After 28 years on the PGA Tour, you turned 50 on June 12 and quickly joined the Champions Tour. Were you ready for a change?
I’ve been looking forward to going to the Champions Tour for about three years. It’s tough out on the PGA Tour. Although I did win out there when I was 45 [the 2005 Bell Canadian Open] and 47 [the 2007 PODS Championship], other than Kenny Perry there is nobody out there between 45 and 50 years old playing good on a consistent basis. That doesn’t mean that I couldn’t have a great tournament.
Why is the Champions Tour so attractive to you?
The main thing out here is that there is no cut. That’s the thing that was killing me on the regular tour. The last year and half to two years I showed up just hoping to make the cut. I was playing real cautiously the first couple of days and trying not to make a mistake because I wanted to make the cut. When you think that way that’s not very good.
Now you are guaranteed a check and three rounds of golf.
The good news and bad news about the three-round tournaments is that if you don’t have a very good first day then you’re screwed because there is not enough time to make up for it. The other thing is that for a year as a rookie I’m stuck playing two pro-ams every week.
From 1982 until now you played a full schedule on the PGA Tour. It’s pretty amazing that you kept your card for the better part of three decades.
A couple of times in the early ’80s I had to go back to Q-School to earn playing privileges for the next year. But since 1986 I was always fully exempt. I think the reason for that is that my swing never gets far off. I always hit it decent enough to never go into a bad slump.
You’ve been a Ping man your entire career. That seems rare in today’s game when guys jump around from club deal to club deal, looking for money or a better fit for their game.
For 20 years I played the Ping Eye 2 Blue Dot irons, which are 1 degree upright. To this day I’m still close to that. I’m about a half-degree upright now.
On the PGA Tour you won 13 times from your first win at the Southwest Golf Classic in 1986 to your last win at the PODS in 2007, but your best years were from about 1988 to 1991, including your 1989 British Open win at Royal Troon.
That was probably the best that I played, mainly because of my short game. I considered myself, at the time, other than Seve Ballesteros and Ken Green, as having the best short game in the world. I putted very well and I got up and down from everywhere. I actually had a stretch from the end of ’88 through ’89 where I won six tournaments in about eight months.
What do you remember most about the 1989 British Open?
I remember being really confident. I never really got that nervous. The weather was spectacular at Troon. There were having a drought and it was about 75 degrees every day with not more than a 10 to 15 mph wind. The course was basically brown and dead and the ball was rolling a long way. I guess the thing I remember most from that Sunday is flying that chip shot on the 12th hole and after that I basically didn’t miss a shot for the rest of the day.
You took your regular caddie to that British Open, but you don’t have a reputation for using the same caddie from year to year or even from week to week. Why is that?
To me that always kept things kind of exciting. My longest caddie was with me for seven years and he went everywhere with me. But I can’t count the number of caddies I’ve had over the years. I’ve only had three guys that I would even call permanent. Since ’95 I’ve switched around. The only downside to that is that it does become a pain in the rear end when you have 20 caddies running up to you every day begging to carry your bag.
At the Canadian Open last year you set a PGA Tour record for consecutive birdies with nine. You have always been one of those players that could make bunches of birdies and take it really low.
One year at Kapalua I was seven under through six. But I had never had more than six birdies in a row, even in a practice round. It was pretty incredible to make nine in a row.
The balls you played with in 1982 must seem like the old feather-filled ones from the 18th century today.
The balls went nowhere when I came on Tour and they curved twice as much as they do today. The first metal drivers look like 7-woods. The golf ball goes about 30 yards farther than it did 30 years ago. One year in the early ’80s I finished fourth in driving distance with an average of 273 yards.
You are the most famous golfer from Nebraska.
Definitely. I am the greatest golfer ever from the Cornhusker State. I was 13 when we moved to Florida, where my dad’s brothers and sisters lived. The whole reason we moved there is because my dad had come down with multiple sclerosis and the cold Nebraska winters made it very difficult for him.
Did your game take off in Florida or was it already really good when you lived in Nebraska?
We had a little nine-hole course where I lived in Nebraska and I was entirely self-taught. I would go around the course four or five times a day and I just learned how to hit shots. But we didn’t have bunkers, water or trees. It was just a cornfield. So when I got to Florida I could hit it, but there was a lot of things that I didn’t know how to do. Still I was as good as any junior in Florida.
What are your goals for playing on the Champions Tour? Unless you’re Hale Irwin you probably have a five-year window from 50 to 55 to make most of your money.
I want to play until I’m 60. But for the next five or six years is the time when I think I’m going to win some tournaments out here. I’m the young guy out here all of sudden. I need to put some cash in the bank. My wife and I just built a big house down in Jupiter, Fla., and I have to pay for that.
You’re heading to St. Andrews next week for the British Open for fifth time. What do you expect to happen there?
Counting my times playing the Old Course in the Dunhill Cup, I have probably played the course 40 times. How it plays depends on the wind and the weather. When you get nice weather there you can shoot a pretty good score if you can keep it out of the bunkers. There are a decent amount of easy holes. But I’ve noticed over the years that the pin placements have gotten screwier. They are being placed on the top of little ridges and humps. I guess they are trying to protect the course a little bit. Mainly though it’s the weather that affects things. I remember one year it was blowing about 40 mph until 3 p.m. and then the late tee times got perfect conditions: the low 23 scores that day came in tee times that started after 3 p.m.
What will you miss about the regular Tour?
I will miss some people and places that I traveled to over the years, and there are places that I certainly won’t miss. But the main thing is that it’s the major leagues of golf. Winning out there is a big deal. For a week you’re the best player in the world.
Four Ryder Cups, 13 wins and a major. Did you miss any chances?
Absolutely. But I only say that because I finished second 27 times in my career. Of that 27 times I gave away 7 to 10 tournaments that I felt that I should have won. I could have had another major. The whole back nine at the ’88 Masters I thought I was going to win. Sandy Lyle beat me by a couple of shots after he made a bomb at 16 and a birdie on the 18th after it looked like he could make bogey playing from the fairway bunker. But that’s history.
What’s next for Tiger?
We’ve seen enough out of him in the last 14 years to not underestimate him. But I don’t think he’s swinging very well and he’s obviously going through a tough time. But he has to be the clear favorite at St. Andrews with his record there. No one can play that course as well as he can.
How do you like your chances? Two old guys and former British Open winners — Tom Watson and Greg Norman — should have won in back to back years.
That’s one thing about St. Andrews. The length doesn’t matter if it’s playing hard and fast. In fact the last time we played there in ’05 the fairways might have been faster than the greens. There is no doubt that if everything goes right I can do well there.