Talk to Geoff Ogilvy about the 2006 US Open at Winged Foot Golf Club and, such is the vividness of his recollections, it’s difficult to comprehend that nearly a decade-and-a-half has passed since his lone Major title. It was a heady time in golf and Ogilvy was amid a multi-year period of matching it with the likes of Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson as a dominant force in the game.
We asked him to reminisce and received a series of typically detail-rich responses. But of course, any conversation with Geoff Ogilvy can’t centre on one topic alone and can’t be adequately covered in one sitting. So we spoke with him twice, also covering subjects as varied as how to beat the tour grind, his growing love for the Presidents Cup, how the PGA Tour really operates, how his long-time caddie learned to subtly coax him, equipment, course architecture, his first encounter with Tiger Woods, a little-known family tie to Judy Rankin, ways golf can evolve post-COVID and more.
Australian Golf Digest: Fourteen years. Where have they gone?
Geoff Ogilvy: I don’t know. It’s crazy how fast it’s gone. But it’s incredible how 14 years is a long time when you say it like that. In some respects it’s like yesterday; in some respects it’s a long time ago.
What are your main recollections of that week at Winged Foot in 2006?
It was quite an interesting period, because we’d played Westchester the week before, which was just next door. We stayed at the same hotel – the Crowne Plaza in White Plains, New York – for 15 days in a row, which is really not normal. And it was the same people – me and Scotty (Adam Scott) and the usual suspects – all having dinner at the same places. For two full weeks. So that stands out.
Winged Foot had been a venue that I’d looked forward to because it’s one of those historic tournament venues in America. Greg [Norman] had played well there in ’84 and the Massacre at Winged Foot was in ’74. I remember really being excited to get to Winged Foot.
Westchester is quite a similar course, so it was like the US Open ‘lite’. That was brilliant. It was a great tune-up for the US Open. But usually if you played Westchester you’d fly off to wherever – Pinehurst or Pebble Beach or something. But this time, we just sat in the same hotel and drove around the corner, which was really the perfect preparation. I just remember loving it.
One of my biggest memories from the week is watching the Australian World Cup soccer matches from the fitness trailer. We had the Brazil match that week. I would love watching those big soccer tournaments, football tournaments. I got to know them when I played in Europe: Euro ’96 and then Euro 2000, the World Cup in ’98, the World Cup in 2002. They had such a great atmosphere. So I was a World Cup fan, and we were playing our first World Cup for forever. The biggest memory from the week was watching Australia play Brazil from the fitness trailer. Outside of the golf, obviously.
Had you played Winged Foot before?
I went with one or two of the guys prior, right before the Westchester tournament started. And that’s the first time I’d ever been there. I got a really good look around and had an idea of what we were going to see in the next week.
You suffered two pretty wickedly bad breaks on the 72nd hole, too: a perfect drive rolling into a sand-filled divot and an oh-so-close second shot backing off the front of the green. Outcomes aside, they were four pretty perfect shots to finish. Is that how you recall it?
Yes, it was, actually. I played 15 and 16 really nicely – good for a US Open. But 17 I completely murdered, but chipped in for par. On 18 I hit four perfect shots in a row, to be honest. I hit the best drive I hit all week; maybe ever. Most guys were missing that fairway and I hit one of my longer drives of the week up the left side, which was the shorter side, the better angle. But yes, it ended up sitting in a sandy divot. It wasn’t a horrible one. It wasn’t like it was filled the night before – it was probably three weeks old or something. It wasn’t the worst lie by a long stretch. It was still better than anything that would have been in the rough, but it was slightly disappointing to get up there and see that. And because of that, I smashed at the second one.
I thought I’d hit a really good shot. In the air I was thinking, “Wow, I’ve hit one of those shots they’re going to show when they have the US Open every year, they’re going to show that great shot Geoff hit at the last.” I did think about that. I knew I’d hit a great shot, the second one. And I guess what happens out of sand, anyone who’s played a significant amount of golf knows, that even one grain of sand between your ball and the club will take significant distance off the ball. Or it spins the ball or it does something – it really changes the ball flight. And it was three or four yards too short and ended up in a horrific spot, really.
Funnily enough it’s the shot I’d been working on for the past couple of years. Two years before, I would have had to hit a different-style pitch shot. But amazingly – or serendipitously – it was the shot I’d been working on every single day. After I finished my round I wouldn’t go and hit balls, I’d go to the chipping green. I was working on that short little pitch shot because it’s not quite as easy as it looks. I’d finally got it worked out and not really been able to show off with it, and then I get a chance to show off with it on the last hole of a US Open. As I said, serendipitous. Amazing.
It’s been said before: that was a Sandbelt shot.
Absolutely. When you go to America as a golfer from Australia – even overseas anywhere, really, but especially America – all of a sudden you’ve got to chip out of rough. And I found chipping out of rough really hard. It took me years to work it out. Short grass I thought was a snack. Well, if you go to America, it’s the other way around. I’m generalising crazily, but generally American golfers are happy in the rough and uncomfortable on short grass around the greens. And Australians, especially in Melbourne, are generally happier on the short grass. There would have been a lot of great short games in the US that would have had trouble with my shot. The general public gets impressed pretty easily by professional golfers but professional golfers aren’t impressed by professional golfers very easily. This time it was one of those shots that would have impressed the locker room, and would have impressed me if I’d seen it hit. So that was nice to come up with that shot. We can all hit those shots, but just the fact that I hit it at the right time was brilliant.
‘It was one of those shots that would have impressed the locker room, and would have impressed me if I’d seen it hit’
At what point as Phil Mickelson made a mess of the last hole did you not only think you might win, but also that it was looking good to happen without an 18-hole playoff the next day?
When I was putting.
The last at Winged Foot is a slight dogleg. I wouldn’t say it’s massive, but it would be similar to 18 East at Royal Melbourne. It bends enough that you can’t really see the tee from the green or the green from the tee. There’s a whole lot of trees on the left, as we found out with Phil. So I was on the green with my five or six-footer for par. And I’d only just learned when I got up there, because there was no leaderboard up the fairway – there was only one at the green – that Monty had made double on the last. I thought he’d made bogey. We saw him miss a shortish putt from the middle of the fairway and we thought, Monty’s now on the same score as me. I have to par to tie or birdie to beat him. And when we got to the green we realised he’d made double. And I made my putt, so I finished in front of him. Now I was one behind Phil and we looked back down the fairway and we didn’t see any action on the fairway. I didn’t really make much of that – it’s Phil…
I still didn’t think I was going to win. I thought, Wow, I might get into a playoff here. That’s exactly what I thought walking off the last green. I thought I could win the US Open, but it would be a playoff tomorrow. When I got in the scorer’s hut, which was in the pro shop at Winged Foot which is 30, 40 yards from the 18th green, they had a TV in there. When I was double or triple-checking the card with [Ian] Poulter, my scoring partner, all of a sudden the TV shows Phil try his second shot. We see he’s driven it in the left rough and he hits his second shot and the camera goes up to a tree and just drops – the ball hasn’t come out. And it was at that moment.
I didn’t really believe it. I thought, Wow. He’ll just hit his next on the green and make it and beat me by a shot. But deep down I knew that was the moment when this was going really well.
Put yourself in Mickelson’s shoes: a par at 18 wins the US Open but you’ve carved your tee shot short and way inside the corner of the dogleg left. What’s your next move?
Well, there’s two things. I’m Geoff Ogilvy, I’m not Phil Mickelson. So I would have pulled some sort of wedge out and tried to get it to a wedge [distance] from the green from that rough. And I know a lot of guys would have done that. But in saying that, Phil is Phil, and Phil was in that position because Phil is Phil.
He hit only two fairways that day. He had been pulling off miracle after miracle out of the trees and out of the rough and played just miraculously all week, really, because he didn’t have his ball-striking that week. I don’t know if he’s ever really talked about it, but he didn’t hit the ball well that week. He was hanging on. Looking back with neutral eyes, the fact that he had a chance with a hole to play, hitting it the way he did… no one else could have done that well. Maybe Tiger in that period could have done that. But not many people could contend in a US Open without having all of their game working well. And mine by the end of the week was really working well. But Phil was all over the map, and he was still one in front after 71 holes.
He was going for it. He never would have done anything differently. I’ve never seen Phil lay up if he doesn’t have to. I think Jack Nicklaus would have wedged it out, wedged it to 15 feet, had a putt to win or two-putted to get in a playoff the next day. A lot of guys would have done that. But in saying that, Phil would never do that. And that’s why we love Phil.
Several other guys had a chance, most notably Colin Montgomerie, who as you said also double-bogeyed the 18th hole to share second place. It was carnage at the end, but you parred the last four holes – the only contender to do so. Are you a tape-watcher? Have you rewatched the whole footage?
I haven’t actually, to be honest. I watched it a few times afterwards because I had a lot of dinners and functions over the next 12 months, as you do when that sort of thing happens, and they would often show a lot of it in the background.
Whenever Phil is in contention, it’s a bit like when Tiger’s in contention – they get most of the coverage. You get the odd shot here and there from all the other players to put pieces in the puzzle. But you get Phil walking up the fairways and stuff; it’s kind of what goes on. It wasn’t a head-to-head, me-and-Phil-all-day-on-TV-type event. There was a lot of action and in the last hour; there were five or six guys who could have won. Monty, Jimmy [Furyk] was up there. Harrington was up there. There were four or five guys, and they were the usual suspects at that time: Harrington, Furyk, Mickelson. It was quite a chaotic last hour. It started out as Phil’s coronation at the start of the day because he was in the last group with Kenneth Ferrie, I think.
Yes. That will be a trivia question if it isn’t already: who remembers who played alongside Mickelson? And you’re right: Kenneth Ferrie.
No one remembers that. He was a good player at the time. He had a really hot patch there for a couple of years and was winning in Europe and he was obviously contending in the last group at the US Open.
You don’t find yourself there by accident.
No, you know what you’re doing. But anyway, all of a sudden, everyone just fell by the wayside and I was the last one standing. That’s kind of the way it would have presented on TV, I think.
Obviously Australians were pumped because an Australian won, but I think a neutral person who didn’t have a horse in the race would have been watching that and sat down afterwards and gone, “What just happened? That was just nuts!”
It was a little like the old Peter Thomson line of, “Go to the 15th tee and pretend you’ve got to par the last four to win.” And of the five or six players in contention, you were the only one to par the last four holes.
