The day before the first round of the Farmers Insurance Open in San Diego earlier this year, Mark Calcavecchia was holed up in his hotel room at the Embassy Suites, out sick. He'd dropped out of the pro-am, yet there was still hope that our long-planned interview would pan out because Calc is a rallier. And when he rallies, he rallies big. In 2007, at age 46, he overcame an opening-round 75 to win the PODS Championship. Two years later, he birdied a record-breaking nine straight holes at the RBC Canadian Open. And then there was the time he rushed to the first tee with no shoes or clubs and shot the course record.
Sure enough, the 1989 British Open champion, who turned 50 in June, again rose to the occasion. While being photographed, he was handed his putter, the club that has tormented him throughout his career. Without missing a beat, he asked, "Should I threaten it?" before turning to his flatstick, half-smiling, half-sneering, and adding: "You piece of s—, I'll throw you off that cliff on No. 4 if you don't behave." Then Calc sat down, in San Diego and again later in the year, and discussed the best rounds he's ever played, "the worst thing I've ever done," and why he's had enough of the PGA Tour.
Last year you set the record for consecutive birdies on Tour, and in July you made a run at the British Open. Shouldn't you stay out on the regular Tour for a while?
No. That was a nice streak, but the way I've played the last two years has been so mediocre. Of the 23 tournaments I played in 2009, I struggled to make the cut in about 15 of them. I'm tired of that crap.
You won't miss it?
I'll miss playing for $6 million dollars every week, but I played 14 Tour events [through August] this year and won $100,000, and I've played eight senior events and won about $600,000. You do the math.
Could you have a senior career like Hale Irwin or Lee Trevino?
No chance. It's still hard to win. I mean look at the scores they shot [at the Mitsubishi Electric Championship] in Hawaii. Watson was 22-under, Couples was one back. I just got out of the Hope where I played four rounds in pretty good weather and was 1-under. The hole is the same size.
You were in second place through 36 holes at the British, but it all went bad in a hurry. What happened?
Yeah, on Saturday I had a couple of three-putts, and on five I hit a 3-wood into a gorse bush, and they told me they found my ball. But as it turned out it wasn't my ball. Next thing you know I'd made a 9. It was a killer left-to-right wind, and it took an hour for my whole week to get blown to s—.
You and Tiger used to be friends. Did you see him at St. Andrews?
I talked to him at the past champions' dinner for a few minutes. We were supposed to play in that four-hole Champions Challenge together the next day, but the weather was just horrendous and it got cancelled, and I never got to see him the rest of the week. He seemed normal. We were all just standing around looking at what [John] Daly was wearing. Everybody was taking pictures and yukking it up. Lee Trevino was telling jokes, he was on, so it was fun.
Did you have a 'Welcome to the PGA Tour' moment?
Andy Bean played one of the greatest rounds I've ever seen. It was a cold, windy day at Glen Abbey and he shot 62 in the final round of the Canadian Open. The average score was like 77. It was unbelievable. I think it was 1983. I was like, "I'm in the wrong f—ing game." Every long-iron shot he hit never left the flag, and he made everything. So of course I had to go get the same putter he had, but I didn't make it one round with it.
What happened to it?
It's in a canal in Pensacola, Fla. I think I putted with a 1-iron the rest of the round, which was, I think, eight holes. The longest I had to go, one year at the International, I broke my putter on the second hole. I putted with either a 1- or a 2-iron the rest of the day and made like seven birdies. I remember I made a 20-footer on 16 at Castle Pines, and [Gary] McCord's up in the booth, and everybody knows I'm using a 2-iron to putt with.
You once smashed a club and it exploded everywhere.
That was in L.A. I got in a lot of trouble for that. I was going to just brush the cart path with it, just kind of scratch it on the ground, but I came in way too steep and obviously pretty hard, and the head just flew off and missed this lady's head by about a foot. Her husband kept pressing me. He went out of his way to call Jim Murray [the late Los Angeles Times sportswriter] to write a big article on what a baby I was. I had to write a letter, got fined up the ass. That was probably the worst thing I've ever done.
You mentioned you're up a lot in the middle of the night reading.
Well, I go to bed so early. When I lay in bed and Brenda [his wife] turns on the TV, I put my mask on and I'm done for. Then I'll wake up at 2 o'clock in the morning.
Explain the mask, and sleep apnea.
My fat neck—I've got a big tongue and a fat neck. It mainly happens in overweight people. You never get to deep, REM sleep. You snore, and you don't realize you're not sleeping good until you wake up and you're tired as hell all day long.
How was it diagnosed?
When I got back to Phoenix from the 2002 Ryder Cup, I did a sleep study, checked in at 10 o'clock. The guy hooked me up with like 50 different wires, little electrodes, all over my whole body, and he goes, "Okay, go to sleep." At about 1 in the morning he woke me up and goes, "Well, you've got sleep apnea. You apnea'd 28 times in two hours, which means if you think you're getting eight hours of sleep, you're getting one." I said, "Does that explain why I get up to take my kids to school and fall asleep on the way home at 8:30 in the morning?"
So now I travel with the mask.
When did you diagnose your putting woes and adopt the claw grip?
That was at the Players Championship in 2001. Maybe it was 2000.
And how much has that switch been worth to you?
I wouldn't have won the tournaments I've won since then.
Do you still have the putter with which you won the '89 British Open?
No, I don't. The only thing I can think is that about 15 years ago, my ex-wife said, "Can I take one of those putters and give it to somebody for their church auction?" I said, "Sure, just make sure it's out of this one bag over there by the door." And I think she wasn't listening and just grabbed one out of my bag, and it was the one I won the British Open with. The bottom of it had a little weld mark on it. I haven't seen it for 13 years.
