Woody Austin: A Splash Hit

January 24, 2012

Entering 2007, Albert W. (WOODY) Austin was best known not for his two Tour wins but as the hothead who pounded a putter against his skull five times at the 1997 MCI Classic, bending it. (The putter, that is.)

Then came The Dive.

When the 44-year-old fell headlong into a water hazard on the 14th hole at the Royal Montreal Golf Club during the Presidents Cup, everything changed. He joked. He caroused. He laughed it up when his teammates played Marco Polo on the bus. Team USA even presented the rookie with a framed photo sequence of his big splash, with signed comments (Lucas Glover: "Even the French judge gave you a 10"; Tiger Woods: "9.3. Wow!")

We sat down with "Aquaman" in his Wichita, Kansas home, which he shares with his wife Shannon and their two boys, ages 7 and 9. Austin, wearing a jersey from his alma mater, the University of Miami, gulped a Dr. Pepper, with a jar of candy labeled "Woody's Goodies" nearby. Woody Austin on a sugar high? This should be good.

Did you ever think that the secret to finding real fame was simply, 'Just add water'?
No, obviously I didn't. I always knew I had it in me, I just didn't know the ingredient to get it out.

What exactly were you doing in that water? Couldn't you just have said to your partner, David Toms, 'I'm ball in pocket. Carry me'?
Well, see, he was ball in pocket. He hit it in the water way back and then his third shot didn't even hit the green. Rory was on the (par-4 14th) green in one.

I was thinking if I could just get the ball out of the water and around the green, I could chip in for 3.

Everyone laughs at the silliness of it. Did you learn anything from the day?
I don't know if finishing birdie, birdie, birdie is silly. I was pretty serious. What it shows is that people see me react to something and think I'm lost (in anger), but I'm not. I'm quick to get my head back into it.

You've said Phil Mickelson 'ripped the crap out of me' for 24 hours after you took your dive.
(Laughs) He was on me nonstop from Tuesday all the way through Sunday. What happened on Friday only made it easier for him.

Was he giving you grief before the dive?
I don't know if it was initiation, or the fact that we get along so good that he knew I could take it. The first thing that happened is he took a game off me in Ping-Pong. Well, this was my first time. I didn't realize how serious the Ping-Pong was. He kept on about it: "No competition, you aren't worth my time, blah, blah, blah." And then on Friday, he was the one who called me Aquaman.

Did you get him back at Ping-Pong?
Oh, yeah. I beat him three straight.

You've said that most of the team were serious Pongers. Who else did you beat?
Tiger never played me. He only played Phil. They have like a running tab. I think Tiger beat him. I know it was best three out of five, and it went all five. I kept wanting to play him and he said, 'No, I can't beat you so I won't play you.' We (Woods and Austin) were good partners, though. We called ourselves the Woodys.

What's the best line you heard?
Barbara Nicklaus the next morning (Saturday). She was sitting at the breakfast table and on the front of the sports page was my face in the water, and she looked up and said, "Everybody wants to know: Did you catch the salmon or not?"

You seem to have settled into this new class-clown role; is that because it's so preferable to how you were typecast before, as the angry guy?
People who really know me, know me this way anyway. I'm only the supposed "angry guy" when I'm doing my job. Like I've always said, if you're not getting full value out of your job, you're not supposed to be happy. I've always felt like I've barely scratched the surface of what I know I'm capable of, so why should I be happy? This light-heartedness that came out at the Presidents Cup, I'm always like that away from the golf course.

You tore tendons and cartilage in your left knee during Q school in '87, an injury that sidelined you for two years. How did that affect your career?
I rehabbed it for 18 months, but it basically sidelined me for almost seven years because I had no sponsors, no backing, no nothing.

How'd you hurt it?
It was a baseball injury when I was little. I chased a foul ball and caught it and cut everything all the way down to the bone on my left knee, and all they did was butterfly (bandage) it. They just closed it up. When I reinjured it, I was told that everything on that knee was underdeveloped. So my left knee was eight to 10 times weaker than my right. That takes a lot of brunt in the golf swing.

