Steve Elkington is striping balls on the range at Tobacco Road Golf Club, a 30-minute drive northeast of Pinehurst, N.C. To his right, towel in hand, is 80-year-old Willie Miller, Elkington’s first caddie on Tour. To his left, also loosening up, are Elk’s challengers on this steamy May afternoon: the club’s 6-foot-7-inch pro, Chris Brown, and a low-handicap member, Jimmy Martin. The trio will face off in a three-hole match (a “smackdown” in Elk’s parlance) that will appear on an episode of Secret Golf with Steve Elkington. Now in its second season and airing on CBS Sports Network, the low-budget production follows the outspoken Aussie as he tours the country digging golf stories—and plenty of laughs—out of the dirt. Back on the range, the banter turns to Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth. Elkington asks Miller which of the two stars’ bags he’d rather carry. The caddie grins. “I’d go with one in the morning and one in the afternoon.” The group howls.
Elk is in his element, teeing up his guests like a seasoned late-night host. Of course, he’s never lacked for personality himself. Lately, the man who 20 years ago won the PGA Championship has drawn more attention for his controversial tweets than for his 10 Tour titles, and it irks him. He says he’s been unfairly targeted, and it’s time to move on. As candid as ever, Elk sat down in the Tobacco Road clubhouse to answer his critics, size up today’s pros, and assess his own place in the game.
You could be enjoying a relaxing retirement. What’s the appeal of running around the country shooting a TV show?
When I was growing up in Australia, my family played golf at Narrabri, a very small club out in the country [about 300 miles north of Sydney]. When we were 13, 14, my brother and I met all these characters at the club. Then my dad told us we were moving. We were so sad when we left Narrabri to go to Wagga Wagga [southwest of Sydney], because we were going to leave behind all these characters. My dad said, “Son, don’t worry about it. There’s going to be another bunch of characters at Wagga Wagga. Wherever you go, there’s going to be characters and courses.”
How did your interest in people turn into a TV show?
Coincidence. It spurred off playing in a pro-am with the guys from RFD-TV [which aired the first season of Elkington’s show, then named The Rural Golfer]. They wanted to do a show. But I didn’t want to do an instruction show. I wanted to do characters.
Do you find that the PGA Tour lacks characters?
It’s hard for a lot of those guys to be themselves. I never acted this way when I was playing the Tour. It was more stressful, because you’re trying to raise a family, you’re trying to build a house, you’re trying to pay the mortgage. I know this: Some of the revered people in this game, if they were around today, [the media] would kill them. Sam Snead used to tell off-color jokes at the Ryder Cup dinner at the Waldorf Astoria. How’s that going to fly nowadays? Today’s players, if they say too much they get hammered. If they don’t say enough, they get hammered.
You’re close with Jason Dufner and Pat Perez. Who else on Tour today appeals to you?
I like Dustin Johnson’s game—he goes for broke all the time. Phil Mickelson plays so well under pressure. Rory McIlroy is so impressive. Jordan Spieth. Jason Day maybe needs a couple more shots, softer shots, kind of like [Tom] Weiskopf had. Weiskopf could chip a 6-iron from 150 if he had to.
Young Weiskopf sounds like Bubba Watson.
Bubba definitely works the ball. He has among the most gifted, educated hands I’ve ever seen. But I don’t think he really likes golf that much.
Why do you say that?
I just don’t see it in his eyes. I just don’t think he enjoys himself that much on the Tour. He gets stressed out pretty easily. I don’t know if he’ll still be playing 30 years from now.
Not every player is wired for world domination. Boo Weekley has said he just wants to bank enough money to spend his days fishing.
There’s a lot of pressure on those guys. A lot of the guys on Tour want to think about winning, but it’s really hard for them to push through that window and put themselves out in the open. And that’s the separator, right? The guy who likes being out in the open the most is someone like Phil. He doesn’t care if he shoots 90 on Sunday, he’s still going for the title. And then there are guys who are more comfortable just jockeying, staying just behind the heat, and they may come in at the end and steal it. But hardly anyone wants to stick their nose way out in front anymore. That’s a lonely place.
