Winning the 2005 U.S. Open made Michael Campbell New Zealand’s greatest sportsman until the weight of superstardom closed in

May 15, 2014

The expatriate golfer has his morning coffee on the hotel terrace. His table overlooks a garden, which in turn provides a prince's view of poplar-lined golf holes, a pond, and a rugged slope that tumbles down to the shimmering Mediterranean. "My home is literally there," the expat says, pointing over the first tee to somewhere beyond the hotel's trimmed hedges and Roman-inspired statuary.

The expat, a handsome man of 45, stands to exchange a kiss with his just-arrived wife, an enchanting blonde who performed as a body double in the movie Sirens. ("I was Elle Macpherson.") He orders a hot chocolate for the younger of his two sons, a gangly teenager with an untamed crop of dark hair and a shy smile.

First thing, the expat says, we'll take his cart up the mountain road to his golf academy, where he'll coach a couple of promising juniors. Then, depending on his mood, he'll tend to some business or work on his game on one of the hotel's three championship courses. "This is golf paradise," he says, watching a flock of birds swoop over the putting green. "Everything is at my doorstep." He smiles at his wife. "We've carved out a nice life here."

Conclusion: The reports of Michael Campbell's demise are greatly exaggerated.

Not that Campbell's life has been all Roman statuary and supermodel lookalikes since his stunning victory at the 2005 U.S. Open at Pinehurst. Slowed by injuries and the weight of small-nation superstardom, New Zealand's favorite son has gone eight years without a win and seen his world ranking plunge from the teens in 2005 to the 800s in 2012. His two Presidents Cups and four World Cups are a distant memory. He now shares a poignant association with Ian Baker-Finch and David Duval, two former stars whose skills, like Campbell's, eroded after a career-capping triumph.

"I've had time to reflect on what's happened and think about my future," Campbell says, steering his golf cart through a boulder-strewn canyon above his home in Benahavís, on Spain's Costa del Sol. "I'm not quitting — competition is my passion. I love kissing a trophy at the end of the week, but 20 years of playing this game at the highest level takes its toll, physically and mentally. I'm…"

He hesitates, searching for the right phrase. "I'm beginning a new chapter in life."

That new chapter actually began in the summer of 2012, when the Campbells abandoned a six-month residency in Switzerland — which had proved too cold for practice and too dislocating for their sons Thomas, 15, and Jordan, 13 — and moved to Spain. Campbell assumed the title of "Brand Ambassador" for the Hotel Villa Padierna Palace and arranged to open a Michael Campbell Golf Academy on the site.

"Transition, that's what I'm calling it," Julie says back at the hotel terrace. "We always wondered when Michael would slow down. He can always play the European Tour [as an honorary life member]." Some players, she observes, design courses or do TV while awaiting Champions Tour eligibility. "But those are not natural progressions for Michael. When I asked him what he likes doing outside of tournaments, he said, 'Teaching children.' "

Campbell repeats that he isn't quitting and that he's kept up his daily gym work. "But I'm not going to go from tournament to tournament and just hope to do well. I've done that too many times in the past."

The road to golf paradise, he knows, is never more than a guardrail away from golf hell.

Campbell has no memory of his first hours as the 2005 U.S. Open champion. No recollection of the trophy ceremony with runner-up Tiger Woods. No impressions of the champion's press conference.

"It's a complete blank," he says over lunch at the hotel. "But I'll never forget that around midnight, I had to drive my courtesy car back to Pine Needles, where I was staying. The trophy was on the passenger seat, so I put a seat belt around it" — he performs the act in pantomime, ending with an affectionate pat for the phantom trophy — "and I said, 'Are you okay?' " He laughs. " 'I'm good, how are you?' " After some late-night partying, he was jarred awake by a 6:30 a.m. wakeup call. "I'd put the trophy on the bedside table, so I'm looking right at it, and I go, 'Sh–, I've done it!' " He gives his head a clearing shake. "I thought it was a dream."

It was no dream, but Campbell didn't fully anticipate how his silver companion would change his life.

At first, it was all good. Campbell went on Late Show with David Letterman, wowed a "Sports Day" audience at son Thomas's school in England, and enjoyed what he was told was the biggest ticker-tape parade in New Zealand's history — bigger even than the one for the Beatles. He also remained potent on the course, capping his greatest season by tying for sixth at the PGA Championship, winning the World Match Play (worth a million pounds, then the biggest prize in golf), finishing second on the European Tour Order of Merit, and taking that tour's player-of-the-year honors.

