The Unraveling of Jim Furyk: Lessons learned from a season marked by failure

January 8, 2013

Golf can be a cruel game, even for the best players in the world — or maybe especially for the best players in the world. For Jim Furyk, who was just a year-plus removed from his epic 2010, the game struck back in 2012.

No one paid much notice when Luke Donald birdied the first hole of a playoff to beat Furyk and two others at the Transitions Championship in March, because Donald won the title as opposed to Furyk or anyone else losing it. That would change. Vying for his second U.S. Open trophy, at the Olympic Club in June, Furyk was coasting until he arrived at the par-5 16th, where the USGA's Mike Davis had moved the tee up 101 yards. Flummoxed, Furyk snap-hooked his tee ball into the woods and made bogey; he eventually finished two behind winner Webb Simpson.

(Related Photos: SI's Best Golf Photos of 2012)

Furyk's meltdown at the WGC-Bridgestone in early August was even more shocking. Seemingly out of nowhere, the veteran made an ugly, 72nd-hole double to lose to Keegan Bradley. Then came the Ryder Cup, where captain's pick Furyk barely missed par putts on 17 and 18 to lose his singles match to Sergio Garcia as Team USA lost by a point. What can come from such an agonizing year? Furyk sat down to discuss failure, address his critics, and contemplate what's next.

Davis Love III said he told you that you were three swings from being a Player of the Year candidate. He said that's what his dad would have told him. Is that how you're thinking of 2012?
I'm thinking about it positively, but I'm not sure I'm thinking about it that positively. [Laughs] I know what he means, though. Here's the way I look at it: Amateurs come in at the end of the day, they sit down, they have a beer, and they talk about the two great shots they hit for two hours. Golf professionals come in and piss and moan about the two bad shots that cost them a 66, and were the reason they shot 68 or 69. Those two shots will keep them up at night, thinking about how they're going to get rid of them, so they can trust their swing the next day.

And that's how you think about it.
That's the way my psyche and my mind works. But there are times when you need to step back, you need to relax, and I think the point that Davis is making is that you can't always dwell on the negative. I had so many positive moments in the year, and did so many positive things. Under pressure I really struggled, at the U.S. Open making one bad swing. I still say that was due to the setup changing, and the doubt in my mind about where I was supposed to hit the golf ball.

(Related Photos: Notable Rules Incidents From 2012)

Have you spoken to the USGA's Mike Davis about the setup?
We talked about it, we're friends. I respect Mike. I think he's done a great job setting up the golf course. I took it as a major surprise where they put the tee that day, and no one knew where to hit it. I said that at the U.S. Open. I handled it very poorly, pull-hooked it over in the garbage, but he talked to me and said, "I like to set the golf course up where there's a shot a day where guys aren't expecting it, they don't have a yardage, and they have to make decisions on the fly." My point as a player is, I would like to know, Hey, we could use these three tees. We agreed on everything. I was showing him a player's perspective; he was showing me the setup perspective. There was really no right or wrong.

It sounds like what he wants and what you want are opposite things. He wants you to think on your feet, and you want to know where the tees are.
I think no matter what we do we're always thinking on our feet. If I know it's 248 to a particular tree, I'm thinking, Do I want to hit 3-wood and turn it off that tree? Or do I want to hit hybrid right at that tree? For me I made a bad swing because of the indecision. I tried to make an aggressive swing, and in hindsight, I should have played it much more conservatively. I haven't played a great par 5 where I've hit two hybrids and a wedge to it, I can promise you that. And I've never played a great par 5 over 600 yards. But that's opinion. I like risk-reward par 5s, like at Augusta where you have a chance of making 3 or 7.

After the Bridgestone, you said, "I've lost some tournaments in some pretty poor fashions, but I don't think I've ever let one slip away nearly as bad as this one." You called your fivefoot bogey putt an "awful" effort. What happened on that hole?
I struggled around the green. I butchered it up the hole and made 6 when the worst I should have made was 5 for a playoff.

The tee shot at Bridgestone missed left and hit a tree and bounced out. Was it the same sort of shot as the one on 16 at Olympic Club?
No, not at all — the one at Olympic was way left, the one at 18 at the Bridgestone was, you know, eight yards left.

Another Davis Love quote: "You don't get to enjoy the good times unless you screw it up every once in a while in front of everybody." Does it give you some comfort to know that even Michael Jordan missed the game-winner sometimes?
No, I know that. I know that. [Long pause] I feel like I'm as competitive as anyone in the world, and I want to win as much as anyone in the world. But I'm just not a feel-sorry-for-me type of person, so I'm not sure where the rest of the interview is going, but this isn't going to be a let's-feel- sorry-for-Jim thing. That's just not me. Look, I got paid a lot at both events that I screwed up in front of a lot of people, and no one's feeling too bad that way for me.

