Mudd's return to professional golf may be more surprising than his departure

Mudd’s return to professional golf may be more surprising than his departure

Jodie Mudd (shown in 2007 posing next to his Players' championship portrait) has joined the Champions Tour in an unexpected return to golf.
Stan Badz/Getty Images

If there’s a typical, anonymous four-time PGA Tour winner, Jodie Mudd isn’t it. It’s hard to say what Mudd is best known for. Winning the 1990 Players Championship, aided by one of the gutsiest — some would say craziest — final-hole approach shots in memory? Maybe. Being the 12th of only 23 men to shoot a 63 in a major championship, in the final round of the 1991 British Open at Royal Birkdale, the last of three straight top-5 Open finishes? Could be. Having one of the prettiest swings the game has ever seen? Possibly. Or is it deciding to walk away from the PGA Tour at age 36 to buy a horse farm and try his hand in real estate?

It’s the last fact that most people are focused upon now that the Kentucky native just turned 50 and embarked on a surprise third act in his work life: Champions Tour rookie. spoke to Mudd by phone as he went to get diapers for his first child, 7-week-old daughter Sophie Marie. Clearly, the man doesn’t fear change.

How did you get started in golf?
JM: I started caddying for my father when I was 8. He was a weekend golfer, and I’d jump in the car with him on Saturday and Sunday mornings to go to the course and pull his cart.

What got you hooked?
JM: I didn’t take golf all that serious until I was 13, when the pro at my public course put together a few dollars to send me to the Junior World tournament at Balboa Park in San Diego. That was my first big tournament, and I was pretty competitive that week. I thought, “This is pretty cool.” In other sports, there were always referees, and umpires and coaches breathing down your neck. I found a little solitude in the game. I was my own boss.

Your older brother won the 1976 U.S. Amateur Public Links — four years before the first of your two straight wins in the event — and your younger brother qualified for a few PGA Tour events. Were you all competitive?
JM: I used to tag along with my older brother and his buddies to the course. They were always better, and I was striving to improve and beat them. We were competitive, but not so much toward each other.

Who were your golfing heroes?
JM: Ben Hogan was still pretty active, and Sam Snead was an idol of mine. We had Bobby Nichols, a local public-links player who did well on the Tour and won a PGA Championship. Frank Beard, another Louisvillian, was the Tour’s leading money winner in 1969. Those were the guys I idolized.

You were a star amateur but didn’t win for your first seven years on Tour. What was the breakthrough?
JM: By 1987, I’d started to think I might never win another tournament in my life. In 1988, I began working with a psychologist in California, and that got me thinking differently about myself as a person and as a golfer. I took things too personally, got upset at myself, and was disappointed a lot more than I was happy on the course. It reflected who I was as a person. I tried to separate me as a golfer from me as Jodie Mudd, normal guy. I started to be happier and accept errant shots.

Everyone always drooled over your swing.
JM: Back in the day, I had a pretty flowing, rhythmic motion. From 100 yards away there was a pleasing aesthetic, but that could only take me so far, because my alignments and geometries weren’t great. I started working with Mac O’Grady in 1983. We kept the motion but cleaned up the alignments.

What did winning the Players Championship mean to you?
JM: Both the Players and the (1990) Tour Championship (then called the Nabisco Championship, which Mudd won in a playoff over Billy Mayfair) showed me that I had enough game to go to the next level, to compete with the top money winners and the guys who win majors. I’d rededicated myself to better conditioning and nutrition, and Mac had gathered some new information that winter. I made some adjustments to see how far I could go in the game. And the 1990 Players answered that.

What do you remember most about the victory?
JM: I was pretty much around the lead from Thursday on. I remembered Mac saying to me, “You’ve got to get the lead, and then you’ve got to have the mechanics and the emotions to be able to bring the ship home.” This was my chance to do that.

The second shot on 18 on Sunday, that shot basically made my career. I’d driven it through the fairway, behind some little oaks they’d planted the year before. I had a right-to-left sidehill lie, with a tree in front of me, and I had to aim the ball over the water and slice it back toward the green. I had a two-shot lead and could have chipped out. But the aggressive shot let me try to save par. I’d played really good golf that week, and I said what the heck, let’s pull the trigger and let the good times roll. It came off.

Why did you walk away from the Tour in 1996?
JM: A combination of nagging injuries, a divorce, and just getting a little fatigued with the game. I’d found out how good I could play, and I was starting to tumble down the ladder. I thought it was a great opportunity to go do something else. I had other dreams in life — to be in the horse business, to own a farm, to dabble in real estate. It was important to me to see if I could succeed in things besides golf. I’ve had a lot of fun doing that over the last 15 years and found out a lot about myself.

What did you miss most?
JM: For me, the biggest thrill in the game is to stand on the 18th tee either a shot up or shot back and see what you can do, to see how competitive you really are. If you can pull shots off under pressure — that’s what’s fun. I missed some of the big events, too. On the other hand, to walk into the barn at 5 in the morning and see a horse getting ready to run, or your first foal born off a mare you’d bought, that’s pretty good stuff as well.

Could you have quit today’s big-money Tour?
JM: That’s a tough question. I’m not really driven by money. I live a pretty modest life. My dad was a schoolteacher, my mom worked in an office. We never had a whole lot, and money wasn’t that important. It’s a great luxury, but however much money I make on the Champions Tour won’t change the way I live. I just bought a 2010 Toyota Highlander because it’s safe and we can put the baby in the back and be on our way.

So why come back?
JM: I don’t know of anyone who left the game for 14 years, came back and won. That’s what I’m looking to do. Whether I have a little juice left in the lemon, we’ll find out. If I get in position to win and can still reach down and steer the ship home — that would be fun. There are lots of great players on the Champions Tour. I realize I’ve left the game for a long time. I just feel like, somewhere down the road, I’m going to put it together for one week. That’s what’s motivating me.

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