Jordan Spieth went wire-to-wire at the Masters.
Nobody has any idea how hard that was to do. I won the Players Championship wire-to-wire in 1997 and had the low round of the day on Sunday [69, with three others]. You have to have some balls to sit out in front and stay out in front. It’s so easy to drop your head for a round or two and get out of that pressure, and then climb back when you feel a little better.
Is it harder to win today than it was in your heyday?
No. It’s the easiest it’s ever been to win on Tour. No one closes. They all peel off at the end.
You think it’s easier to win? Many argue that the Tour is deeper than ever.
That argument doesn’t hold any water, because guys don’t win multiple times. You might say Rickie Fowler’s one of the top 10 players in the world, but he doesn’t win anything. [Note: This interview was conducted before Fowler won the Players Championship.] So how is it harder to win? It doesn’t seem too hard for guys to win that want to win, like Rory McIlroy.
Let’s say a player has a crucial shot into the final green. Surely he’s trying like hell to win. He’s not thinking, “Whatever–I’m going to make $500,000 even if I miss the green and three-putt.”
It’s got nothing to do with 18. On the 18th hole, you’re the most courageous guy in the world. You’re home. It’s the front nine on Saturday where you’re usually seeing guys peel off. It’s when you know you got $500K in the bank. Or [on Sunday] when you make double-bogey on 1, then what do you do? Do you start playing it safe? When I was playing in the ′90s, it seemed like there were a lot of guys who won more frequently. I won 10 times in the ′90s and I probably could have won 20.
Are you satisfied with your career?
I had a lot of chances, but I feel pretty good. I could have won the U.S. Open; I could have won the British Open, too. I could have won the PGA when I was 48, at Whistling Straits [in 2010]. I could have won a number of other PGAs. But yeah, considering where I came from in Australia—I left home [after high school] and came over and stayed here all that time by myself—I think I held my own in the era I was in.
Many players are physically talented enough to win in bunches but don’t. What separates a guy like Tiger Woods or McIlroy?
To me, Tiger was more like Michael Phelps. He was just faster than everyone else. If you and I are swimming and I’m a faster swimmer, I’ll beat you every time. I felt like that with Tiger at his best because he never really made any mistakes. Phil, you felt like you had a chance, because he might make a mistake. Rory was mistake-prone earlier in his career, but he realized that on the back nine at majors when the pressure gets the most intense, it’s all going to be over in an hour anyway. When you walk to the 13th tee at Augusta, in an hour and a half you’ll be sitting in the clubhouse, win or lose. You make up your mind then whether you want to make a run at this or not. Now I’m giving away all my secrets. [Laughs]
It’s been 20 years since you won the PGA at Riviera, beating Colin Montgomerie in a playoff. What is your most vivid memory from that week?
Shooting 64 on Sunday. I had this weird approach to that round. I decided to get out of my own way, to not try and manage anything. It was like I was on remote control. There was hardly any talk between me and my caddie. To win, I had to have all that happen, and I still had to get it done in a playoff. And Colin was so good. That guy was so straight, and as much fun as people poke at him, he’s a real gambler on the course. He will take a run at you, like Mickelson. So I figured, “If I’m going to win a major, it’s going to happen right here.”
You dropped a 20-footer for birdie on the first extra hole. Do you ever feel like you don’t get enough credit for how you won? A Sunday 64 to win a major is a rare feat.
I never worry what anyone else thinks. I could have been leading by seven, shot 71 and won and that would have been fine, too. But 64 was a good round.
This year’s PGA returns to Whistling Straits, where you nearly won in 2010. It’s a long, heavily bunkered course. How did you contend there at 48?
It’s a mental thing there. Out of those hundreds of bunkers—for me, there were only about five in play. So the course was real simple to me. It wasn’t that intimidating.
You played with Tiger in the third round. Was that intimidating?