No, no one's going to feel sorry for you. You've made more than $3.6 million this season alone, and you could be headed to the Hall of Fame.
The reason why I hash it out is to get it off my chest, like, All right, it's over with. The more you try to tight-lip things and ignore the fact that you screwed up, the more people are going to glaringly see that you screwed up. I want to be human about it. I talked about the U.S. Open at length. Bridgestone was worse because I feel like I should have won by five shots, but I didn't and I've got to get over it and I have. I feel like the rest of the world has got to get over it at this point, too, especially the ones with the pens and the tape recorders. [Laughs]

Failure is a fascinating subject for many reasons, but people veer away from it because they're afraid of it.
Larry Bird said he woke up in the middle of the night in the playoffs, in a deep sweat, because he felt like he couldn't make a shot, had dreams about not being able to make one and going like 0 for 30. He said that what made him great was a fear of failure.

It's true what they say: You learn more from your failures than you do from your successes.
In that case Tiger would be pretty damn stupid, wouldn't he?

(Related Photos: Tiger's Life in Pictures)

Is there any tangible takeaway from 2012, a specific part of your game that needs improvement?
If I was at fault anywhere it was from a mental standpoint. I made a swing on 16 at the U.S. Open without being committed to exactly where I wanted to hit the ball. I got a little quick and a little fast on my pre-shot routine on my third shot at the Bridgestone, and kind of went underneath it and hit it high on the face. I made those two or three swings, to go back to Davis's quote, due to mental errors.

Putting under pressure is a mental thing, too, right?
It was mechanical for me. I had some mechanical flaws I had to work on [in 2011] and I worked really hard on them and got my confidence back.

What about the putts on 17 and 18 against Sergio?
I hit good putts — 17 was a 15-footer that everyone misread, from what I've been told, and 18, I couldn't have hit that putt on a better line or a better speed, it just didn't go in.

(Related Photos: 10 Best Shots of 2012)

At 42, you made a boatload of cash in 2012, and you were in contention a fair bit. That has to be emboldening.
Yeah, but I never judge my success by money. I judge it by how much my game's improved. You can look at stats all you want, but when I step on the tee box now I have confidence I'm going to hit the ball in the fairway. I don't always, but I believe I am going to. I was a little too wild [in 2011] and the confidence wasn't there. When I step over a five-footer to win the golf tournament now, in my mind I believe I'm going to knock that putt in, and in 2011 I was confused.

I imagine you've received some supportive e-mails or phone calls. What's the reaction been like since Medinah?
Well, whether it's been peers, fans, actually the media themselves — I faced some pretty difficult times professionally, and what I was commended for is that I was accessible to talk afterward. I wanted a minute or two to kind of somehow try to order those thoughts a bit, and get everything in line, but I was commended and got a lot of well-wishes for the way I handled myself, the way I looked everyone in the eye and talked about it and didn't blame anyone else and took credit.

The way Greg Norman handled his defeat at the 1996 Masters — was that a model for you, a template, sort of, for how to be graceful in defeat?
No. I think when something happens that's upsetting for you, the last thing you think of is someone else. You feel like you're on an island, and the people that really care about you, and the people who are in your corner — it's a small number. [Laughs] So I'm looking at my family, I'm looking at dear friends, but as I handled it and talked about it, I saw that when the questions were asked, a lot of people had soft looks in their eyes, almost like a I-feel-bad-I-have-to-ask-this-question look. Someone asked the other day, "How do you keep coming back? How do you pick yourself up?" It's just what we do! We get our asses beat week in and week out, some weeks worse than others. It's humbling.

At the press conference after the Ryder Cup, someone asked you a question about how this loss compared to the others, and you said it was the lowest point of a low year.
I wasn't real fond of that question. I didn't like the tone of it. That was about as heated as I've been in an interview all year. The words didn't bother me, the tone was kind of snotty. I don't know who asked it; I didn't recognize the gentleman. In my opinion it came across as condescending.

It gets back to what you said earlier about wanting to have a few minutes to compose what you're going to say. Everything is so raw at that point.
Oh, we had a lot of time. We had 30 minutes. If you all can't come up with something better to say in 30 minutes, you need to find another job. If it were up to me, I'd have had my locker packed and I'd have been gone 30 minutes before we went to the press conference. We were in the team room forever — forever!

