This year marks ten years since Sergio Garcia beat you in a playoff on the 17th hole at TPC Sawgrass, a close call on what would’ve been your third PGA Tour win. Since then, you’ve won five times on the Champions Tour. When you look back at that loss at the Players — and at rinsing your tee shot on that first playoff hole — what’s your lasting impression?
Two things: I remember that standing on the fourth hole [in the final round], I was five under par, and I ended up finishing five under par. It was blowing 30 miles an hour that day, it was miserable, and I think only four people ended up under par for the whole tournament—so if you’d told me I was going to play the last 15 holes even par and not win the tournament, I’d have said, “You’re insane.” So I have to tip my hat to Sergio a little bit. The other thing is, I hit the wrong club in the playoff. I think if I’d slowed down and put more thought into it — an easy thing to say ten years later — maybe I’d hit one more club. I know people say, “You got the bad luck and the wind gusts.” That’s baloney. I hit the wrong club at 17.
Does it still sting?
No. It’s a big deal, but “sting” is too strong. It might hurt a little bit, but golf’s a game you lose a lot. I’ve played 500 PGA tournaments and won twice.
It was the first playoff of your career. Did you feel rattled?
I don’t know if “rattled” is the right word; more like unprepared, even though I was 43 years old at the time. Not to make excuses, but I didn’t handle the situation very well. And, again, I’ve heard a million people say, “God, you got the wind. You got screwed.” No, I hit the wrong club.
Did you at least hit it well?
Yes. But you have to be situationally aware. If the playoff would have been the next day, under the exact same conditions — but I had time to think about it — I might have hit a 9-iron. But it is what it is.
After you played your 72nd hole, you were whisked to the 17th for the playoff. Is that hole a fair setting for sudden death?
That question has come up a ton. A lot of people don’t like the hole because of where it is in the round. If it was hole No. 13 instead of No. 17, it wouldn’t be considered a big deal. But I think if you’re going to win a tournament, we’re not asking you to hit a 5-iron into the island, we’re asking you to hit a wedge or a 9-iron. Guys today are hitting sand wedges in there. To win the fifth biggest tournament in the world, I don’t think that’s asking too much.
In general, people seem to either love or hate Sawgrass. Where do you stand?
I only played well there when [the Players] was moved to the spring. I never played well in March. The Bermuda grass in the hot weather was better for me. And the golf course grew on me. When I first played it, I thought, Man, this place has got a lot of gimmicks. But they’ve done a good job with it. One thing that’s great about the course is that it has produced winners of all types. [Phil] Mickelson has won there; [Henrik] Stenson has won there. But also short hitters. It doesn’t favor anybody. It favors the guy playing well that week. That’s a testament to good architecture.
You’re one of the rare players who seemed to have really blossomed in your mid-forties. You’re now 53. To what do you attribute your consistency and longevity?
Taking advantage of my opportunities the last ten years, more so than I did my first 12 or 15 years of playing professional golf. I got on Tour when I was 28 or 29, and for the first ten years, if I played good, I finished 12th — or maybe crept into ninth or seventh, or whatnot. Then I just got better at taking advantage of good play, and I’ve kind of pulled that into the Champions Tour. I haven’t played great all the time — I probably only have 15 or 20 top 10s in 80 tournaments. But I’ve won five of those. So when I play well I tend to hang in there and finish the deal.
ONE THING I KNOW FOR SURE
The 17th at TPC Sawgrass is a perfect hole for a playoff. Why? Because you can [score] anywhere from a one to a 10, almost every single year. It’s a sudden-death playoff for a reason: One person dies and the other person wins. If you play a hole where the stroke average is four, you might be there for the rest of your life.