It’s funny how it worked out. It proved that my caddie – Alistair [Matheson], who was my caddie for 13 years, 14 years; “Squirrel” we all call him – is clearly one of the best caddies in the world. Very wise and knowledgeable and respected by players, caddies and everybody. Anyway, I’m coming off 14, I’ve made bogey and I’m two back or three back. I’m headless walking to the 15th tee… not headless, despondent. Disappointed that right at the end I’m just going to drift away, not quite be in it the last few holes. It just felt like that.
Phil is in the group behind us. And Phil hits it close out of the rough on 14 as I’m walking to 15 and I’m staring at my shoes. And Squirrel’s like, “What are you doing? No one is going to par the last four holes. Let’s par 15, 16. Let’s par the last four holes. Let’s start here, let’s par 15. You never know. You par the last four holes. You have no idea what’s going to happen.”
He actually said that, or something to that effect. Whatever it did, I’m thinking, “He’s probably right. These are four hard holes in a row. Let’s just par 15 and see how we go.” And I did, I played 15 perfectly. On 16, I had to scramble for par out of the rough, but that was a 500-yard par 4 where everyone was scrambling to par. Seventeen had my number all week, and I drove it, I think, left once and right three times. And it went the furthest right on Sunday and I couldn’t get it out of the trees, couldn’t get it out of the rough. I hacked it out in the rough, hacked that one next to the green and chipped it in for par. The par on 17 was lucky but the rest of them were good, quality, US Open pars.
What a hard finish. It’s hard to describe to people some US Opens. Not all of them, but some. Especially that one; that was a five-over winning total. To the average guy who’s never played, even a pro who hasn’t played a US Open setup of that style would freak out. It’s unbelievable how hard it is. But by the end of the week, you’re in that zone and in that mode and you know that every hole is the hardest hole. It’s the No.1 handicap hole on every hole, basically. Everybody plays their hardest hole 72 times in a row.
‘To the average guy who’s never played, even a pro who hasn’t played a US Open setup of that style would freak out. It’s unbelievable how hard it is’
Two years later, at Torrey Pines in 2008 – which outside the one I won was my favourite US Open by far – [veteran Associated Press golf journalist] Doug Ferguson came up to me after my first round. I shot one-under in the first round at Torrey and he said, “You know, Geoff, you’ve spoiled the stat. You were the only US Open champion who’d never shot under par in a US Open round.” So I’d won the US Open and I’d never shot under par in the US Open until two years later.
It’s unbelievable. But I actually ruined it at Torrey. I did it a couple of times at Torrey and maybe a few times later. Oakmont [at the 2007 US Open] and Winged Foot, that was eight of the hardest rounds you’ll ever play in a row in Majors.
The broadcast in Australia half-missed your crucial chip-in for par at the 17th. How hard was that shot?
The set up was, as I said, I’ve messed up 17 all week. I had to hack it out of the trees but I could only hack it up the right rough a little bit. So I had some sort of wedge or something that I couldn’t even get on the green because I was at a bad angle in the rough. Luckily it ended up pin high, 30 feet from the hole. What do we call that? Ten metres? We use metres, but golf is an imperial game.
It was in the semi-rough; it wasn’t in a bad US Open lie. It was actually in a really nice – for the semi-rough – lie. You can get bad lies in semi-rough, too, of course, but it wasn’t a bad lie. It was actually a really simple shot, in that it was very obvious what I had to do. Sometimes the trouble in golf is you’re in two minds about which shot to play and then you don’t put a good swing on it. But this one was obvious: the only chance I had was to land it just on the green, on a certain spot, which was about as big as a Post-It note. If I landed it there, it’ll go towards the hole and it will be all right. There’s no other way to play the shot. So in that sense, it was an easy shot.
My short game at that point was outrageous. I didn’t think it was at the time – I never actually thought I was ever playing that great, if that makes sense? I always thought I should be playing better. I think a lot of pro golfers are the same. I always started picking at little things. And it’s all relative – everyone wants to play better at any level.
And it went in. It came out nicely, it landed in the right spot. As soon as I hit it I’m thinking, That’s going a long way past the hole. And then it went in, which surprised me, to be honest. I could see why they weren’t covering it. Because even in my head, even me at that point, walking up to the 17th green after three shots and not even being on the green yet, I’m out of the tournament at that point – at least in the feeling of the place. Monty’s one in front of me and already through 17. He’s just made a massive birdie putt on 17. He’s one in front and I’m chipping for par or I’m off the green for three. I was out of it. Then all of a sudden I chip it in and I’m in it.
It was one of those textbook [situations]: the guy who wins chips it in – and the guy who won is just the one guy who didn’t lose.
How about off the course that week? TV vision showed us your wife Juli was heavily pregnant and her eyes definitely widened at the end. Your last-round playing partner Ian Poulter also stayed close by to watch the outcome. Adam Scott exited his plane ride home to come back and celebrate with you. What else happened that is at the forefront of your memory?
The immediate aftermath was kind of crazy. While we were watching it unfold on TV and as it appeared what was going to happen was going to happen, it got Poulter and me out of the scorer’s hut. Poulter was a great playing partner that day because we’ve been mates for a long time. He’s not one of those jealous, annoyed-that-someone-else-won guy. He was good to be around and he was really genuinely happy for me. So that was a fun little moment. And then they dragged us into the locker room to watch the last couple of shots. And they put the cameras in my and Juli’s faces, the “reaction cam”.
Then what happened is all a bit of a blur, really. I think they had a little TV thing with NBC. And then you go to the 18th green, because they still do the whole 18th-green ceremonies. When we went out to the green, there was a slight weirdness about the crowd, because there was only a leaderboard on one side of the 18th green. So the people who were on the side that the board was on, the left-hand side of the green, they didn’t know. They thought Phil had made bogey. They didn’t know Phil had made 6. And so when they started bringing the red carpet and the trophy and all of the blue coats walked out on the 18th green for the ceremony, half of the 18th green were like, “What are they doing? There’s going to be a playoff tomorrow.”
The ceremony was a little bit awkward, standing next to Phil. And then you’re dragged into the media centre and it’s the longest press conference I’ve ever done by a long way, because the questions keep coming. After the long day, it was about three hours, two-and-a-half hours until I left the course.
‘The ceremony was a little bit awkward, standing next to Phil.’
I saw Squirrel quickly, my caddie. Quite often I’ve won tournaments before and Squirrel would always go back to England, because his family was in England and he would pop over week-to-week. It’s only five hours from the east coast so it’s a pretty do-able thing between the UK and the US. His flights were always out on the Sunday night and I’d win a tournament and go off and do the media, come back and my bag was all packed up in front of the locker. And he’d send me a text: “Well done. I’ll see you in two weeks.” It wasn’t quite like that, but I do think he flew home that night, which was interesting. I saw him quickly after my media, a quick little chat: “Wow!”
When I got back to the hotel, Scotty was at the bar and it turns out that he’d been on Ernie’s plane, flying back to the UK. And this was before I’d won; this was with two or three holes to go. But he just said, “Man, I’ve got to get off this plane.” And so he gets off the plane and comes back to the hotel. We had a big night. It was grouse.
We were pretty close at that point. We’re still great mates. We don’t get to see each other as much anymore, but at that point we were playing practice rounds every week and probably for the five or six years after that and the 10 years previous. I’ve known him since I was 16 and he was 13 or something. That was really nice that he turned up.
A few guys stayed on and stayed into the night. It was a bunch of guys and a few media guys popped up, which was good. It was just randoms walking through because it was one of those lobby bars at a hotel – everybody who comes in the front door goes through this bar. And so there was this US Open winner party there. Randoms came through and drank from the trophy. It was just exactly how it should be. It wasn’t some weird, client, high-end thing. It was a lobby bar in a normal hotel, just having a good time.
I have no clue when I went to bed. Juli went to bed early because she was pretty advanced pregnant at that point. And about six o’clock a wake-up call comes and I get dragged out. Because we’re in New York, the PGA Tour strongly suggests you do the media tour because it’s such great PR, just for golf in general. It’s the story of the day on Monday of who won the US Open. So I go to New York from six o’clock, 6:30 in the morning with a filthy hangover. You get over it a little bit, because everywhere you go everyone is treating you like a hero. From six o’clock to about four o’clock in the afternoon, I either had shows, I got handed a phone to go on radio and do the odd interview, or I was going to ESPN, CNN, Fox News and the Letterman Show in this beautiful VIP car just driving us around, me and my manager. I went everywhere and then flew home that night. I got home to Phoenix about nine o’clock, 10 o’clock Monday night after doing seven or eight hours of media in New York. It was a cool day.
ESPN has got their own building and it’s such a well-oiled machine. They did two or three different interviews really quick and they get mileage out of them. They get long-term mileage, they get the quick little flash, they get the SportsCenter thing. And then when you go to CNN, you do the CNN World Feed, which is the one that goes into Dubai and Singapore Airport, and then you’ve got Fox News where you do three or four different ones. And all this time, you’ve got radio and print journalists in your ear on the phone.
The final stop was Letterman. They film Letterman about three or four o’clock in the afternoon – it’s a live show, but they film it at three o’clock in the afternoon and they show it at 10 o’clock at night. The show goes for an hour and the production goes for an hour; they don’t do ‘takes’. So I come in and the show’s just about to start. Dave comes in the green room and, funnily enough, Adam Sandler was a guest that day. He was in the green room and was like, “I watched yesterday, that was pretty cool.” Because he’s a bit of a golf tragic.
That was cool. And I’m star-struck at that point. After that I ended up meeting a few famous people. I had played golf with Tiger Woods but not met actors – they’re at a whole other level. I’m on the show for probably two minutes: they drag you out, you talk about the US Open a little bit and they add today’s ‘Top 10’ to go over you when I take it out to the ad. Pretty much all the golfers will do that.
I was in the building for probably 18 or 20 minutes. You get dragged in this back door, you go in, they put some powder on your nose. They say, “Read this. Go stand there. Don’t get frightened by the lights. Read the sign. Smile at Dave. Say hello. Blah, blah, blah.” They walk you out, then you’re back in the car on the way to the airport. It was crazy. Not to complain – it’s a nice insight into that world. It’s a different world completely.
Next, I came home to Australia. I never planned on playing between Winged Foot and Hoylake. There was a four-week gap. It’s usually a three-week gap, but it was a four-week gap. I hadn’t been back to Australia for a long time, we were about to have kids and I knew that was going to get harder. So we were back in Melbourne on the Thursday, I think? It was really quick.