If you were a reporter that day, what would you have asked you?
I don't know. That's not my job. It's not what I do. Nor do I want the job. That's what you do.

We have bad days, too — it's just that not as many people are watching.
No, I think the questions are mostly pretty good. I think when you're going to talk about our year from a personal standpoint, you do that after. This was a team setting. I had a good year, I had a hard year emotionally, but it was awkward for me to sit up there and answer that question when I'm one guy out of 12.

After the WGC-Bridgestone, you mentioned seeing your 8-year-old son, Tanner, crying behind the green. Was there anything instructive about that day from a parenting perspective?
I probably handled myself better in the presence of them, having children, than I would have without being a father. One, I know they're there, I saw they're upset. He's young, he's going to be a little bit more emotional, whereas my daughter, she's older, she's a little bit more like me, hides her emotions from people. He sat there and listened to me answer questions. Even he'll say, "That's kind of annoying, isn't it?" But yeah, it's good for them to see.

One of your quotes after that tournament reminded me of Phil Mickelson from Winged Foot: "I can't believe I just did that." You said almost the exact same thing. Was there sort of a Twilight Zone quality to it?
I'm going to have to stick a knife in my heart at the end of this. This is the most depressing interview I've ever given for this amount of time.

Sorry, there are no sharp objects here.
I mean that wholeheartedly. This is the most depressing interview. Here's the thing: I had just played so good the whole week, I felt like I should have won going away, so I was flabbergasted at the end. I really couldn't explain it.

Okay, let's get some sunlight into the room. What was your highlight of 2012?
You've been able to pick out all the low ones, so you pick out the highlight.

Just as it's not your job to ask questions after the Ryder Cup, it's not my job to figure out your highlight.
Gotcha. I don't know if there's any particular moment. What I got a little bit peeved at in 2011 is that I had the best year of my career in 2010, I was Player of the Year, I had three opportunities to win, I closed the door every time and I was at the height of my career. Then I played poorly in 2011 and I started hearing that I was old, that I didn't hit the ball far enough. I was only one year older than when I was Player of the Year and I didn't hit the ball any shorter. I started hearing stuff like that and it just made me mad. I mean I've been doubted my whole career. I swing at it goofy, I grip it funny, I putt cross-handed, I do things pretty awkward compared to the rest of the guys on Tour. I like to be the underdog. I haven't been able to play that role in a long time, but I like being the underdog. But physically I'm in the best shape of my life. I realize I'm 42 and things are a little more sore than they used to be, but I hit it as hard as I ever have in my life — the old thing bothered me.

Steve Stricker and Kenny Perry hit their prime at your age.
I can accept the fact that this is my 19th year. Stricker played the best golf of his career at 42, 43, 44. I knew I needed to swing at it better, to putt better, and I needed to change some equipment. And I did that in 2012. The highlight for me was how consistent I played over 10 months. The moments we talked about, they're not going to disappear, they're going to be there forever. They're not going to bother me forever. You move on. I proved to myself this year that my game is every bit as good as it was in 2010 from a mechanical standpoint. I have to close the door a few more times.

You got back to the equipment that works for you in 2012.
I got back to a ball that spun more, a driver that spun more. I changed shafts in my irons to hit the ball higher. I don't generate a ton of clubhead speed, so I'm not looking to knock spin down, I'm looking to add spin and keep it in the air that way.

With 16 PGA Tour wins, including a major, you seem to be headed for the Hall of Fame. Are you targeting 20 wins, as Perry did a few years ago?
That's a number that everyone throws around because of the lifetime exemption on the PGA Tour. Twenty would be nice but I've never set a specific number of wins, or a specific amount of money. It's always been about improvement, and sometimes the results don't show improvement, and 2012 was a huge improvement over 2011 and I didn't win a golf tournament.

The U.S. Open visits Merion Golf Club in June. That's in Pennsylvania, Jim Furyk country.
That's about an hour and a half from where I grew up. I played in the U.S. Amateur there in '89. I watched the 1981 U.S. Open as an 11-year-old, but I haven't seen it since they've redone it. I've had a lot of close Opens. The one that really pissed me off was at Oakmont because it was in my home state, I bogeyed 17 in the wind. That one was always a thorn in my side. I lost by one at Winged Foot, two this year.

A win at Merion would close the Oakmont wound.
[Smiles] Mentally that's got to be the wrong way to think about it.

Perhaps, but it'd be a great story.
What happened, happened. It's over. Let's not make it a revenge match. Let's turn the page.

This article originally appeared in the February 2013 issue of Golf Magazine, on newstands now. Click here to subscribe to Golf Magazine and to learn about Golf Magazine All Access.