Out of your four Ryder Cups, what was your best experience?
I guess '91 at Kiawah, because we won, even though it was a disaster for me, since I lost the last four holes to Monty in singles.
Did anything good come of that experience or was it totally regrettable?
It was totally regrettable. The best thing was the way the fans and other players on Tour treated me after that. Everybody was like, "Great job. Way to bring the Cup home." I wasn't playing that good going into the tournament, worked my butt off the whole week prior, and won two and a half points in four matches. I got thousands of cards saying, "Great playing, you got off to a fast start and fired everybody up."
What happened that last day?
I actually played 16 and 18 great—I just hit the shots too good through the wind. It was straight in left-to-right, which is the worst wind for any fader. On 16 I hit a punch 6-iron right at the freaking flag and it hit on the back fringe and hopped into a sand dune. Bogey. Seventeen was a double-choke. Monty had already hit it in the water, and I got so far ahead of my 2-iron—I just wanted to squash one as low and left as I could, just get it on land—but I smothered it. And then I panicked because the drop area was on some tee way to the right that I didn't know existed. I had thought it would be over to the left.
I had no clue what the yardage was; Monty hit, and I could only guess he hit a 7-iron from the way it flew [it was a 6-iron]. His caddie's got the clubs covered up. So I hit a 7-iron, got it on the green. He putted it up close, I putted it up to not more than 20 inches away, and of course he didn't give it to me, and I missed it—pure tension and panic.
But you still weren't dead. Walk us through the final hole.
On 18, Raymond [Floyd] was really pumping me up and I hit a great drive and just a beautiful 3-iron. The pin was in the back-left nook, and s—, it landed six feet from the hole, couldn't have been a better-looking shot, but it hopped over the green to where I couldn't get it up and down. It was up a hump to the hole. I probably should have putted it, looking back on it, but I chipped it by 10 feet and didn't sniff my putt and that was it.
Your dad ran an eight-lane bowling alley in Laurel, Neb., and now you've just built a two-lane bowling alley at your house in Jupiter, Fla.
Yeah, the fun we've had in there. Since we moved in last October, it's already paid for itself. Our housewarming party was a blast. We had over 100 people there, and every one of them wanted to bowl. I got the tunes and the disco ball and the glowing gutters and the whole freakin' thing. It's really a lot of fun. We'll just be sitting there and I'll get a text from one of my buddies: "Bowling tonight?" I'll say, "Sure, bring the beer."
Do beers help the aim?
Yeah, cocktails always help. That's one of my favorite things about the sport.
Your former caddie Eric Larson was busted for dealing cocaine and began an 11-year prison term in 1995. He later said, 'I was in four different institutions and Calc was the only one who made it to all four.' What was that like?
I'd spend five or six hours in each place with him. We just talked, and I'd ask what the hell was going on in there, and he'd ask me what was going on outside. Leaving was tough. You'd give him a hug and say, "Well, okay, I'll see you down the road." I gave him money so he could buy shoes and clean underwear and s— like that.
Had you won when he got locked up?
We'd just won, at the '95 BellSouth. I'd known he was having problems. He'd invested all his money in this health club, and this guy stole all his money and hit the road. As the summer wore on I got to know more but not much. Eventually, I said, "All right, I'll see you Tuesday at Riviera," for the PGA. And he didn't show. He got arrested right before he went to the airport in Florida. His lawyer called him up and said, "Come on down to the office." And they were there and handcuffed him and took him away.
There's a story about you showing up for a tee time in New Jersey without clubs, shoes or pants, then setting the course record.
That was an outing at Somerset Hills, in New Jersey, and there were 15 other guys, Peter Jacobsen, all down the line. My plane was triple-delayed coming from Phoenix, and I landed at Newark at 3:30 in the morning, with nothing—I had my jeans on, and a T-shirt, and sneakers. That's it. So I check in, and we've got to leave for the course at 7 in the morning, so I get zero sleep. I go, "Peter, what size waist are you?" And, "Who's got a Double XL shirt?" I get out to the course and they give me some shoes, and a set of Pings—I used some TaylorMade driver with an R [regular flex] shaft that was like a hose. This kid that was going to caddie for me goes, "I putt with a Ping Anser." Perfect. So he goes and grabs that. Well, anyway, I shoot 62, make everything. The shoes must have been an inch too small. My feet were killing me. I talked the kid into giving me his putter, which I used for one tournament and didn't make a putt over two feet. I might even have broken it. I sent him a new putter or something.
What's the worst punishment you've dealt a putter?
Well, there's one sitting in a rain gutter at a Residence Inn in Akron, Ohio. I was staying on the second floor and just reached out the window and put it in there. It's not very nice there in the winter. There's one in a flower garden in Westchester [N.Y.]. There are several in the ocean. I've given more away to kids than I've broken, but sometimes it just feels good to break one.
I probably wouldn't change much. I've had a lot of fun, but I do think I should have won more. I've got 27 second-place finishes—only [Jack] Nicklaus and Greg Norman have more. And I've finished third 17 times. A lot of them I made great rallies on Sunday to finish second, and 10 of them I just flat-out gave away. I probably should have practiced harder and kept my body in better shape. Everybody says it's not too late, but I still don't seem to be doing anything about it. I definitely could have done more in the game. I could have been a Hall of Fame-type player for sure. But I love playing golf; I don't enjoy practicing golf. Some people are the other way around. I'd rather take two or three balls out on the course and put myself in a tournament situation, try to make birdies, try to hit it close. That's what I like.