When Hal Sutton pounds his fist into his palm, it makes a concussive thwack that makes you wonder if he's going to hurt himself. Breaking a de facto vow of silence that's lasted two years, since he captained the U.S. to its (then) singular 18 1/2 to 9 1/2 defeat at Oakland Hills, Sutton sat for an interview with GOLF MAGAZINE last week at Boot Ranch, his new luxury golf club in the sweeping Texas hill country.
Boot Ranch's course designer and co-developer, Sutton has spent four days a week here since his 12-man team of Yanks lost by a margin that Tom Lehman's guys (surprise!) equaled two weeks ago. Boot Ranch has been called the Augusta of Texas (members get a pair of black alligator cowboy boots in lieu of a green jacket), but with slow membership and home sales it's not all azaleas for Sutton. Still, the U.S. Ryder Cup team is in far worse shape. These are unsettling times, especially for older U.S. pros who once owned this event, and the situation won't change overnight, said Sutton, the only man to beat Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods eye-to-eye to win PGA events (1983 PGA Championship and 2000 Players Championship, respectively).
"It took us a generation to get here," Sutton said. "And it's going to take us a generation to get us out."
The lantern-jawed former captain, whose press has been far worse than Lehman's despite their identical results, professes to love American golf like one of his own children. And so Sutton, 48, is speaking out on the trends that drove him to quit the Tour policy board six months before his term was up, and to quit playing golf entirely after teeing it up at the Nissan Open in February, despite full eligibility.
Problem 1: Johnny Can't Putt
"In America we play very fast greens," Sutton said. "Let me go back. When you're a kid you play slow greens at the country club level, and you know what you do? You try to make everything. You know why? Because you don't fear knocking it 5 to 10 feet by the hole—if you've got any feel at all it won't get there, 5 to 10 feet by the hole. So kids get fearless. That's why they're such good putters.
"You play the PGA Tour long enough," Sutton continued, "and it's set up so hard, on these greens that are rolling all over the place, at 10, 11, 12 [on the Stimpmeter], you get to where you forget about ever trying to make that first putt. You pick the putts that you try to make. When you start trying to make money, you start trying to save shots, and one of the ways to save shots is to never three-putt. You do that by lagging it a foot from the hole all the time. That's what loses Ryder Cups. I mean [2004 Ryder Cup assistants] Jackie Burke and Steve Jones and I preached it all week, 'Get on the accelerator! Get on the accelerator! Get on the accelerator!' (To make his point Sutton landed three solid punches to his left palm.) 'Forget you got a brake! Go!' Did it look like they even knew where the accelerator was?"
The implication, of course, is that the European tour plays slower greens, encouraging its members to putt aggressively. As for those Europeans, like Sergio Garcia, who play a heavy U.S. schedule, Sutton says, "They make slightly fewer putts [in the Ryder Cup]. Have you ever noticed that the unheralded guys on their teams are the ones who make the most putts?"
Problem 2: We're Too at Home on the Range
Europe has a bright future with 20-somethings Paul Casey, Luke Donald, and Garcia; America has an endless lineup of well-meaning kids with cookie-cutter swings who can't get it done on the course.
"In the old days you could have Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Lee Trevino, Raymond Floyd, Gary Player, all on the range, and you could be 300 yards from them, and you'd know which one was which," Sutton said. "Today, if you don't get right up in their face so you can read their names on their bags, they all look alike. They're so caught up in mechanics. Well, golf has always been a game of feel. All of the sudden it's almost like it's not a game of feel.
"On the range," Sutton continued, "it's a perfect lie every time, it's level, it's the wind you want. We've made a perfect world out of everything." Problem 3: High and Long Doesn't Always Win
The "high and long" way to play is an epidemic in the United States, Sutton says, but that style isn't translating to birdies amid the ever-varied setups and unpredictable weather that define the Ryder Cup.
Courses continue to be built by developers trying to one-up each other in the race to build the next toughest track (even if it means driving mere mortals to quit the game) while the PGA Tour chooses broad-shouldered venues that cater mostly to bombers.
"That's why I've kept hammering on it, and will until the day I day: Variety. We've got to have more of it," Sutton said. "Play fast greens, play slow greens, play 'em all. Throw everything at every player. We'll find out who the best players are. I told [PGA Tour commissioner] Tim Finchem, 'You can cut 18 holes in the parking lot and Tiger will find a way to win.'"
To show that he's walking the walk, Sutton pointed to Boot Ranch. He went out of his way, he said, to make sure the course included doglegs left and right, short holes, long holes and a variety of lies and looks.
"There's a driver, there's fairway woods, there's long irons, middle irons, short irons, wedges and a putter," Sutton said. "There's 14 clubs in there. There's a fade and there's a slice. There's a draw and there's a hook. There's a high ball and there's a low ball. There's backspin and there's overspin. And by the way, they're all part of the game, and by the way, you should know how to hit every shot and every club. If you're on the PGA Tour you don't have to."
Problem 4: We Point Fingers at the Captain
"I didn't want to talk to anybody after I was the captain because … there was no evidence," Sutton said. "It would have come out like, 'He's just ill.' It has nothing to with Hal Sutton. If guys are playing good you can pair them any way you want to. I don't think there are any 50 decisions at the captain's level that are going to change this."
What will change it, he insisted, is this country's willingness to re-examine the essence of American golf, all the way down to the moment children first pick up a club. When Sutton was a kid at Northwood Country Club in Shreveport, Louisiana, he says, the pro took time to sit and talk over a Dr. Pepper. It isn't hard to guess the subtext of that comment, that our academy-sponsored race for the perfect swing has forsaken our childlike "joie-de-golf." Dismayed at the game's massive, intractable bureaucracy, Sutton seeks to reverse that trend and more, this time from the outside, from Boot Ranch.
"We're already teaching juniors here," he said. "We have around 15 high school kids, 10 to 12 younger than that. We're going to do our part here. I challenge everybody else in the country to do their part, and if they already are, I applaud them."
|Cameron Morfit covers the PGA Tour as a Senior Writer for GOLF MAGAZINE. You can read his column every Monday on GOLFONLINE. E-mail him your questions and comments at [email protected]|