But as time passed, the Pinehurst trophy seemed to promise a career trajectory that Campbell couldn't sustain. "I came back quite strongly in 2006," he recalls. "I nearly won the Hawaii event. But then I got a bit busy off the course." Busy as in photo shoots, paid outings, press conferences, meetings with tax consultants, charity efforts. "Michael doesn't do well with distractions," Julie says, arranging a paper-thin slice of Iberian ham on a wedge of cheese. "I used to ask him what he was thinking, and he'd say, 'Nothing.' " She laughs. "Really? Nothing? But suddenly he had this bombardment of distractions. It was too noisy."

Campbell, raised by Maori parents of limited means, was way out of his element. He played his childhood golf in the company of sheep. He learned to putt on scruffy, wire-fenced greens. But even before Pinehurst, he had become a world-class touring pro who dressed well, drove luxury cars and owned homes in London and Sydney. "Michael got embarrassed about how much money he was making," Julie says. "In New Zealand, everyone's humble. It's safe, you can leave your doors unlocked."

Uneasy with his growing wealth and celebrity, Campbell created an eponymous foundation and threw himself into fund-raising. "It was fun," he says, "it was fantastic." But it was another distraction from the routines that had made him an 18-time winner on four tours. "I'm good at focusing on one thing," he says, "But when you chuck three or four other things in the basket, I can't do it. So that was a mistake for which I take full responsibility."

Another mistake was allowing his expectations to soar. "You expect to win every tournament you enter," Campbell says, "and when it doesn't happen, it puts doubt in your mind." He also fell victim to perfectionism, the false notion that "great" players never hit bad shots or commit mental errors.

Campbell's record in the majors testifies to the impact that these mistakes had on his game. Since 2006, he's missed the cut in five straight Masters, finished no better than T35 in the British Open, and missed three of four cuts in the PGA Championship. He's made it to the weekend only once in eight subsequent U.S. Opens, his best finish being a T58 in 2007.

"It's hard to believe," Davis Love III says of Campbell's slump. Love remembers the 2005 U.S. Open champion as a dangerous Presidents Cup opponent, and lumps Campbell in with David Duval as guys "who looked so good and made it look so easy, and then it becomes almost impossible."

Love adds, "I know how you lose it. I don't know how you get it back."

Dante's Inferno imagines Hell as nine circles of suffering. Jonathan Yarwood, Campbell's coach for most of the past 16 years, posits a simpler schematic. "There's two camps," he says during a call from his Florida-based golf academy. "There's a camp that can deal with the pressure of having won a major, and there's a camp that can't."

Campbell, one gathers, is in the second camp.

"Michael has this warrior inside him," Yarwood explains, "this Maori warrior that wants to take on the world. But there's also this little shy guy from New Zealand in there. It kind of accounts for the up-and-down career he's had."

The lowest of Campbell's lows came during the 2009-10 seasons, when he missed 32 cuts in 41 events, shot 11 rounds of 80 or above, and only had five rounds in the 60s. He was a cumulative 89 over par for the six majors he played. Says Julie, "A lot of his friends and peers said, 'Well, Campbell will bounce back, he always does.' But he didn't."

Campbell's swing, Yarwood insists, was never the problem. "Michael's got short legs, a wide back, and long arms for his frame, and that's all conducive to creating a simple, one-plane, one-axis swing. In recent years he's swung exactly the same or better than he did when he won the U.S. Open. But the results have been very poor. The only conclusion you can draw is that he's got some psychological scar tissue."

Convinced that he had to shake things up, Campbell left Yarwood for another coach in 2010. Still flailing, he returned to Yarwood in 2012 and showed improvement, posting six top-20s on the European Tour. "But I remember seeing him in the lead in Hong Kong," Yarwood says, "and he didn't look like he used to. He looked nervy and tentative."

That "mental fragility," as Yarwood describes it, has been compounded by the corporeal kind. Campbell has suffered rotator cuff injuries to both shoulders, and now his left ankle pains him with every stride and swing. "The guy has gone through a rough time," says Retief Goosen, who shot the final-round 83 that gave Campbell his opportunity at Pinehurst. (Goosen adds: "And so have I.")