I landed and they set up a little side door for me to go out from customs early. I got the treatment that the special people get. I don’t know why but we didn’t want my mum and dad to see my family and me with the cameras flashing and all that. There are protocols to get that through, but we do all that. And then there was event after event and function. And that’s when I really… I don’t know why it didn’t click with me, but when I was a kid, when an Australian won a Major, when Greg won in ’93 or ’86 or Finchy won or Grades won or Elk won, it was such a mega-deal. They were complete legends, right? I didn’t see myself like that. I’m just me. I just won a golf tournament. But when I got back to Australia straight after, it made me appreciate, “Wow, people care about these things. It’s a big deal.” It was fun, yes.
Then at Hoylake, I get another reminder of how big a deal it was, because all of a sudden, I can’t even get out of the courtesy car without the journalists going, “Oh, Geoff’s here. Let’s go ask him questions.” And the [autograph] signing and you’re in the big groups in the first couple of days more in Majors. You’re big-time when you start getting asked into the pre-tournament press conferences at Majors – not just like little flash stuff, but the correct, proper, sit-down stuff. That started happening every single day in regard to what I shot and my angles. It’s the recognition the scale of the achievement, I guess, or at least people see the size of the achievement.
When you grow up, when you go from playing junior tournaments and then you play amateur tournaments and then you start playing in Victorian amateur tournaments and Australian amateur tournaments. And then you play in US amateur tournaments. And then you turn pro. It’s a big jump from playing a Saturday comp to winning the US Open, clearly. But if you take it every step between the two, it doesn’t seem as hard to do as it would from playing the Saturday comp. Does that make sense?
It’s all relative, all the way up. Pro-ams are hard and then small Australian tournaments are hard and then European tournaments are hard and you get better at that. And then you go to US, and you just happen to make a cut and then you have to make the top-10 and before you know it you win one. And then all of a sudden it’s easier to have a top-10. It’s gradual. I won the US Open; that’s great. But it was everyone else’s reaction and the world’s reaction to that that made me realise how big a deal it is.
Any other recollections?
The evening before, I had been interviewed by Jimmy Roberts of NBC. He talked to anyone they thought might have a chance to win. But Jimmy had clearly decided who was going to win: Phil. Which pissed me off. I remember walking out thinking he didn’t think I had a chance. Screw that guy. I like Jimmy, but he motivated me after that interview. One day later, of course, I got a real sense of satisfaction out of sitting down with Jimmy again. That sounds petty, and it didn’t last long, but I definitely felt it.
Along with David Graham, you are one of only two Australian winners of the US Open. Has it traditionally been a setup that doesn’t agree with our style of golf?
I completely agree. As we hinted on before, we’re a short-grass country, really. Generally, we don’t use thick, bad-lie rough as an out-and-out hazard.
We don’t have any water in the country, either. America uses water, wall-to-wall across the golf course. We water our fairways and the rough is the rough. So there are crappy lies, but traditionally piping it down the middle of every fairway isn’t a prerequisite to playing well in Australia. It’s nice in Australia, but you don’t need it. In America you need to, in the US Open.
I thought that would be the last [of the Majors] I would ever win. The Masters is the place I felt the most comfortable because, weirdly enough, there are quite a lot of similarities to Melbourne. It doesn’t look like that, but there are. If you can play well at Royal Melbourne, you can play well at Augusta – absolutely.
Looking back, as I said before, from probably 2004 to 2008 or ’10, I was really hard-core into my short game. I just loved practising it, I loved getting good at it. And that’s what wins the US Open. Even the straightest of them didn’t hit all the fairways. So the guy who won was the guy who was best inside 50 or 80 yards. Because every time you miss a fairway in the US Open, you can always hack it forward a little bit. And you get to 50, 80 yards and so 10 or 15 times in a week at least, you’ve got 50-yarders to get up and down for par. That was my strongest part at that point. So I think my game was actually perfect for a US Open at that point, but I didn’t know that until afterwards.
Practising for the Masters is quite easy: it’s a bunch of side slopes, fast putts and imagination around the greens. The Open is: little half shots and low shots and bunt the ball in. It’s quite obvious how to prepare for it. The US Open, people would assume they just want to hit the ball straight. But you’ve got to be really on top of your short game and putting inside six feet.
Your US Open was the first of the ‘Mike Davis era’ of course setups, with graduated rough (where the grass lengthens the further you stray from the fairway) and the like. The USGA boss has since passed the course setup role on to another within the organisation, but what did you make of his approach for that decade or so?
It started out brilliantly. Winged Foot was great, Oakmont was great. They were really, really hard but nobody complained about the set up at Winged Foot, yet five-over won the tournament. That is like three stars, A-plus.
Pros still complain and it’s OK to complain. But it’s most of the time justified because they just want a fair fight. But I don’t think it was as good towards the end. Chambers Bay was a bit of a disaster. I thought Chambers Bay was a brilliant venue that they got wrong. The fairways were too fast, the greens were too bad. They had the best golfer in the world at the time beating probably the second best golfer in the world at the time, so it worked out well at the end.
Quite often the US Open ended up with a bit of a disaster deciding it, which mine was and Chambers Bay was with Dustin [Johnson] three-putting from eight feet. That’s just nonsense, right? And then Shinnecock – how could you not get Shinnecock right? The only thing Phil did wrong there [in striking a moving ball] was to make the wrong excuse. He should have said, “You know what? For 30 years I’ve been playing the US Open, I’m just sick of it being stupid.” That’s what he should have said.
It got like that sometimes, but Winged Foot, Oakmont, Torrey were brilliant. [Davis] was fantastic those first three or four years. At Torrey, we’d heard this rumour the whole week that 14 was going to play driveable. And we get there, and it was. And Squirrel and I and every player were standing on the tee scratching our head. We all wanted to go for the green but we didn’t know if it was right. I ended laying it up because I was just too scared because the 14th green hangs out over the cliff.
He did that a few times and it was awesome. He started getting players really interested in what he was going to do that week, and trying shots off different tees. Or, “They’re cutting the front tee on this hole. I think they’re going to use this one.” That stuff I think was really cool, because too often, a PGA Tour normal-style setup is: for four days you just move the tees one yard to get out of the divots, you put the pins in the same four spots they were in for the past 15 years of the tournament. It’s very normal. Whereas he started doing really unique stuff, and I thought it was really, really interesting.
All in all, Mike Davis was great for the US Open. But like with Shinnecock a couple of years ago, it ends up going in a similar direction. They went a little bit too far in the end. Don’t get me wrong, I love Mike Davis. I think he’s brilliant. But the USGA suffers from [being] obsessed with what people shoot, obsessed with our score relative to par. Whether they say they are or not, they are. They set up courses so breaking par is going to be really, really difficult. It shouldn’t be like that. They should set up a golf course with the spirit of, “I want the best player this week who has all the shots to win this tournament.” And sometimes that’s 12-under – like at the Masters, it’s 16-under sometimes. And you can never argue that the best player doesn’t win the Masters.
‘Mike Davis was great for the US Open. But like with Shinnecock a couple of years ago, it ends up going in a similar direction.’
So I like the fact that it’s a tough test and stern and power is important and all that. But I think sometimes recently they’ve gone too far. But overall I think Mike Davis is awesome. I like the guy personally and I think in those first few years, he really progressed the US Open. And it started at Winged Foot.
How should Winged Foot be set up for this US Open?
It would be similar. There’s been a little bit of a redo since I was there. A few trees have gone out, but it is basically the same.
Winged Foot is a front-edge golf course. You have to be front edge all day, because the greens are old-school American in that they’re low in the front, high in the back – generally. It will be quite narrow, it might not be quite as narrow as we played it, but as you said, that was the first time we’d done the graduated rough and it worked really, really well. Quite often in the US Open the fairways would be quite firm and the ball would roll through the fairway and go six inches in the rough and it was dead. Yet it wasn’t a bad enough drive, really, to be dead. Whereas with graduated, to hit it dead in the rough you had to be four or five yards into the rough at least. And to hit it very far out in the rough you had to hit it wide. I think I only hit it into the heavy stuff that week about once or twice; I was in the graduated stuff. And from the graduated stuff you can always get somewhere near pin high. I thought that was a really good way. I’d prefer more width, but if you have to have rough, the graduated rough is so good. So I think they’ll probably do a similar style of set up.
The 2006 one was perfect. It was universally liked by the players. Even though five-over won, no one complained, which is amazing. Winged Foot’s had five US Opens in 10 USGA championships plus a PGA Championship. They know what they’re doing. But it’s an interesting one. The field is going to be unique, there’s going to be a lot of foreigners not there. I’m not saying what anybody should do in this current day, but if it does run, hopefully the guy who wins it, it doesn’t end up like Hogan’s Hale America Open (Editor’s note: the Hale America was a one-off tournament held in 1942 as something of a replacement for the US Open during World War II. It was set up the same way but is not officially counted among Ben Hogan’s US Open victories). A US Open is a US Open. The guy who wins it gets the full treatment. Because it will be hard to win. The best golfers in America will be there. It will be tough.
How Winged Foot plays this September might give us an answer, but before we get there how would you sum up the changes in the game since 2006 as it pertains to golf courses?
It’s just gotten so long. The distance explosion happened at the end of 2000 when the Pro V1 came out. Titanium had been around for a couple of years. And that was the boom. And what that did, and with Tiger coming out, is all of a sudden any golf course that had a tournament started lengthening their course because they wanted to Tiger-proof and make it long.
Length became the only thing anybody talked about, and then it became the big thing. So all the pros went home and worked on hitting it longer and TrackMan came along and equipment… It was like the stars lined up for length being the most praised thing in golf. So guys have chased it, and because of that, they’ve lengthened courses and the guys have chased more length. The chase for length has been going on forever. It’s not disproportionate, but there’s more time spent on hitting it long now than there ever was before.
That has made it difficult for the USGA to get us to shoot par, really. Which is why you get stuff that happens like Shinnecock. They have to get super tricky and crazy. It was obviously always ‘nutty’, the US Open – just like the ’87 Australian Open. There was something about it. The greens were always crazy fast. It should be a little bit like that – the crusty blue greens at the end of the week. But it’s just gotten very long, and it isn’t the best way to defend a course against the best golfers in the world. Erin Hills was, what, 8,000 yards or something? Let’s say 7,300 metres. That’s a thousand metres longer than Metropolitan. Come on…
Winged Foot is long but isn’t long, if that makes sense? It’s got short par 4s, it’s got par 5s that are reachable. But it’s 6s and 7-irons very regularly, which we don’t normally hit – we hit 9-irons and stuff. But it’s not like an Erin Hills. These places, they’re getting really, really long. But that’s the difference. You’ve still got to hit it great; it’s just a bigger version of a similar game.
