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.
You were just 25 when you won the PGA. Did having so much success at an early age hurt you?
Yeah, I think it did. At the time that I came along, I was just one step closer to people like Tiger coming along, as well as other kids who believed they could have early success. But I didn’t believe I could make it. When all the eyes got on me, I wasn’t equipped at that point to do it — mentally maybe more than physically.
You believed that at the time?
No, looking back. At the time, I thought I could do it. But I had never dealt with opinions like I heard then. Basically I had dealt with two opinions up until then: My dad’s and Floyd’s [Horgen, Sutton’s college coach]. And then everyone else started casting opinions about me. I’ll never forget that they wrote an article about me and how I could never win Augusta because I hit the ball too low, and, hell, you know what I started doing? Trying to figure out how to hit it higher so that you — or someone like you — would be wrong and I would be right.
You changed your approach because of one story?
One story. So I started adjusting what I did for one tournament. It’s a joke how influenced I was, like all kids are to a degree by someone pushing a pencil who has an opinion. The real misconception is that because you’re a journalist and a writer, you’re actually right. That is a big misconception. That needs to be told to a kid — you’re going to read a lot of things that should be in the editorial section. Stay away from those opinions.
Did you read everything that was written about you?
At the time I did. Then I quit reading everything. I don’t read any golf publication, none, because I don’t care what you all think. I’m more qualified to know what’s going on than you are, so why would I read what you think? I’m not trying to be negative about this.
The press hammered you after your Ryder Cup team lost in 2004 at Oakland Hills. How difficult was that for you?
I quit. It drove me right out of the game. You needed to blame a body, so I caught the blame. So I said, “I’m going to go over here. I don’t need you all.” That’s the only way I could get grounded again, and get focused again on what I know.
So you were fed up absorbing the backlash?
Yeah, I was fed up listening to it. People were saying things they didn’t know anything about. There’s no one person who can make a difference [in countering Europe’s success] right now. Is it a whole lot different right now than it was then? No, it’s not. There’s nobody turning this around. We’ve created some real superstars in the U.S. who have failed us when it comes to [the Ryder Cup]. They don’t fail because they don’t have enough talent; they fail because there’s too much for them to do.
You mean Tiger and Phil?
Yeah. I mean Tiger’s Ryder Cup record [13-14-2] is not very good at all, but everyone expects him to carry the team. He can’t get but five points. That ain’t gonna win it. So everyone else has got to perform. One of the reasons I think Europe is better than we are is they know more of the game. They have all the shots instead of half the shots. We’ve been playing the game in the air constantly. It’s easier to learn how to play the game in the air than it is on the ground, so it’s easier for them to learn to adapt to our style than it is for us to adapt to their style.
Looking back, what would you have done differently as captain?
[Long pause] I wouldn’t have paired Tiger and Phil together. But if I hadn’t, we’d have gotten beat anyway, and somebody would have blamed me for [not pairing them together]. I mean, we weren’t going to win. They were just playing that much better than us. On Friday evening, after we’d gotten trounced, I’m out there watching the last group, and I’ve got to go to the pressroom. I’ve got a headset on and [assistant captains] Jackie Burke and Steve Jones are on the other end. I said to Jackie and Steve, “We’ve got to sit Tiger or Phil, because we need to make a statement. I’ve got my opinion on who needs to sit. I need your calls, too.” Jackie comes on and says, “Well, hell, Hal, sit’em both, because it ain’t gonna make a damn bit of difference.” I said, “Why’d you say that?” He said, “When you get in, I’ll show you.” And he did. He said, “Every American’s got their shaft leaning back, every European’s got their shaft leaning forward, and we ain’t got enough time to teach’em the difference.” Do you know why that is? Because every American is taught, by virtue of his environment, to hit the ball straight up in the air like that, and every European is taught to hit [it lower] and maneuver the ground. Oakland Hills requires you to play the ground game, and not one single American could get that figured out.
What was the team meeting like on Friday night? Did you lay into them?
I didn’t really lay into them, I just told the truth. I said, “Guys, our side has 12 wives who think they understand the game, but the only reason they’re around the game is because you all are. And they’re all patting you on the back saying, ‘It’ll be better tomorrow.’ I said, “I grew up in a household where my dad patted me on the back with his fist” — not really, but that’s the way it felt. He was constantly telling me that I wasn’t very good. “My job as the captain of this team is to fall somewhere between loving you and beating the s — out of you. And, oh yeah, you’re all supposed to be accomplished at this, and I know you want this, so go prove it.”