But the real hell of it is the relentless scrutiny that comes with Campbell's previous success — such as when listed him fifth on its list of "worst golfers to win a major." Says Yarwood, "You put a guy that's got a tiny little crack under the microscope, and it becomes a big fissure. And all of a sudden the world can see everything."

It's a point that the Campbells, dining on the hotel terrace, won't challenge.

"The pressure was enormous," says Julie, an Atlanta-born Australian. "Especially in New Zealand, because they treat their sports heroes as godlike figures, bigger than rock stars. But as soon as you have a little dip, they cut you off at the ankles."

Campbell nods. "You feel disheartened, really. I was used to the highs, I'd been to the top of the world in golf, and then…"

A wan smile completes his thought.

The trophy still looks great. It resides in the office/trophy room of the Campbells' cliff house, which they've furnished with favorite pieces from their English and Australian homes. A stylishly austere living room opens onto an infinity pool and yet another panoramic view of the coast.

How he landed that trophy is a story — actually a string of anecdotes — that the Campbells love to tell.

Serendipitous Element (SE) No. 1 was the quirk that qualifying was held at Walton Heath Golf Club, not far from their London home. "I was tired," Campbell recalls, "and I was first off at 7:30 in the morning. I drove home from Wales on Sunday night, and I said to Julie, 'I've just played four weeks in a row, good weeks, but I'm not sure if I want to play tomorrow.' And she said, 'Just give it a try. Go and have some fun and see what happens.' " He smiles. "So I went."

SE No. 2: "I was playing with Steve Webster at Walton Heath, and we were both on the same score going into the last hole. He hit it to 10 feet, I hit it to eight, and I was right in his line. I had to move my marker. He putted to the right edge, lipped out. So I aimed for right-center, and it lipped in. I qualified, and Steve missed. So every time I see him, he says, 'Where's that bottle of champagne you owe me?' " Michael laughs. "I owe him way more than that."

SE No. 3: "I went to the Callaway van; they made me a belly putter. I was desperate. My first practice round I tried it and putted even worse. Then Jonathan [Yarwood, Campbell's coach] turns up and he goes, 'What the hell is that?' He grabbed it and literally threw it off the green. So we went over to Pine Needles and worked on my putting. I gained some confidence there, and I putted great that week."

SE No. 4: "Tuesday, I played with Vijay Singh. I tried a few bunker shots, and they were pretty crappy. The ball was coming out heavy, no spin. About the sixth hole, I said, 'Veej, I'm having trouble with my bunker shots, mate.' So Veej said, 'Just do this, this and this.' It was great, the ball came out much better. That week I hit it in seven bunkers, got up and down six times — and holed one!"

SE No. 5: "I wasn't thinking I could win — until I talked with Julie, the night before the final round. She said, 'Are you ready for this?' She had a feeling." Julie says, "All of a sudden you've got one hole to play, and you realize your life is about to change. So it was important that we discuss it. I said, 'Are you ready for all the things that come with it?' And he just took a little breath and said, 'Yeah.' "

SE No. 6 came as a shock. "All of a sudden, after six holes of the final round, I was leading. I was 1-under, and Goosen was like 4- or 5-over. The meltdown from Goose was totally unexpected. And obviously Tiger was close by. But it was on the tenth hole that it hit me. I saw it as an opportunity, not a threat. It was my time to shine."

SE No. 7 was transcendent. "I still had nine holes to play, and I had the best player in the world tracking me down. He'd won Augusta two months before; he was the hot favorite. No psychologist told me to do this — it came from the heavens — but every time there was a roar for Tiger, I imagined it was for me. In my mind I was saying, 'Thanks, thanks very much, thank you!' " Julie erupts with laughter: "It's delusional, but perfect!"

"You have a choice of thoughts," the once-and-always U.S. Open champion says, his gaze wandering off to the horizon, to the sea. "It all depends on how you look at things."

The expatriate golfer looks forward to June, hoping his ankle will let him play. The odds against him reprising his Pinehurst victory are astronomical; even if he were fit, he's not sure his game measures up to those of, say, Dustin Johnson and Jordan Spieth.

"When you know your chances aren't great," the expat says, "it's hard to get on the plane."

He has seen guys his age — Darren Clarke, Ernie Els, Phil Mickelson — win majors on grit and guile. But Campbell seems to have moved on. He may not have his game of yore, but he's still got his family, his health, his ambassadorship, his academy, his never-gets-old view from the Sierra Blanca foothills, his Champions Tour dreams — and yeah, his trophy.

Paradise found.

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