It’s been both: the way we hit it has affected course set-up. Course set-up has affected the way we hit it, too.
‘The way we hit it has affected course set-up. Course set-up has affected the way we hit it, too.’
Wearing your course architecture hat, where does Winged Foot sit?
It’s right up there. There’s two courses there. There’s the West course and the East course. And they’re both outrageously amazing. It’s an incredible club. It’s the Royal Melbourne of America, kind of. It’s that big, 36-hole, great, historic club. It’s got a great membership, it’s got a brilliant clubhouse, a fantastic bar, a great location. It’s a really nice area. It’s close to New York City. But the course is magic, it’s just brilliant. I’ve never heard of anybody going to Winged Foot and not coming away thinking it’s great.
I’m not a rankings guy, but America’s got a lot of really, really great courses. And Winged Foot’s right up there, especially when you take in all of the membership and the fact they’ve got 36 holes and such a great clubhouse. As far as clubs I would want to be a member of around the world, Winged Foot’s right at the top.
Have you been back there?
I’ve been back a couple of times but unfortunately, right at that time we stopped playing at Westchester – maybe the year after. The first year of the FedEx Cup Playoffs we had one at Westchester and we didn’t ever go back there. We’d go back to New Jersey or New York every year, but never that side of the city, always the other side. And there’s an hour-and-a-half trip through peak-hour traffic to go there and visit for a couple of hours. I haven’t been there, but I wish I’d gone there every year, to be honest.
If you’d won any of the other three Majors, you’d still be exempt as a past champion. Is that fair on the part of the USGA or unfair that past winners are exempt for only 10 years?
Firstly, I don’t think it’s about “fair”. They can do whatever they want. But I think it’s correct, though, because think about The Open and the Masters. The PGA might be a little bit different, but The Open and the Masters, clearly – and it’s been proven time and time again – the guys at 50, 55, 60 can hang. They’re deserving of being in the field at both those tournaments. You’d never argue that Fred Couples and Tom Watson shouldn’t have been playing in the Masters and The Open. But the US Open is a different kettle of fish, and the test that it is, if you’re four or five years off regular-tour golf and you’re not at your very, very peak, you can’t do it. It’s not that you don’t have the skills needed. If I tried to play a US Open tomorrow, I don’t think I could. I wouldn’t do it, because I haven’t been playing enough and I’m not sharp enough. Maybe if I had a few months, I could do it. But not at 55.
It’s just taking up a spot in the field from another guy who’s going to be able to compete. That 55-year-old could certainly compete at the Masters or The Open. But the US Open, it’s a different style of test. I would say a young man’s test. It’s a player at-their-strongest-and-best test.
So I think it’s appropriate in US Opens. If you have me cruising around there at 55 or 60 years old like they do in in the other Majors, it would just be taking up a spot in the field.
Given the COVID world we’re in, would you have travelled to New York for the US Open if you were in the field?
I was going to go. I was going to qualify. Come January, before any of this stuff started happening or before it got to where it is, I was going this year for four or five weeks’ lead-up to do everything I could to get in the tournament.
When they announced that it’s going to be all-exempt and they’re not going to have qualifiers, I got a bit excited then: I could get an invite! Because I think they’re filling their field off invites. They’ll probably bring a few past US Open champions back and maybe the guy who won at Winged Foot last time. That might’ve worked. But there’s just no chance. It doesn’t seem at this point that we’re going to be going to the US in 2020 – anybody in Australia, unless it’s Scott Morrison.
If you were Jay Monahan, commissioner of the PGA Tour, how would you have handled the schedule given all that’s happened in 2020?
In Australia, I wouldn’t say that we’re taking it more seriously, but I think we’re a bit more conservative on: “You know what? Let’s just let this virus go through and we’ll work it out.” The US seems to be: “Oh well, whatever. We’ll just keep on doing what we do.”
So their starting position is a little different. But considering the first weeks when they went out to Colonial, they went to Hilton Head and apparently Hilton Head was a bit of a shambles. [Nick] Watney got sick, or at least he got positive tested and it’s just, “This is a shambles. What are they doing? This is bad for everybody.” But then after the next couple of weeks, they seemed to be handling it really well.
They’re playing for full prizemoney and they’re getting the full cheque from their sponsors, and they seem to be having a tournament week in and week out. And Jon Rahm should be the No.1 in the world, we’ve got the right players winning, the DeChambeau story… it’s been great. I think they’ve done a really good job.
At first I was a bit concerned and people can pick at certain things they do. But as an operation, as a company or a corporation, they are absolutely incredible. Anyone in Australia who needs an example of that, anyone who came to the Presidents Cup and says that’s not the best-run tournament that Australia’s ever had… It’s the PGA Tour. They do stuff really, really well. And they have a bottomless pit of a budget, basically. They leave no stone unturned. It’s fairly aggressive to be having a tournament every week when people are dropping like flies, but they are giving people something to look forward to on the weekend. Tiger Woods is on TV, the DeChambeau story and Rickie Fowler and all that playing golf… it’s good for people’s morale. It’s like the footy is good for people’s morale.
‘It’s fairly aggressive to be having a tournament every week when people are dropping like flies, but they are giving people something to look forward to on the weekend.’
A lot of good things will come out of this. You cannot get a tee-time in Melbourne right now, because everybody is playing golf. It’s partly because normally 10 percent of Victorians on school holidays go to Queensland and we’re not allowed to do that. The only thing you’re actually allowed to do, apart from going to walk the dog, is to play golf, so people are doing it. The pin in, the no rakes, the faster golf… there have been some good things.
Australia, we’re trying to eradicate. Anyone with a case, you hide them away. Americans seem to be about minimising. The PGA Tour isn’t affecting the virus or the pandemic in America in a negative way, because it’s negative all over the place. And they’re giving people a product on their weekends to watch on TV.
Talk about the PGA Tour as a marketing company. You recently said on the State Of The Game podcast how, to the PGA Tour, “The product is less important than how the product is sold.”
I don’t believe that, but that’s the perspective. The PGA Tour is a marketing corporation, it’s not a golf company. So of the employees, and they would disagree with this but it’s true, but basically anyone who can affect the bottom line of the PGA Tour is generally a marketing guy, because they’ll sell sponsorship and they’ll make more money. So the people who get promoted through the business are the people who affect the bottom line, which is the marketing people, right?
The company is run by marketing. The golf experts, the ones who are really working on the product, there really isn’t that many left – they don’t get the big salaries. What I mean by marketing is that it’s all about the bottom line, it’s not about, “How do we make our product better?” from a product, pure golf, make-money-out-of-it, how-do-we-make-a-better-experience perspective. And maybe it has to be that way.
The Masters, they don’t focus on marketing at all. You’ve been there – there is not an advertising sign anywhere near the place. It’s completely pure and everybody has a better experience. Their ‘product’ – for the player, for the spectator, for the person who is buying merchandise – they focus on making it a better experience for everybody. Whereas the tour’s focus is on making more money for everybody. Now that’s fine and they do a really good job of that and that’s brilliant, but it might not be the ideal for golf long-term – or for anything, to be fair – if marketing dollars drive the direction of the way it goes. That’s all I was saying.
That’s an asterisk there, but I think the PGA Tour is an unbelievable organisation and they’ve done amazing stuff. But they’re a marketing company, they’re not a golf company.
What about locally – what do you think should have happened with the Australian Open and PGA this year?
No one cares what I think, but this is an opportunity for the PGA of Australia and Golf Australia and Golf Victoria and Golf New South Wales and everybody to get on the same page and let’s find our date in Australia that works. And that’s early in the year. January and February is when we should play our golf tournaments. Put all of the tournaments on three or four or five weeks in a row, combine it with the Vic Open, with the Women’s Australian Open. We should set all of these tournaments back to early next year and play them then.
There have been too many parties at the table in all of this. The state associations and the PGA, there’s the management companies, there’s Golf Australia, there’s governments, there’s tourism boards. It’s too complicated. Everyone needs to sit down and say, “Right, it’s a changed world. This is our time to get together.” With the PGA and GA moving in together at Sandringham that, at least geographically, is going to be good.
The Australian Open should be the pinnacle of Australian golf. The Australian PGA should be a really, really respected tournament. Any version of a Melbourne-style tournament, whether the Masters or whatever, should be along and Sydney should have a tournament every year, Queensland should have a tournament. And we should do it three or four weeks in a row. That’s a long-term view, so COVID is an opportunity to start working on that.
These are questions that I don’t have the answers to. An issue that Australian pro golf has had has been trying to find dates that don’t clash with tournaments overseas. And you can’t anymore. Late November and December might have worked back in the day, but it doesn’t do it anymore. We should piggyback off the fact that the whole world is looking at Melbourne in January for the tennis. Use that as a bit of a booster. There’s better weather then, especially in Melbourne – it’s a bit more stable, isn’t it? November and December has proven crap in Melbourne and Sydney. It’s very windy and very changeable. When you get to February, it’s mint.
‘We should piggyback off the fact that the whole world is looking at Melbourne in January for the tennis. Use that as a bit of a booster.’
You’re going to go against dates in both Europe and the US whenever you put your tournament, so just choose your best dates and get the best players to come. The coronavirus has given us an opportunity to look at it in a different way, because obviously it’s going to be hard to get these things up and running really well this year.
How much tournament golf will we see you play in the coming months and years?
Hopefully a fair bit. This year’s obviously been a bit of a change, but I’d always planned on not playing a lot last year. I just needed time out. Not from golf – I played a lot of golf – but from travelling, more than anything. From banging your head against the wall on Tuesday and Wednesday afternoons on the range. After a while it’s like, “What am I doing this for?”
I was keen on playing quite a few this year, I thought, and then obviously it’s a write-off. It’s a moving target right now. I’m glad I’m my age. I feel for these guys who get their European opportunity and, all of a sudden, they don’t get it. They’ll get it again next year or whenever it happens. But travelling to America, that’s going to be a moving target for a while. At least in 2020.
This is a really convoluted way of saying: yes, I’m hoping to play a bit of golf. In January I would have told you that would have been a handful in the US, maybe a couple in Europe and all the ones in Australia. But now it could be just all the ones in Australia for a while.
