back on track. I stayed with close friends who live on the course and fished the course lakes at night with their kids.
My beard—grown out of sheer laziness—got a lot of amusing commentary and that chatter helped get me out of my shell. There were fans from Clemson (my alma mater) on the course wearing FEAR THE BEARD T-shirts, and they had me laughing. My parents were at Bethpage, and my win there was my Father’s Day present to my dad, though it was a day late, with the Monday finish. It was a Father’s Day present to Grandpa too. My parents were also at Quail Hollow, and my win there was my Mother’s Day gift for Mom, and for her mother, Grandmother Lucille. That one was right on time.
Grandpa—Dick Hendley, if you’re looking at his plaque at the Clemson Sports Hall of Fame—is my best friend. He’s 84 years old, and he played football and baseball at Clemson and was a blocking back for the Pittsburgh Steelers way back when. My grandfather was the one who took me to see Dick Harmon when I was 12, and he was somebody I could talk to about anything. My grandfather’s the same way. Everybody needs people like that in their lives, golfers especially. It can be a lonely game. Dick always told me I had what it took to win majors.
I can’t say I go to every tournament with enough confidence or game to declare, “I’m here to win.” I don’t know what the U.S. Open at Congressional will bring. I do think it’s a perfect U.S. Open course. I’m not pretending that everything is perfect in my game or in my life, but I’m lucky to have wonderful friends and family and professionals in it. U.S. Open golf is too hard to do alone. I’m in better golf shape and mental shape now than I was a year ago at Pebble. How much better, I don’t know.
What I found out in 2009 is that my good golf is good enough to win a U.S. Open, and what I found out this year is that it’s good enough to win at Quail Hollow. But winning a U.S. Open didn’t mean I was a “great” golfer and winning at Charlotte didn’t mean I was “back.” I’ve learned that you can’t make predictions.
On the Tuesday of Quail Hollow I thought I was a good candidate to miss the cut. At Bethpage I had strong feelings of inner calm all week. Where they came from I don’t know. Golf’s got a lot of mystery in it, and I wouldn’t want it any other way. I do know that on the Tuesday morning after Bethpage, I had the winner’s trophy in my hands. Eventually, I had to send it back. Nothing lasts forever in this game. All you can do is keep at it.