PINEHURST, NORTH CAROLINA | On a warm summer afternoon when the sun had begun to dip behind the pine trees, Hal Sutton stood on the clubhouse porch at the Country Club of North Carolina where 41 years ago he won the U.S. Amateur.
Sutton was back at CCNC for the first time since he beat Bob Lewis in the championship match not so much to look backward but to look ahead. The U.S. Junior Amateur will be played at CCNC’s two courses July 19-24 and Sutton knows what comes with winning a national amateur championship.
He was 22 years old and completing a storybook summer that included victories in the North & South, the Western and the Northeast amateurs in addition to the U.S. Amateur. A year later, Sutton was rookie of the year on the PGA Tour and another year later he was player of the year after winning both the Players Championship and the PGA Championship.
“It set my career off,” Sutton said of his U.S. Amateur win. “It gave me the confidence that I could compete at the highest level. The expectations that will be on the young man that wins this (junior) tournament in a couple of weeks … he’ll come in here wondering if he is good enough to win a national tournament. He’ll leave here thinking, ‘Oh my goodness, I won and now everybody expects me to win.’
“It will change their whole perspective after that, which it did mine. Then comes a whole set of problems with how you handle it.”
Sutton is 63 now. His once sandy blonde hair is beginning to gray but his eyes still project the piercing intensity that marked his playing career. He won 14 PGA Tour events and famously took down Tiger Woods by one stroke in winning the 2000 Players Championship at age 42.
Fred Couples was elected to the World Golf Hall of Fame with 15 PGA Tour wins, one major and two Players titles. Sutton has one fewer win but may never make the Hall. He arrived with the burden of being called “the next Nicklaus” and as good as Sutton was, he was never a consistently dominant player while feeling the weight of expectations.
“For a while I handled it OK … One thing the world does is they tell you all the problems you have, too. The world likes failure for whatever reason. I remember picking up magazines and they would say why I didn’t have it in order to make it. I was already pretty darn good,” Sutton said with a chuckle.
“That became pretty frustrating and I don’t think I handled that very well. I cared too much what other people thought. I’m probably glad I didn’t (play) when social media was going on. That’s what you see is criticism in social media.
“Anybody if they were truthful would always say there was more that could have been done. But I gave it my best. I’m content with it.”
“As long as you feel competitive and like you’re not just participating but you’re competing to win then your fire continues to burn. Whether it’s health or just old age creeping in and you can’t do what you used to be able to do, one way or the other your fire begins to burn less.” – Hal Sutton
Since 2016, Sutton has played just 11 senior events, the last coming in March 2019. He has three artificial joints and rarely plays now. Instead, he teaches the game at the Hal Sutton Golf Academy in Houston, sharing what he has learned across the decades.
The slow grind of constant travel and the wear of competitive golf took a toll on Sutton.
“As long as you feel competitive and like you’re not just participating but you’re competing to win then your fire continues to burn. Whether it’s health or just old age creeping in and you can’t do what you used to be able to do, one way or the other your fire begins to burn less,” he said.
For all of his accomplishments, Sutton may be best remembered for two things: The pairing of Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson in the 2004 Ryder Cup matches at Oakland Hills Country Club outside Detroit (they lost both matches together) and uttering one of golf’s most familiar and enduring phrases – “Be the right club today” – as he battled Woods at the 2000 Players Championship.
Here’s what Sutton told a dinner group at CCNC about putting Woods and Mickelson together (they lost, 2 and 1, in four-ball to Colin Montgomerie and Pádraig Harrington then lost, 1 up, in foursomes to Darren Clarke and Lee Westwood):
“I thought long and hard about putting Tiger and Phil together. Phil had signed a $75 million (Callaway equipment) contract the week before. He called and told me. I said, ‘Really, you sold out for $75 million?’
“He said, ‘I don’t know how far the Callaway ball is going. I’m going over to the other golf course.’ On Wednesday, I said, ‘There’s 35,000 people came out to watch you play.’ I said, ‘You’re not going out there with your team?’ It didn’t matter to him.
“It flew all over me. I walked to the press tent and said, ‘Give me the world rankings.’ OK, Tiger No. 1, Phil No. 3. I put it in my pocket and I walked back to the tee. Phil was at the very end of the range and the rest of the American team was headed over to the first tee.
“On the way over I stopped by Tiger and said, ‘Tiger, I want to ask you a question. I want to pair you with Phil. Would you feel OK about that?’ (He answered), ‘Oh yeah.’ OK.
“So I stuffed these three Nike balls (Woods’ brand) in my pocket and walked down to Phil. Phil says ‘You don’t know who I’m going to be paired with yet?’ I said, ‘Not quite.’ He said ‘I can’t believe that.’ I said, ‘I just left the press room and it says you’re No. 3 in the world. Do you believe that Phil?’
“I said, ‘Ever since you’ve been here you’ve been talking about the ball.’ So I threw those (Nike) balls out there. He says, ‘You’re pairing me with Tiger? That’s exactly what I want.’
“I said, ‘OK, I’ve just given you the world’s biggest stage so don’t let them down.’ ”
Here’s the kicker:
“I took a big hit for that and several years later they paid them $10 million to play with each other,” Sutton said, referring to their televised money match in 2018.
As for the other moment, when Sutton was watching his 6-iron shot into the 18th green at the Stadium Course, essentially sealing his Players Championship win against Tiger, the camera was on his face when he barked, “Be the right club today.”
“That’s the one thing I’ve done that’s lived on – be the right club. I’ll walk through an airport and someone will holler ‘Be the right club today.’ It’s held on.”
So have Sutton’s memories of what happened 41 years ago in the North Carolina sandhills.
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