Where are you placed with playing in the States in terms of exempt status and desire?
The desire in January was pretty high. The desire right now is pretty low to go over there to play golf, to be honest. But that could change. Clearly it changed in six months; it will change again. My desire is pretty high to play good golf more.
I have past champions category in the US, so most years it gets 10 or 12 starts – most normal years. It gets you in the smaller tournaments. Having won a US Open and knowing all of the tournament directors, I can probably pinch an invite or two there to complement that. I could play a reasonable schedule of the small ones. Basically, I’d get enough tournaments that if I was playing really well, it would be enough to improve my status to normal. If I were playing well – I’d have to play well. And that [status] never goes away; it’s always there. They’re really, really good at looking after those who looked after their tour, who played on it a long time for them.
In Europe, I have past champions status, too. And they have a lot more tournaments. It would be less effective over there. I could get more starts over there, but there’s a big difference between playing the big-money events and the small-money events in Europe. There’s not a big difference in the US.
I’d love to play a few in Japan. I’ve only ever played a few in Japan. I loved Taiheiyo when I went there and I loved Dunlop Phoenix back in the day, so I wouldn’t mind playing a few there. But again, this international travel… we’re all going to have to see how it shapes up. I’m not scared of travelling, but I’m certainly not going to go play one tournament in the US and take two weeks to quarantine there and then have issues – the prejudice when you come back in. That’s a five-week trip for one tournament. I’m certainly not going to do that regularly. But if I was going over for three months, then you would obviously do the two weeks at the start and that would be fine.
Hopefully I can get playing decent and in the next 10 years I get to play the ones I want and do the course architecture I want and just have my cake and eat it too.
You mentioned the grind. What does the average Australian golfer, tuning in to the PGA Tour or European Tour on TV each week, not understand about tour life?
There’s two things they don’t really see. One, you’re spending all day, every day, six days in a row at a golf course surrounded by others who are doing the same, manufacturers who will try to get you to use their clubs, coaches who are all giving out pointers, caddies. It’s a sensory overload, all day, every day. Everyone’s always watching you hit balls, and you carry this… not a guilt, but you just feel like you have to practise because that’s what you have to do.
Most guys love it. That’s not particularly that hard and that’s probably a dream life for some. But it’s the relentlessness of it. And every Saturday night before you go out for your Sunday tee-time, you’re packing your bag and taking all of your suitcases out to the plane, you’re rushing from the 18th green just so hopefully you can get home on Sunday night. Then you get to the airport and your flight from Dallas is cancelled or delayed. So now you’re in an airport hotel and you don’t get to see your kids and you don’t actually get to go home for the 24 hours you had and now you’ve got to go to Greenbrier or something. And then you do that and then Greenbrier is an impossible place to get anywhere, and so you’ve got a five-hour drive to Charlotte before you can fly to Moline. And you finally see your kids a month later – and you’ve missed three cuts in a row.
That part of it is the grind. But it’s like everything in life: I feel like when the high is really high, the opposite low is quite low. Everybody who plays golf understands that on a basic level. The high of a chip-in or a birdie is like, “Wow!” but the low of a bogey on the last to lose the money is tragic. There’s a massive high and low that is amplified when you’re doing it for a living. You have to fight this as much as you can, but it gets to you at some point. Your mood is usually where your scoring average is. And that gets tedious; it gets kind of old. It’s a job that feels like you can get unlucky a few times in a row.
‘When the high is really high, the opposite low is quite low. Everybody who plays golf understands that on a basic level.’
Another difference, too – and it’s all relative, clearly – but it’s one of the only jobs where it’s a $5,000 or $10,000 investment every week just to do it. You go 10 weeks in a row missing the cut and you’re down 50 grand. If you’re doing it right in the US there’s hotels, that’s a couple of grand. Your caddie’s a few grand, you have food, you have planes. And if you miss 10 cuts in a row, that’s an annual earn for somebody, a good wage, $50,000 a year, and you just spent it playing around missing cuts, feeling headless because you’re playing poorly. But then you go and play the next tournament and you win a million dollars. So it’s not a complaint; I’m just saying there are periods when it can wear you down. And there are periods when you’re riding on a high. After 20 years of your mood being dictated by how well you’re striking the ball and how many putts you’re making, it’s nice to detach from that for a sec.
And that is a rough weekly cost for a player with travel, accommodation, caddies, entry fee, etc.?
On the PGA Tour, you can get a cheap flight for $300 or an expensive flight for $1,000. Your hotel is going to be $1,500 or so for the week, I would think. Your caddie is usually over two grand. Everyone’s different, obviously, but that’s the base level. So two for your hotel, two for your caddie, one for your flights – you’re at five grand before you start. And considering that if you win 10 you only get five, tax-wise, you’re winning 10 grand to break even for a week.
This is not a cry-poor. Professional golfers play for an unbelievable amount of money. It’s crazy how much money you can make. It’s brilliant, no complaints there. But it does grind you down because you can go through your money rapidly if you’re not making any cheques on the course. It’s just an expensive thing to do – and it’s always been self-funded.
Have you seen careers brought undone by the grind and the travel? Great players who were beaten down by the off-course stuff?
You absolutely see it with great players where, between 20 and 30, they’re world-beaters and then all of a sudden they do all right after that but they’re never quite the same. It does beat you down, but the job is a ‘grindy’ job after a while. As you develop through your life, it gets harder and harder to leave the rest of your life. When you’re 20, all you want to do is go somewhere different every week, see the world, play golf and it’s the best thing ever. But when you’re 35 and you’ve got a couple of kids at home and they’re starting to do school projects and act in the school play and play sport on the weekends, it makes the grind harder to handle.
The grind is tough, but every job’s tough. Everyone’s got a grind. You guys have deadlines and everybody’s got a boss and every job can be a grind. I’m not complaining about the ‘grindiness’ of the job, but the grindiness of the job becomes too much when you’d rather be at home than on the road.
Let’s change tack a little now. How have you and your family spent these past few months in Melbourne amid COVID-19?
Just sitting around doing nothing, really. Pretty much just waiting for life to get back to normal.
The first lockdown in Melbourne, we had no golf. So it was no golf, sitting around. We’ve got three school-aged kids, so managing them through that whole, “Are we at home? Are we going to school?” period and getting them sorted out for at-home schooling. Especially this second time around, they’ve done such a good job, the schools. At least our kids’ school has. Very organised. I don’t feel like they’re missing out anything educationally. They’re probably missing out socially a little bit at the moment.
So we’re just sitting at home and doing that. Since golf came back, I’m playing the odd game here and there with guys like Fraze (Marcus Fraser) and Brendon Goddard. Watching a bit of footy and watching the world with interest. I’ve started reading the news again because it’s an interesting news period.
I haven’t been doing much, to be honest. Just hitting balls in a net – I’ve got a great net in the garage now and a great mat and I can set my TrackMan up there, hit some shots and TrackMan gives me something to watch: a bit more speed here or a bit more of an angle here.
How much golf have you played since returning to live in Melbourne, and where?
I’ve played the two events this year [Vic Open, 38th; New Zealand Open, T-54]. I played a fair bit last year. I didn’t go nuts last year, but I played two or three times a week and hit plenty of balls. We had the Presidents Cup lead-up last year, and I think it was one of the only times when someone involved inside one of the teams was actually in the town and lives near the course. So in the months leading up to it, it was quite a media-heavy year last year for that. I had six or seven dinners at Royal Melbourne last year at the end of golf days that were all related to the Presidents Cup. And this year, my intention was to play a few golf tournaments, but that goal had to be re-adjusted.
Where have you been playing?
Mostly I play at Peninsula Kingswood or Victoria. I’ve been a member at Vic forever and I love both places, but I play Peninsula more mostly because Goddard, Fraze and [Ricky] Ponting are all at PK now and I’ve got more guys there that I am in the phase of playing with.
Are you ‘slumming it’ at any non-Top 100-ranked courses?
Oh, all the time. One of my friends lives down in Gippsland and we played at Yarram Golf Club a few months ago. We used to play a tournament around there when we were kids. Yarram is brilliant. I really enjoyed Yarram.
I’ll play golf anywhere. I like that aspect of golf. I have great memories of when I never actually played anywhere great and the excitement of playing something new. It’s all about playing something new and it doesn’t quite happen as much after 25 years of playing something new all the time. But that side of golf is really nice – discovering new places and seeing a golf course in the country on the side of the road, pulling over and seeing what it’s like. I love that stuff. Crazy driving ranges and stopping at crazy driving ranges in random places.
What are the greatest differences between how we go about golf here versus in the States?
Club golf in America is very different to club golf here. Generally speaking, it’s more expensive to be a member of a golf course in America. And when I first got there, I didn’t like that because I thought it was not giving everyone a chance to be a member of a golf course. It was a little distorted because I lived in Scottsdale and everything was expensive in Scottsdale.
Our model, I guess, is that English model – quite the conservative kind of mentality, strict on behaviour and dress code, everybody’s trying not to get in trouble all the time and we’ll present you a beautiful product and a you’ll-get-to-play-when-we-let-you-play attitude. Whereas America is more: bring your family, you’ll have the pool, if you want to have your shirt hanging out, that’s fine. If you want to play in a cart or have a drink in a cart, play music. It’s a more welcoming environment, the American golf course. But you pay a lot more for it and, for some of the conservative golf types around, it probably doesn’t fit a lot of people’s idea of what a golf club should be.
The biggest difference between normal golf in America and club golf [compared] with club golf here is: Australian golfers are obsessed with competition golf. Stableford club comps, Par comps and all that. In fact, there’s probably a massive percentage of Australian golf-club members who only play comps and never just go and have a hit. America is all just go and have a hit. And they have events. They have their member-guests instead of it just being a guest day twice a year. It’s a three-day event and it’s got jumping castles, stuff for the kids and they’re massive events. They have six or seven big events a year and they don’t have club comps all the time, so it’s a different vibe. They all play four-balls between themselves and it’s a different atmosphere, it’s a different way. Americans, because they don’t play club comps, they play a lot of mulligan golf and gimmes – a different style of golf. So I think the Australian handicap is a more trustworthy handicap.
But there’s an advantage to both. I like that American kind of casual, country-club model. People love golf in America, but golf in America is as much about the social scene as it is about the golf. Golf in Australia is maybe more purely about the golf, but it’s probably a bit more fun when it’s a bit looser. I like them both.
What’s one recurring mistake you see made by club golfers, whether in pro-ams or at other times?