You played in Japan in 1989 and '90, and passed Q school in '94. Was it in the early '90s that you worked as a credit-union teller and in the supplies department at Eckert Drug?
I had no money, no sponsor, no backing, so I had to work. One of the most gratifying things was after I won Q school in '94, I went back to the bank in Tampa, to all those people who didn't believe me when I told them that I played golf but I was hurt, just to see the looks on their faces when they realized I wasn't lying.

Are you worried about going too far the other way, about people forgetting how well you played in Montreal and only remembering the dive?
That's just it! Everybody is talking about the Aquaman, but I did make three birdies in a row to halve the match. That's kind of an afterthought. I made eight birdies that day.

Let's talk about the PGA Championship and finishing second to Tiger. You said you outplayed him tee-to-green Friday, when he shot 63 to your 70. How so?
I went through his round and my round, and I hit it inside him 10 times, to his 6 inside me. So who hit it closer? The thing about the media is you remember one quote as opposed to the whole speech, and the whole speech was: I was disappointed because I'd just played a great round of golf and shot even par. Everybody was like, "What are you down for? You're 2-under in a major." But I knew I'd just lost what I needed to have a chance to win my first major. The thing is, Tiger shoots 63, and the whole telecast it's, "Oh, he's just toying with everybody." All he did was putt better. He made everything. I played from tee to green better, but like always, the ultimate thing is score. That's why I was so upset that day: My score was higher than it should've been. And I see (Woods) birdie two of his first four holes that day, and he hits his drive way right on the fifth hole, a par-5, and he slams his driver down, and the commentators didn't say he was losing his mind or anything. If I'd birdied two of the first four holes and slammed my driver they'd have gone ballistic on me. "Doesn't he know that he's just birdied two of the first four holes? He's losing it already." And that's not fair.

You also said that giving Tiger a four-shot lead going into the final round of a major is too much to make up. How many shots could you spot Tiger and still have a chance of winning?
Well, I almost did. The whole thing in the media was: It's going to be a laugher, it's inevitable. Let's face it, he's the best player in the world. Until that week I'm some middle-of-the-road hanger-on and I'm supposed to run him down from four shots in a major? Anybody on Tour with a four-shot lead in a major has a great chance to win.

At what point did you think, 'Hey, wait a minute, I have a chance here'?
I think after I birdied 13. The putt on 12 was great because it got the crowd involved. That's the loudest I've ever had anyone yell for me, so the chills were unbelievable.

Here's another quote of yours: 'I don't think anybody plays better than I do when I'm on. I know that's crazy, but I think I can hit any shot anybody in the world can hit.' If that's true, why haven't you been more of a force?
I do believe I am considered one of the best ballstrikers in the game. I've never been one to toot my own horn. But if you look at the history of the game, everybody has a weakness. Only the greats like Tiger and Nicklaus don't have a weakness. I have a weakness, and it's right here. (Points to his head.) As I've gotten older I've gotten better at controlling that. The talent is starting to overcome the limitations, but I'm getting to the point where the talent is waning. This was one of the worst ball-striking years of my career, but it's my best putting year in 13 years.

When you point to your head, you're not talking about your temper, are you?
If I was so bad temper-wise I'd get mad every hole, every single day. I don't. I'm just one of the most nervous people you'll ever meet. When I get mad it's because of the nervousness. Let's say I'm worried I'm going to hit it in the water, and I hit it three miles the other way. Or I hit it in the water. Then I'm going to be mad.

And there's a good mad, what sports psychologist Bob Rotella has called 'maddecisive.' Can Angry Woody play good golf?
I think he can at times. He played pretty good those last three holes at the Presidents Cup.

You were angry?
Sure! I was embarrassed. There isn't a soul around who wouldn't have been. Everybody was laughing at me for the next two and a half days, on every hole. "Don't fall in!" "Stay dry!" "Watch out for the water!" You don't think that would have gotten to you?

What's the nervousness about? Have you sat on the couch to talk about it?
I've sat all over the place. Two hypnotists, one sports psychologist … I don't know. It's just who I am.

Are you seeing a therapist now?
No. I've just got a brain that won't shut off. I'm just a very, very nervous person. When I go and bowl on Sundays I'm nervous. I don't know if it's a fear of embarrassment or a fear of failure. Maybe I don't want to mess up for my kids or myself or whatever. I don't know.

