Very early in his career, Hal Evan Sutton was labelled the ‘Bear Apparent’. A player the American golf fan could optimistically pin their hopes on as Jack Nicklaus’ powers began to wane.
In 1983 he captured The Players, the lead changing hands 11 times on the final day, and quickly followed it with a Major title, edging out his great hero, Nicklaus, at the PGA at Riviera.
But the good times came to a relatively early halt. Sutton failed to win from 1986 to 1995 before very slowly rebuilding his game.
After turning 40 he won six times, including taking down Tiger for a second crown at Sawgrass. Woods had just won a ridiculous 10 of his previous 16 starts and would go on to knock off the last three Majors of 2000 but Sutton matched him shot for shot. And then produced a 6-iron at the last whose commentary, provided by the player himself, has become as well known as any quote in the game.
When you won in 1983 you birdied the 17th all four days, how did you manage that?
That hole is one of a few holes that essentially hasn’t changed much over the years. If you hit the ball solid it’s really not that hard a shot, you’re playing for the middle of the green and you should walk out of there with pars most of the time – and some birdies.
I always played the front pin off the back slope, I would hit it past the hole and try and suck it back down to the flag. The rest of the time I played the ball to the top centre of the green and it usually works unless you are in the last few groups on Sunday and that green can get hard on that back side and you can hit a few in the water that way. I did that the second time I won in 2000 in the third round and made a six.
How big a win was it for you in 1983?
It was huge for me. It was my second year on the PGA Tour and I had come off a rookie season where I had won the last event of the year which was Disney. The Players really set me up for a nice year and it certainly gave me a confidence boost to help me win my only Major.
But in this game you’re no better than your last round so everything you are doing you are trying to put something in the confidence bucket rather than take something out of it.
It has one of the most dramatic finishes in the game and is a great test of Point A to Point B to Point C-type golf.
It’s not sheer power there and you have to play shots there.
You were then touted as the ‘Bear Apparent’, the likely successor to Jack Nicklaus. How hard was that to handle?
I didn’t handle it as well as I should have but it is unfair to put that type of pressure on a 25-year-old kid who is unproven really. It took many years for Jack to amass his record. For someone to say, after just a couple of years, that someone might do this is unfair. I don’t think any kid should buy into it and they should really try to stay in their own way of thinking.
You played with Tiger the previous month before you beat him at Sawgrass in 2000 – how important was it to send a message to the World No. 1?
It was crucial. I wanted to know that I could play with him. I knew that I would have to do it somewhere down the road and I needed to be able to do that.
I played good with him that week (Sutton shot 69-67 to Woods’ 68-70 at Riviera) and that really gave me the confidence for The Players.
How hard is it to play with Tiger?
There is a lot going with it but you have to get into your own self. You have worked all your life to be able to showcase your own game. Some can do it at an early age and some learn the process.
Was there much chat?
A bit of small talk. He was into his game pattern, I was into mine. We got rained out on 12 on the Sunday, we both went in separately and then shared a buggy back out on the Monday and there was a bit of chat.
When you got rained off you were three clear on the Sunday night. Did you have a plan for the Monday?
On Sunday we were playing it hard and fast and then it was soft. Hard and fast was more into my game, softer suited him more as he was longer than me.
I had one thought and that was to get to 16 with a three-shot lead. I might not go for the green at the par 5, and he would, which brought an eagle three into play for him and five into play for me. If that happened, and it actually did play out like that, then I would be one clear and he had to play those holes the way I did and it would come down to who hit the best shots on those two holes.
Flashback to 2000
We're pretty sure Hal Sutton had the right club.https://t.co/GgOos5hxd4
— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) May 11, 2016
Was your now infamous commentary ‘Be the right club, be the right club today’ something you had said previously?
I had never said it before. We are splitting hairs out here and you can hit the best shot of your life and it might not work.
Look at Tom Watson at Turnberry in 2009 – he hit a good shot which should have been on the green but it wasn’t.
I knew I had hit the right club right at the flag and, when it was in the air, I thought ‘don’t surprise me’.
‘Be the right club today’ was literally ‘don’t surprise me’, just be what I’m looking at. And it was. We’re a puff of wind away from disaster at times. He was pretty unstoppable that year and I was just happy to get in his way that one time.
How often do you get reminded of those words?
Every day. Golf Channel did a piece and it was the most quotable golf quote ever. I didn’t intend it to be that way, it was just a moment of passion. It was just emotion coming out.
A friend of mine struggles to hit a shot without doing an impression of you…
You’re welcome to use it!
Was there a sense that Tiger was on the verge of such a phenomenal run, winning four straight majors starting with a 15-shot win at the US Open?
I knew he was a great player and he had a real sense of control of himself that most players his age didn’t have. He had direction and he wasn’t going to get sidetracked and he didn’t for a long time.
You have won two Players and a PGA Championship. Does one win stand out?
I was watching Tiger beat Rocco Mediate in my den with my son who was five at the time. He asked if I had beaten him one day and I said “yeah, I beat him buddy.”
And that was important to me that he did know that. He wasn’t even alive when I beat Tiger.