There are lots of them. People try to hit it too far. Trying to find power the wrong way is basically one of the root causes of a lot of people’s errors. If everybody just decided, “I’m going to be the best 150-metre golfer in the world,” and just tried to bunt it some really easy distance, they’d probably be able to get to the 150-metre flag without working too hard if they gave up trying to hit it 250 – at least while they are struggling.
Everyone is obsessed with getting rid of their slice, which actually makes them slice it more, usually. Golf has a lot of opposites to what you would initially think. Once you finally work it out, you’re like, “Oh, I wouldn’t have tried that. I would have tried the opposite.” Golf is full of that. The average guy that slices it is trying so hard not to slice it. If you actually look at his swing, you realise he’s slicing it because he’s trying not to.
In other words, embrace your natural shot, which is generally a left-to-right. If the average guy embraced it and let it slice a bit, they’d probably slice it a little bit less and enjoy it because the ball would be on the fairway. Go find your shot.
The next wave of Aussie talent is very much here. What advice would you give to the Ryan Ruffels’, Zach Murrays, Brett Colettas, David Micheluzzis, Harrison Endycotts and co. who are trying to forge a path in their young careers?
There’s no one formula or one recipe that I can see. If I could do anything again, the periods when I did my best is when I was playing the most rounds of golf. My practice involved playing with good players, going out on the course and playing two-ball worst ball or just playing holes. And my worst periods were when I was camped on the range trying to fix my golf swing.
So if I could go back, I would’ve made sure I stayed away from the range as a regular port of call and I would try to play lots more rounds of golf. Try to make Tuesday a best-ball day, a hit-three-balls-on-every-shot day. Tuesday practice rounds get a bit ‘practicey’ and not ‘play-ey’ enough. So, play more golf. Don’t worry about your swing so much. You’ll work it out when you play. Just go play. Learn how to score. The guys making the most money, they’re not range rats, they’re the guys who know how to have a good score however they’re playing. That’s a skill you learn when you play a lot of rounds of golf. So, for them, play everywhere you possibly can every day that you can. And repeat.
What was different for you during that stretch of killer golf you played during that 2005 to 2008 or ’10 period?
I think I worked that out a little bit. I joined Whisper Rock, which was a very play-heavy, not practice-heavy club. There are groups of pros and players that want to play all the time; there are groups of players and pros that just want to hit balls all the time and there’s no right or wrong. But, for me, when I was playing a bunch of golf at Whisper Rock and my life at home was good, I was still young, starting to have a family – not that it’s not good, but you know what I mean. This is an exciting period in your life and everything’s balanced, nothing’s stressful yet and I made a pile of cheques. I was playing a lot of golf and life wasn’t complicated yet. That’s why I played my best. Nothing to do with: did I have my technique worked out or any of that. Consistently playing well on tour is a life-balance thing. It’s such a mentally taxing game, golf, as everybody who has played and who reads this would get.
If you don’t have all your ducks in a row away from the golf course, it’s hard enough to get them in a row on the golf course. So I had all my ducks in a row, basically, for a while there. Life gets more complicated and it’s impossible to keep it there forever, but everyone has their passion in life where everything’s going to go towards their goal and that was me at that point.
A little self-indulgence here, if I may… At the 2006 PGA Championship at Medinah, you were part of the traditional Major winners grouping alongside Tiger and Mickelson for the first two rounds. Watching at home on TV, I logged my own handwritten stats charting the fairways, greens, putts and scores of your group for 36 holes – the only time I’ve ever done so – and my recollection is that you matched Tiger, statistically speaking, for two days. You also carded identical 36-hole scores (69-68), as he went on to win that week and you tied for ninth. At that time did it feel like you belonged in that same echelon?
At that time, it did, yeah. I was pretty toey starting that day, but after four or five holes I was pretty comfortable. In that period, 2006 to 2010, that was my happy place, in environments like that. I knew I could hang. I actually had more trouble playing well in the first two rounds of small tournaments earlier in the year that weren’t a big deal. I’m not comparing myself to Brooks Koepka in any way – he’s clearly a better player than I ever was – but he has a similar attribute in that it needs to be the biggest show possible for him to play his best, it seems.
I didn’t want to be like that, but for some reason I was. As soon as the big tournaments came around, I’d just find form. Even at Winged Foot when I won, I was playing OK at the time but I got better during the week. It was the tournament that made me find form, not really anything I did.
I was ranked third in the world a couple times in 2008 for a week here or there. But I never thought I was a top-three player in the world and I clearly wasn’t in the same level as those two, but I knew I could hang with those guys and beat them on any given day. I never thought I was better than any of those guys, I just knew I could beat them if I played well.
That was a fun period because I really wanted it. Most people were overawed by those big moments in Majors and the big groups and all the attention of that. I played my best in those. I loved it. I hated the boring part, the Thursday at Reno – not to pick on Reno – just the normal tour round when no one is watching on Thursday morning. I was up for it; I just tended to play better when it was a bigger deal, for whatever reason.
‘Most people were overawed by those big moments in Majors and the big groups and all the attention of that. I played my best in those. I loved it.’
Do you have a good Tiger story from the times you’ve played alongside him?
As far as playing, just his ability to always find a way to have a good score. And I got lucky. I played with him a lot and I had him on toast, at least on an individual level. Whenever I played with him, I was usually hanging with him after 15 holes and he would find a way to chip in on the 16th and then birdie 18 to beat me by four or something every time.
He just had that amazing ability. It just happened. The things that happened to him, the sense of timing was nuts. Torrey Pines, everyone goes on and on about it. I was right there in the mix at Torrey Pines. I played with Rocco [Mediate] on Sunday, who ended up making the playoff. We were the group in front of Tiger and [Lee] Westwood.
But what’s completely forgotten by everyone unless they’re really nutty about golf, on the Saturday going up 17, Tiger was gone. He completely fumbles 17, but he holes this ridiculous chip that’s going 30 feet past, for birdie, and then he eagles 18 and all of a sudden he’s playing in the last group. His tournament was over with two holes to play [in the third round] and he goes chip-in, eagle. He beats the field by three shots on 17 on 18 and, all of a sudden, he wins the tournament. Things like that.
I don’t have a specific situation like that because he just did it time and time again. He’s just another golfer until all of a sudden, “Oh, my God. He had three better than me. How’d he do that?”
Rodger Davis once famously irked Seve Ballesteros by not looking at him during a match at Wentworth at the old World Match Play. Did you have any tricks when it came to playing with Tiger?
No. I used to do stuff like that in matchplay. I do stuff like that all the time. You knew what sort of guy they were and what would annoy them. Not gamesmanship, but if they were people who really wanted to have a chat, I just wouldn’t chat to them. And if they didn’t want to chat, maybe I’d chat to them.
And that’s all Rodger’s talking about. Stuff like that. I didn’t do that, but I know guys who did play with Tiger who didn’t want to look at him hit it. It was quite a common thing. A guy would play bad with Tiger one time and the next time they go out with him, they would look 30 metres up the fairway so they could watch where his ball goes and, not being rude, but they wouldn’t watch him. Because he was intimidating the way he went about. It’s like watching your hero strutting around in his red shirt and his black Nike hat. The guy is on all the commercials and he’s right next to you and he’s strutting around and he flushes the ball up the fairway. A lot of guys thought the intimidation was not in the golf shots but in the guy, so they didn’t look at him. I never did that. I liked looking at him. I was the other way around.
For them, is it a case of needing to forget that you’re playing against him, you’re actually playing against his golf ball?
A little bit. I guess this describes the first time I ever played with him; I think it was in ’98 at the Deutsche Bank Players Championship of Europe. He always used to go play that one tournament in Europe, the Deutsche Bank. I played with him and Darren Clarke in the last group on Sunday. We all played decently and Westwood shot 64 in the second-last group and won.
I was late to the first tee. I’ve never really been a stand-on-the-first-tee-10-minutes-early guy, I’d rather get there like two or three minutes beforehand, get the cards, shake hands and go. I’d rather not stand around. I got there at some point, Tiger’s standing there with his arms across his chest and I was nervous, because I’m 21. I had to sneak up to him. He made me walk right in front of him to say, “Hey, Tiger.”
When the announcer starts saying, “On the tee, from Northern Ireland, Darren Clarke,” finally, I had to go in front of Tiger, I had to get right in front of his gaze and say, “Hi, Tiger. Geoff. We’re playing today.” He made it really hard for me. But once we’d played four or five holes, we were chatting about common interests and stuff. We were a pretty similar age. That first couple of minutes, whether he did it on purpose or his head was just somewhere else, it was an incredibly intimidating first-tee experience with him.
Which do you consider to be your next-best chance to have won another Major?
I should’ve won at Torrey. As I said, Tiger, there was a sense of inevitability about Torrey Pines, but I played great that week. I had my swing, I was putting really well. I was tied for the lead with about eight or nine holes to play.
They were in a period of really fluffing up bunkers and you couldn’t land one in there and not plug it, and I plugged it on two holes in a row – one was in a fairway bunker on the bounce, on nine, the par 5. And I had to lay it up 30 yards. So I end up making 6 on nine and 5 on 10 from plugging it in a greenside bunker and I was out of it then. But I felt really good, really comfortable with nine or 10 holes to play. And the score they ended up shooting, I should’ve been able to score better than that. But in saying that, what a tournament. I played with Rocco and for the last three or four holes when I wasn’t going to do it, I became Rocco’s biggest fan. It was really fun. That was a good scene.
That’s probably the only other one that I was right there. The Masters that [Charl] Schwartzel won, if I tell you the story about it, it seems like I was close. I was tied for the lead with two holes to play, but I parred the last two holes and lost by four. I thought I was in it, but the way it turned out, I wasn’t.
Adam [Scott] finished two in front of me. When I got to the 17th tee, he birdied 14 and 16 to go two in front. He parred the last two holes and lost by two. I was never really in that one, but that was the fun-est Sunday in any Major. We all had a chance. Scotty had a chance, Jason [Day] had a chance, I had a chance. I was playing with Freddie [Couples], Tiger shot 31 on the front nine. Everyone was there. Unbelievable day.
‘That was the fun-est Sunday in any Major. We all had a chance. Scotty had a chance, Jason had a chance, I had a chance.’
Tiger set up the whole day. Tiger shoots 31 and I’m playing with Freddie – which is the best draw in the world at the Masters – in the fifth-last group. Tiger’s in front and he lights the crowd up by shooting 31.