The media makes so much talk about playing with those guys. I never thought of it that way. I always thought, “I might be a little bit nervous, but I’m going to be nervous anyway.” I always tried to take two things away from playing with Jack Nicklaus or Greg Norman or Tiger or whoever. I always tried to see what my game looked like compared to theirs. And then I would try to steal any energy I could from the crowd. It was so stacked for me in my thinking. I get on professionally well with Tiger. After the round [Elkington shot 67 to Woods’s 72], he said, “You’re playing so good, man. You’re going to win this tournament.”
And it looked like you would win on Sunday when you tied for the lead with a birdie on 16.
And then on 17 [a par 3], I’m probably the only guy that hit it back to where the flag was, and it fell off the back of the green [from where I made bogey]. I saw [the course designer] Pete Dye as I was walking off 18, and he says, “Hell, if I could have stretched that green one foot longer for you, I would have done it.” There’s no way that you could ever say that someone’s not going to win a major when they’re 50. There are guys who are going to do it.
You’ve said your win at the 1997 Players, when you closed with a Sunday-low 69, was your most dominant performance. How so?
Everything was available, every shot. There’s only one thing that trumps winning wire-to-wire like Spieth did: having the [54-hole] lead and shooting the low round on Sunday. Guys get out early in the morning, shoot 60, whatever. But the guy who’s leading late, last off, has the most pressure—and then shoots the low round of the day? That’s the biggest ass-kicking you can give a tournament.
You won the Players by seven strokes over Scott Hoch, who shot a 74 that Sunday. You two exchanged words on the first tee, right?
He said that if he won, he would be exempt [on Tour] till he was 50. And I told him, “F— you. It’s not your tournament, it’s my tournament. You ain’t going to win today.” [Laughs] What else am I going to say? It pissed me off. It got me into the right frame of mind, because I was a little nervous that day. I was wobbly coming out of the gates. I didn’t even get to the course till 15 minutes before my tee time. I hit five 7-irons and two drivers and went straight to the tee.
You’ve come under fire for some of your remarks on Twitter. In 2013, you incited controversy after using a word that’s derogatory toward Pakistanis. In 2014, you posted what many interpreted to be a homophobic joke about the gay football player Michael Sam. There are other examples. Do you regret any of the tweets?
I don’t know. You can’t win either way. Everyone wants to keep picking on me about Twitter, but they don’t want to pick on other people. They don’t want to pick on Kelly Tilghman, about what she said about Tiger. [Note: In 2008, Tilghman said during a Golf Channel telecast that young players who wanted to challenge Woods should “lynch him in a back alley.”] They don’t keep picking on Tripp Isen-hour because he killed an eagle. [Note: Isenhour killed a hawk with a golf ball in 2007.] But they want to keep picking on me for something that I got fined for and suspended. I’ve served my sentence.
But those two examples were one-off incidents. Your critics would argue that you’re a repeat offender.
Yes, but there’s two sides to every one of [the tweets]. In the circles I go in, we [joke around on Twitter] all the time with one another. I’m not saying I’m not responsible for my tweets, but a lot of people are tired of all the political correctness.
Are you more cautious now on social media than in the past?
Oh, absolutely. There’s so many people that watch my Twitter feed now. It’s like I said—no matter what I tell you, it’s not going to come out right. I guess the latest tweet with Bruce Jenner, I wrote that once he was on the Wheaties box and now he’s on the—what was it?
￼ A Froot Loops box.
To me, I was thinking, what’s a Froot Loop? We’re talking about a big, giant, colorful bird with his long hair. But it wasn’t even my original tweet. I was responding to someone [who tweeted a photoshopped image of Jenner’s head on a Froot Loops box]. I didn’t put that out. This is dicey territory, but a lot of people I know—[there are] a lot of people in this world who won’t say anything but might have thought it’s funny about Bruce Jenner. Are we all ready to be spoon-fed that transgenderism is really—that we all should embrace it and we’ve got to accept it and that’s cool? Is that where we’re at? Could be.