Your father, Harold, drove you hard. He once said, “I did make life miserable for him. … Between the time Hal was 14 or 15 and 21, pretty near every day I was on the brink of alienating him forever.” How is your relationship today?
My dad and I, we’re great. We were never ever strained to the point where I didn’t want to be around him or him around me. My dad’s goal at the time was to keep me right on point, keep me wound tight.
How did he do that?
By constantly judging what I was doing. My dad was one of those parents that when he watched me play golf I knew exactly how he felt I was doing. He was liable to tell some stranger who he was walking around with, “That was stupid what he just did.” He was so into it that it would overcome him.
You’ve got four kids of your own now. Do you find yourself pushing them?
No, because of what I went through. I’m not one of those parents. I watch my kids play basketball, I don’t say anything. I’m not going to embarrass them or single them out. I’m not going to say, “What the hell are you doing?! You know better than that!” But I see so many other parents doing it. You don’t think Tiger’s dad didn’t do it?
Speaking of Tiger, one of your career-defining moments came when you stared down Woods in his prime, at the 2000 players. What made you believe you could win that day?
Understanding my strengths and weaknesses. One thing about TPC: You have to go from Point A to Point B to Point C. You can’t bypass B. So I knew that by and large Tiger had to play to the same points that I had to. Those were the sort of golf courses that brought him back to the pack.
After launching your 6-iron approach on the 72nd hole, you memorably hollered, “Be the right club today!” Was you that a line you had been itching to use?
That was probably the biggest mystery of my life. That’s nothing that was rehearsed. It’s just the ball was in the air. I knew I had the perfect yardage for that 6-iron, and when I hit it and looked up, I knew I’d hit it solidly and it was headed right where I wanted it to go. So I was just thinking, Be the right club today — I don’t need any surprises at this moment. It was a moment of passion.
What was the mood like on Tour when Tiger was at his most dominant?
At the time I think everyone else was playing for second. I think there was a sigh of relief when Tiger wasn’t playing — there was going to be another winner. Now, had I been running the Tour, I’d have set the courses up differently and produced a different winner all the time. But when Tiger came along, the Tour played right into Tiger’s hands.
How so? With longer setups?
Yeah, and they didn’t want him to miss — ever. I’ll never forget sitting in a [PGA Tour] board meeting and I told Tim Finchen, “You don’t have to give it to him. He’s good enough; he’ll earn it. In fact, he loves the challenge.”
What did Finchem say?
Nothing. [Pauses] You’re just a figurehead being on the board of the Tour — I mean, fill a spot, fill a seat, we’d prefer you say nothing.
What changes were you lobbying for?
I wanted multiple superstars; the Tour would have been better off. We need several people that don’t think that the other guy’s got the advantage. I’d have set the golf courses up where one week we’d have had, say, David Toms as a winner. I bitched about it at every board meeting, and the next week it would be the same way. They said, “We’re going to do this every week, so you better get used to it.”
That must have been discouraging to the shorter hitters.
S — , that’s why the game is where it’s at now. If a guy who doesn’t really understand the game has a son who’s really talented, he’s going to tell him, “You’ve got to be the longest player out there.” But the game is so much more than that. When I came up, long wasn’t a big deal. Accurate was a big deal.
How does PGA Tour Commissioner Hal Sutton sound to you?
Yeah, right. But I do think this game would be better if a player was commissioner. It doesn’t need to be a lawyer. Someone needs to be in that role that understands the game from a player’s perspective, because you are commissioner of the players. Everything’s gotten too business-related. We’ve got to feel the game more. A lawyer can’t feel the game. I don’t know, maybe I’m just dreaming.
Somebody’s got to.
Yeah, Columbus dreamed, right? Let me ask you something: Steve Jobs — did he have “yes people” around him or did he have dreamers?
Dreamers, I suppose.
Right, he encouraged people to think outside the box.
And if they didn’t he fired them.
Exactly. He’d say, “I need you figuring out where we need to go that we’re not now.” In golf, we’re going in the same direction. Somebody has got to say something that makes a difference. I’m not being critical of any one individual; I’m critical of the direction the game is going. Years ago I said some of these same things at Tour board meetings.One time, Dick Ferris [former chairman of the Tour’s policy board] grabbed me on the way out. He said, “Hal, what you don’t understand is that it takes a long time to turn the aircraft carrier around.” I said, “You’re right, it absolutely does. But first you’ve got to turn the wheel.”