The reactions to the leaderboard were like I’d always heard about. You could hear someone do something – Oh, Tiger’s birdied six – because you knew there was a leaderboard there. And then you heard that birdie on six – Oh, they’ve just posted Tiger’s birdie on six on the 11 and 12 leaderboard. They’ve just posted it on the 18th green. You could tell when they were posting scores. It was so good.
And I stiffed it on 16. I hit that famous shot, me and Freddie, we both hit that shot up the bank and they both rolled down somewhat close to the hole. Because it was Freddie and they’d been waiting for him all day, and we’d hit good shots and it was in contention, the whole of 16 didn’t sit down for 10 minutes. It was so much fun.
That was most fun I ever had in that situation, in the scene. I think everyone involved would say that. Even Scotty would’ve… in hindsight now that he’s won, he would look back and say that was fun, because he didn’t do anything wrong, either. Schwartzel just pulled it out.
The dust has settled on the 2019 Presidents Cup. What was your main takeaway from a week that was so good for the International team for so long?
My main takeaway, I guess, is two takeaways. One, I love that tournament. The only people who are jaded about it are people that haven’t been involved, or been to one. It’s a great event. And every time I’m involved with one – playing captaining, going or whatever – I like it more. They’re good for golf, they get people excited, it creates a lot of money in the area it goes to, raises a lot of money for charity and it creates a level of golf you just don’t see in a normal strokeplay tournament. You just don’t.
It’s not the Ryder Cup, but it doesn’t matter. It’s a great event. One, I love it more every time and two, how impressive a human Ernie Els is when it comes to competition in golf and everything. Goodness me, what a captain he was. With all due respect to all my other captains, because they all did a great job and I love them all, but he commanded the attention of those players better than anyone I’ve ever seen. It was nuts. He was really impressive. You know what Ernie’s like and he commands [the media’s] attention in the media centre sometimes. If he gets finger wagging on something or you guys have let him down, he’ll let you know. Actually, he scares you a bit.
‘Ernie commanded the attention of those players better than anyone I’ve ever seen.’
He’s just that guy. He’s obviously clearly very smart, very competitive and he wants to win as much as anyone I’ve ever met. He commanded that group of guys and he created such a great environment that by the Sunday, when he was trying to tell us that he wasn’t coming back, which now we kind of knew he wasn’t, but the players thought he was coming back. They begged him, starting on about the Saturday of that tournament, for the next two weeks: “You have to come back, you have to come back, you have to come back.” They all want to play for him so badly.
Ernie Els was already high in my estimation as a human being and as a golfer and as a captain, but what a legend.
What’s your take on what Ernie had to say in the aftermath about some form of separation being the key to the Internationals’ future success?
The Presidents Cup is effectively a PGA Tour event. They basically run it and they decide how the teams are going to be picked and they decide where the tournament’s going to be and they decide the uniforms and they decide pretty much everything. It’s a PGA Tour event where we’re told where to be and when to get there, pretty much.
Ernie, there was a lot of suggested things that he wanted to do to make the event better, but he found that he kept running into brick walls because we didn’t have power. It’s not really about power, it’s about there’s certain things in this event that maybe the tour hasn’t thought about, but the players can think about or the Internationals can think about that would be better.
I don’t know what a lot of those issues were because he was in the background and I wasn’t. Each team has suggestions and ways they think can make the event better, be a bit better for all, be more competitive – not that we’re not competitive – but just a better event. And there are certain things that he was suggesting, and I think they should be [allowed to] let happen. Because at the Ryder Cup, each side has a little bit more say in how it goes for them.
I’m being really general because, I don’t know… Ernie is a classy guy, he didn’t ’fess up a lot of these things that got under his skin a little bit. When he put his case there in the media centre to you guys, and we were sitting next to him, it sounded like he knew what he was talking about. And everything he did that week was great. Every suggestion he had was great. He had that new logo that I’m like, “What’s a logo?” But by the end of the week, Oh, my God. Those guys are still wearing that T-shirt now when they all post their videos and stuff. Everyone’s proud to be part of the International team, and he did that.
I think he felt like the set up and the rules, the way it is, makes it harder to be a truly international team. It feels like you just have a team of others. Does that make sense? But, in saying that, it’s a PGA Tour event, Ponte Vedra do a really good job and it’s an amazing event that raises a lot of money for charity. It’s got a great theme, so you don’t want to do anything to jeopardise the way it is. You just want to enhance it. I think that’s all he said.
It seems like Ernie or, collectively, the team finally unlocked the secret to pairs play.
There’s two things that happened that I think helped. One, the boys were in a WhatsApp group for two years – all the prospective team members. So, let’s say 20-something guys at the start. And then within about 12 months of the tournament, they were playing practice rounds every Tuesday, and organised practice rounds. Ernie was like, “Scotty, I’d like you to go play with this guy. Check this guy out.” And he’d be like, “Leish, go play with this guy.” And, “Jason, you guys play.” All year.
It doesn’t always happen, but at Colonial you had six of them. So, you get four of them to play together and the other two maybe go and have dinner or something. He got everyone together for longer, as opposed to our first practice round being on Monday of the Presidents Cup week. Which has happened before – you’re meeting guys at the hotel.
And two, he employed a data analysis group of people, similar to that Mark Broadie style of thinking of pulling all the numbers and finding match-ups. I’m not going to go into how it all works and how they picked their match-ups, but contributing to the decision of who was going to play with each other was this analytics, and it turned out to be really good. They knew who would play well together, where they should go – all sorts of crazy stuff. I kind of half know how it works and I’m not going to tell you how it works, but it was data analysis and getting the players together to play a bit more foursomes in practice too.
And that same approach is going to work next time?
The analytics is interesting. It’s like that Moneyball stuff – it works until everyone’s doing it. So then you’ve got to do something else. I think the most important thing was everybody playing together all the time. Everybody was such a team. It was the most ‘teamy’ team I’ve ever been in. As far as a team of professionals, that’s the best team that I’ve been involved with. They tend to be all younger. Our Presidents Cup team over the years was Ernie, Vijay, Elkington, Norman – the older set. Whereas this was all young ‘frothers’ who were just like, “Just get me out there, get me out there!” And they’re all buddies and they’re all playing practice rounds all year. It was just more of a unit earlier in the week than before.
That was the most important thing. But, yeah, the analytics is here to stay. I am the last person in the world to like that sort of stuff, but I have been completely proven as to how I don’t know what I’m talking about because it’s good.
Looking back, who has had the biggest influence on your career?
Initially, it’s Dad – 100 percent, because the first 100 rounds of golf I played were with Dad. He played a little bit of golf, but he became a tragic and I became a tragic growing up, as I think happens to a lot of dads: their son gets in to whatever they get in to and so the dad starts getting in to it. He took me to the range and to play golf very regularly. I wouldn’t have played anywhere near as much golf without him, so he’s got to be No.1.
No.2 is Lynchy (Dale Lynch). I think I was going to be decent anyway, but he made me a much more wise golfer and he taught me how to look at golf a little bit better, how to view it. He’s a wise man. He understands what makes the world go round as far as golf, and he taught that very well. His swing teaching was good, but his mentorship was next level.
And the last one is Squirrel, my caddie. He caddied for me so well and I’m still, to this day, noticing things now that he did that were so genius for me. He just got me. One simple thing he would do is… pro golfers are often whiners to their caddies. We whinge, because we’ve got no one else to talk to. I’m paying the guy, so you’re going to listen. And so, walking up the hole it’s, “Can you believe that putt there? What about this? What about that? Geez, the breakfast buffet sucks at this tournament,” or whatever it is. You keep moaning and moaning and moaning.
Later on, I realised that when I was moaning, I wasn’t playing very well. And when I wasn’t moaning, I was playing well. I used to get annoyed at Squirrel for just walking off on me when I was talking. It took me about five years to work out: he’s not actually not listening, he realises I’m going to play better if he walks away and I’ve got no one to moan to. So he was very subtle. He wouldn’t tell me to stop moaning, he would just go and talk to one of the other players or he’d just go quiet. And I’d be like, “What are you so quiet for?” But, I’ve shot 68. And the, the next day, he’s talking to me and I shoot 76.
It was years until I worked out little things like that. Great caddieing isn’t about getting the right number or knowing where the wind is or how to play a certain shot, because if you’re pro golfer you know all that. If you don’t, you shouldn’t be a pro. It’s to keep you calm under pressure. It’s: two minds is better than one. It’s to create an environment that lets you play well. Squirrel, basically for 10 to 12 years, created that environment. One, he gave me great information. He knew the course better than anybody else, but he just created the environment that was right for me to play well in. All the caddies I’ve had are great, but he made me such a better golfer.
Every single week, there’d be a practice round and we’d be playing with Scotty and Poulter and Justin Rose and Trevor Immelman – that whole age group – for years. You get to the fourth hole and everyone pulls out driver, hits it up the fairway and Squirrel would say, “It’s a 3-iron hole, Geoff.” And everyone’s hitting driver, and he’s like “It’s a 3-iron, Geoff. I know it.” And so I’m like, “No, screw you. You don’t know what you’re doing. Everyone’s hitting driver.” By the Thursday or Friday of that tournament, the whole field’s hitting 3-iron and he saw it first.
He did that to me every single week. I couldn’t not respect him. He understood the game better than I did from that side. He educated me. It was him and Lynchy. When you look back, you realise, “Wow. That was really valuable stuff.”
A lot of people may not know your family connection to LPGA luminary Judy Rankin. How close to her are you?
We talk about golf all the time. Judy’s one of the best humans I’ve ever met. Absolutely brilliant. Loved by everybody, incredibly wise about the game of golf. She did the interview on the 18th green for years when she was working on TV. Why? Because there isn’t one player in the world who would say no to Judy Rankin. If Peter Kostis comes up – I like Peter Kostis, I don’t want to pick on him – but if any of the other guys comes up to do an interview on the last… You’ve seen what players are like if they’ve three-putted the last hole, they’re talking to their friends and they aren’t talking to someone they don’t want to talk to. Everyone talks to Judy and she was brilliant. She’d ask a simple question, she never talked too much, she’s an absolutely fantastic commentator. And her wisdom about golf? Nuts. But I just liked her as a person.
So, my wife’s sister married Judy’s son. She is my kids’ cousins’ grandmother on my wife’s side. At Thanksgiving, Christmas and family vacations and all the times when that extended family gets together, she was there. Football games at Texas Tech in Lubbock, we’d go to. Brilliant. Fantastic. And, obviously, a great golfer. We would sit around at Christmas and we would talk about the current affairs of golf and the tour and Tiger’s swing and Dustin’s this or Jason Day or Adam Scott. It was brilliant. So, I know Judy very well.