After your tweet about Michael Sam “leading the handbag throw at [the] NFL combine,” L.A. Times columnist Jill Painter wrote: “It’s hard to keep track of Elkington’s hatred. He seems to have so much for so many people. I imagine he has 60,000 Twitter followers solely to watch what stupid thing he types next. It’s certainly not his overwhelming personality.” How do you respond?
I don’t have any hatred for anyone. I always told my kids that the three things you don’t want to be in life are envious, jealous or hateful.
How long did the Tour suspend you for the Sam tweet?
Two weeks. And I was fined $10,000.
Did the Tour tell you to stay off Twitter?
They didn’t, no. Do you even know who I was writing that tweet to?
Yes, you were directing it at ESPN. You were miffed by their coverage of Sam, right?
They kept calling him “the gay athlete.” “The gay, the gay, the gay.” I don’t even know if you get it or not. People forget that I did 250 cartoons on Twitter—every day for a year. They forget all the good stuff I do. I did like 67 ‘toons last year for the Champions Tour, promoted the tour, put them on my show, did all that. No s—, they couldn’t care less. One thing, boom, and it’s all they remember. No one’s done as much to try to promote the tour as I have. Now I don’t do anything for them, zero. So who wins? Nobody wins. [Note: When reached for a response, the PGA Tour declined to comment.]
Is the Sam tweet the only tweet you were suspended for?
You weren’t reprimanded by the Tour for any of the others?
Like which ones?
Like in 2013, when you tweeted from the Senior British Open about a “couple of caddies [who] got rolled by some Pakkis.”
I was in a tough place. I was sticking up for a caddie who got robbed, and everyone wanted to know if I slurred the robber. If you look up “racial slur” on Google, the only place where “Paki” is considered a slur is in England. In Australia, it is not. A lot of people use that term in Australia. And they call us “Aussies.”
You mentioned your cartoons. Do you think your artistic side influences the way you play golf or see the game?
I’m not sure, but that messes me up on Twitter. I’m a cartoonist. I think quickly. Everything I see is potentially a caption to a cartoon. And it’s just like that in my head—bam, bam, bam.
Your golf swing is often held up as a model. Did it come naturally?
To a point, yes. I think my idea about the swing is what keeps my swing going. I know my swing. I studied with [Homer Kelley’s] The Golfing Machine for 10 years. I’ve studied under lots of guys, like Jackie Burke. I learned all those swings, so that I knew exactly how it all works and why it works. And I’ve got really strong legs, which is helpful for golf because I can stand there and wind my arms up and keep everything real steady. I believe that if you have a great grip, then you’re going to have a real stable clubface. I’ve been playing since I was 12, 13, and have always played good golf.
So you had a natural talent?
Are you insinuating that I just have it like I have curly hair? [Laughs]
Yes, to an extent, and then maybe the last 30 percent came through hard work. Does that sound right?
My son would tell you, “My dad’s swing is 90 percent in his head. Ninety percent attack dog; 10 percent swing.” He’d say, “My dad will cut you.” [Laughs] He’d say, “His swing means nothing.”
Whose swing do you most admire?
Lee Trevino and Jack were talking about Trevino recently at an event in San Antonio. Jack was saying that when he first saw Trevino swing, he said to a friend, “There’s one guy we don’t have to worry about. That swing isn’t going to work.” And then the first time Jack ever saw Gary Player, he watched him and looked at his backswing and his [bowed] wrist and said, “We’ll never have to worry about a guy with that swing.” We got a player like that right now, Dustin Johnson. So I think it’s pretty personal, the golf swing.
If you had been able to win one more major, you’d be a Hall of Fame candidate. Would you like to be in the discussion?
It’s okay. Jack, Arnold, Gary and Lee—they’re the real Hall of Famers. Mark O’Meara and David Graham, they played Hall of Fame–type golf in their era, but they’re not in the same class as Jack Nicklaus. People said, “Hey, Freddie Couples shouldn’t be in the Hall of Fame.” But he was Hall of Fame [worthy] in his era. I held my own in my era for a decade. I earned the right to say that I was one of the best players that played in the ′90s. And that’s all right.