A lot of players on Tour could probably talk about that nervousness.
Yeah, but I've been nervous over every shot I've ever hit in my entire life.

But you're good at riding a streak. You blew away the field with a final-round 62 at the '07 St. Jude.
When I'm on I can play with anybody, but I think that's the same with a lot of athletes. Tiger's the best player in the world because he stays at his level. I can play at that level, but he's there all the time. The media says, "Oh, he's in another world, they can't touch him." But we can. We just can't stay up there.

It sounds like you have a beef with the media.
Well, the media has a beef with me, so why shouldn't I?

Why does the media have a beef with you? Because all anybody talks about is the putter-over-the-head incident?
Yeah, and that was 10 years ago! Tiger's got a bigger temper than I do, but who's the hothead? He gets mad every single round, but who's the loose cannon that everybody talks about? At the Tour Championship, how many shots did he win by? Eight? Did you see me throw a club that week? Did you see him? He didn't throw his club on the 15th hole, a par-5, on Saturday? It's okay for him because he's that competitive. If someone like myself does it, it's: "Oh, he's losing it."

Did you think your career would be easier than it has been when you won the '95 Buick Open and won Rookie of the Year honors over David Duval?
I was just happy to get out there, to show that I belonged. I'd played golf against Lee Janzen and Rocco Mediate and watched Lee win two U.S. Opens, and I was thinking, "Gosh, I beat those guys in college." And yet I was on my couch. Talk about a motivator. And I got off to a great start — I had my card sewn up by Doral, with three-quarters of the year to go. The Buick was more a validation that all the hard work was going to pay off.

We have to ask about the guy who bashed his putter over his head at Hilton Head. Where is that putter?
I'm sure it's in my golf closet. I keep all that stuff except for clubs I give away to kids' charities. Hilton Head was the lowest of the lows. I had just come off of Rookie of the Year in '95 and 32nd on the money list in '96 to losing my job in '97, and we couldn't figure out what the problem was. A month after Hilton Head we figured out it was my eyes. I'd worn glasses since I was 15, and when I'd had my eyes checked at the beginning of that year they'd put the wrong prescription in both my eyes. I missed 13 cuts in a row, didn't break 77. I still had my prescription from my optometrist in Florida and I went to somebody in Kansas City, and she said, "That's not right." I said, "Check it again, please." I was off two clicks in the left eye and one click in the right eye. Wrong prescription.

How long did it take to get it back?
A long time. To be that shaky, nervous person to begin with and see yourself hitting shots you never imagined hitting. It was a bad situation, but in '98, even with no confidence, I finished 7th on the Nationwide and got my card back. David Duval's going through it now with the vertigo, hitting shots he never thought he'd hit.

Back to the Presidents Cup. Which teammate surprised you when you got to know him?
I didn't realize how much of a joker Phil is. The guy is funny. One of the funniest things is how much he ribbed me about that first Ping-Pong game, 21-13. Let's face it, he travels in different circles than I do, so I enjoyed being around him. He's a good guy.

Do you think you surprised them? And how so?
I'd like to hope I did. But I think the people that really know me know I'm a lot of fun. I love to laugh and joke and play around. It's just when I get out there and that switch gets turned on I'm just extremely nervous, I go into that shell. But off the golf course I think people knew me. The only thing I surprised them at, maybe, was the Ping-Pong.

What's next on your to-do list?
The biggest goal for me now is to make the Ryder Cup team. And since I came so close at the PGA, I'd like to win a major. But the biggest thing for me is to show that 2007 wasn't a fluke. What I've said all along is true: I am pretty good if I can allow myself to be that way.

What do you want your legacy to be?
I want people to understand that you can be an average, everyday guy and still succeed. I have no outright attributes that are any different than anybody else. I'm not real big, not real strong. I think the fact that I didn't make it until I was 31 shows the value of perseverance. I could have given up a long time ago, more than once. I hoped at some point that I could show people the potential I had in my 20s. I showed some glimpses of that this year.

Looking to 2008, do you know who won two majors at your age 10 years ago?
Yeah, Mark O'Meara. Now that would be cool.