I believe it was Jaime Diaz who anointed you “the best interview in golf”. How did that sit with you?
I don’t think it’s a hard title to get. Not because guys aren’t interesting, it’s just they get asked boring questions. The general thirst for information is, “What do you think about on your downswing?” and I don’t think that’s the interesting part about golf. There’s more there.
It’s been good and bad. Everyone’s got talents at certain things. I think I’m good at explaining how I think about golf and look at it. I think I explain it well; I don’t know if I think about it any better than anybody else. Quite often, I’ll say things and people are like, “I’ve known that all the time but you just said it better.” I was never very good at English when I was at school. I enjoy talking about golf, every aspect of it, and I think when you enjoy it, you do it OK.
There was a very annoying period because when you’re up there in the top 10 of the world rankings, you’re getting called into the media centre. Pretty much every day you go to the golf course, you’ve got some media obligation. And that’s part of the job; that’s fine. But I’ve had media obligations every tournament I’ve ever played since he said that. So I can’t go anonymous, I have to go through the media centre.
Another difference, too, is: I spent my life reading golf books growing up. I’ve read every golf magazine, every golf book. There wasn’t a word about golf written between the mid-’80s and 2000 that I didn’t read. So when I started getting asked questions, I wanted to come up with good answers because I enjoyed reading good answers. I like journalism and the ethics of journalism and the importance of the message. I just enjoy that aspect of life. I don’t ever try to be good at it; I just like thinking about the answer when someone asks me a question. I like reading good answers from people.
‘There wasn’t a word about golf written between the mid-’80s and 2000 that I didn’t read. So when I started getting asked questions, I wanted to come up with good answers because I enjoyed reading good answers.’
Do you think it ever cost you on the golf course, in the sense that a cerebral player, whose mind is active, who is thinking, maybe needs – and you’ll know what I mean by this – to be a bit more like Dustin Johnson at times?
Yeah. Oh, yeah. Yes. I think it hurt me at times, overthinking stuff, trying to explain stuff to myself in my head, “Why’d that work? Why’d this work?” It doesn’t matter why, it just matters what you’re doing. It just matters, “Did you hit the ball at the green? What are you doing right now?” You’re trying to hit a ball at the target. It doesn’t matter why. Why are you doing it? “Because it’s the US Masters.” That doesn’t matter.
I don’t know what’s in Dustin’s head, but he just walks up to the ball and hits it. It doesn’t matter where he is and what week, he hits it and he’s very talented so he never gets in the way of it.
There’s an advantage to that, but guys like Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods and Bryson DeChambeau… there’s plenty of cerebral golfers who have had success. Jack Nicklaus is quite a cerebral golfer and he did it for his whole life. So it’s not necessarily a disadvantage, but I think being naturally non-inquisitive could be an advantage in golf at times.
You mentioned him – what’s your take on what Bryson’s doing?
I’m impressed. I like the guy. He’s fun to talk to, he’s very interesting, there’s no stone unturned. That level of dedication’s impressive and he’s been like that since when I first met him four or five years ago when he first played here.
It’s a time machine into what golf’s going to look like in 20 years, right? And if nothing happens, if it just evolves the way it’s going right now and it keeps going in the same direction, the tour will be full of Bryson DeChambeaus. I don’t mean the guy who eats a lot can get big, but guys who scientifically go out of their way to hit the ball as far as they can, straight. And what he’s doing is leaving no stone unturned to get the biggest advantage he can off the tee.
It’s smart because he’s proving it. The courses that we play and the way golf is at the moment, that’s the way to be the best. Even Tony Finau, who’s been contending every week, all of a sudden he’s coming out and he hits it as far as he wants. Bryson’s made him think, “Well, hang on a minute.” He bunts it 315 if he wants, Finau. He’s going to try to hit it 350 because the advantage is so clear.
It can be debated forever whether it’s the right or wrong thing. Everyone’s on two sides of this, but what it does is what guys like Jack have been saying for 30 years and Tiger started saying a little bit, guys like Clayts [Mike Clayton], Geoff Shackelford – the kind of ‘Rollback Mafia’, if you like. You can argue whether that’s an issue or not, but you can’t deny that golf is a very different game now than it was 20 years ago, and Bryson shines a light on what some would call issues.
Golf has to decide: do we want tour golf and golf to go in this direction or do we want it to go in another direction? I’m not saying what the right direction is. I don’t know. I like to see things evolve. Some of the nice things I’ve seen evolve out of COVID, at least in Melbourne, is a lot of people are carrying bags. You can’t hire buggies, they don’t allow hire buggies. They carry bags, they carry half-sets. The pin in and the no raking – there’s a lot of nice [aspects]. Which is the opposite direction of the Bryson direction.
Golf might just evolve that way anyway. Club golfers might say, “You know what? I just want to play my nine clubs. I’m just trying to bang the ball around with a carry bag. This is the golf I want to play. I’m not here to break par, I just want to have fun.”
So he’s showing what’s possible. What people do with that information, that’s up to them. That’s the way I see it.
A hypothetical: we can send you back to a time like 1980 or 1990, armed with the information you have now. What do you change about anything in golf?
I don’t know. When we were kids in the ’80s, what I remember all the time was clubs would get banned or there were putter grips that went around – that’s now banned. The USGA and R&A seemed really quick to like, “No, I don’t like that. Just squash it.” It seemed like the Ping lawsuit seemed to change that and they seemed to just let stuff get approved willy-nilly. Now, I love the modern equipment, don’t get me wrong. It’s been a combination of so many different things. People can point at the ball; the ball’s just the fall guy. That’s part of it, but big heads, graphite shafts and hundreds and hundreds and millions [of dollars spent] in R&D was always going to result in this, whichever way.
‘The ball’s just the fall guy. That’s part of it, but big heads, graphite shafts and hundreds and hundreds and millions spent in R&D was always going to result in this.’
If people are going to buy something, people are going to spend money to make that thing better and more expensive, right? That’s just the nature of it. So, I don’t know if you can stop this completely, but it would’ve been interesting to see golf maybe go in the direction that Major League Baseball did in America. The golf manufacturers are still going to sell a tonne of everything, but very early days when they saw the direction social golf was going, they should’ve said, “You know what? Put some parameters on the game for the best of the best and just keep it there.” I’m not saying I know what the right parameters [should be]. Some people think woods and balatas; other people think, “No, no, no. If we play with the modern stuff, it’s fine.”
As I said, I like the modern equipment. It’s a massively complicated issue if people think it’s an issue. I keep saying that. The tour has never been stronger, at least in the American sense. In world golf, there are 20 guys who could be No.1 in the world in two years’ time and that’s never been true, right. So there’s a lot of good stuff. But separated rules… the argument is that golf is so appealing because we all play the same game, but we don’t. The irony is we would play the same game more if we changed the rules. But I’d like to see less water on golf courses to make it a bit more bouncy because whenever it’s bouncy, position coming into the green and to be on the short grass if you’ve got firm greens is really important. You don’t need to have crazy rough, you don’t need it to be crazy narrow because everything’s bouncy. If we go to firm golf courses – the whole tour before we go to the British Open gets their manufacturer to get them a 2-iron. They all do because they all want to hit it low and it’s all about shaping, it’s all about position as opposed to distance.
If you evolve golf courses that way, I think you’d evolve equipment. When you present the top 150 guys in the world a test and the best way to be the best at that test is to hit the ball long, what are they all going to do? They are going to go home and work on hitting it long. Whereas if the best way to be the best were to hit it like Ben Hogan and shape the ball around and have complete control like Lee Trevino, then they would all go home and work on that.
It’s a very complicated issue. Golf needs to understand what’s beautiful about the game and try to set up situations where the game stays beautiful. I’m not saying what they are, I don’t know what they are. I’ve got my ideas, but it’s all self-interest. So everybody needs to be involved.
‘Golf needs to understand what’s beautiful about the game and try to set up situations where the game stays beautiful.’
What golf do you want to play? There’s no reason it has to be the same sport for everybody. As I said, the half-set, carry-bag, nine-hole guy is just as legitimate a golfer as the guy who goes out there with 14 clubs, gets lessons, owns a TrackMan and plays throughout the week. It’s the same. They’re each doing their own version of the same game and there should be room for everybody.
A lot of golfers, for them golf is the new equipment. It’s going down to Drummonds and trading in their old driver to get the new model because it’s going to go five yards further. And then doing it again, and that doesn’t help but they love it. That’s why they play. They trawl the internet every night on Golf WRX and all the websites and find out all the new equipment – the new shaft that’s coming that DeChambeau’s using – “I want to try it.” To some people, that is the game and you can’t take that away from them either, because my dad was like that. He loved golf shops and new clubs and stuff. It was magic for him. That’s really important, too. There’s more to it than just hitting it long and shooting a low score in strokeplay. There’s much more to golf than that.
How are you enjoying the current course-architecture phase of your career?
I love it. I’m obviously paired up with some hyper-talented guys. I’ve been very lucky, firstly, knowing Clayts as well as I did when I was young and getting that kind of early education and the direction on books to read and what to look for. When you talk to someone like him who’s so passionate about a subject like that, it makes you passionate about a subject.
For the stars to line up for me to get hooked up with Michael Cocking and Ashley Mead. Wow. They are really, really good. I love everything that they think about the game and every time I hang out with them, I think we all learn off each other about golf and the industry. I’m just loving it.
Which was your favourite course on tour to play?
It’s a bit obvious, but Augusta was my favourite stop of the ones you go to every year. Obviously the Open Championship is a brilliant tournament, but you can have miserable Open Championships if you get a bad draw and it’s blowing sideways for your two days.
Augusta is always a treat. The course rewards a guy who’s brought everything to the tournament. If you’ve got all your faculties working when you go to the Masters, you get rewarded. You almost can’t do poorly, if that makes sense. It’s hard to win, but if you look at the leaderboard at the end of the week, it’s almost always 12 of the top 20 in the world. It just is.
I always loved a venue where I felt like if I played well, I would do well. And it’s not always true because sometimes certain setups and weather conditions can make it a putting contest or a straight-hitting contest or if you don’t hit it long, you don’t have a chance. Whereas Augusta gives everyone a chance if they’ve got all their game in order. So I love that aspect.
And the Old Course. It’s the worst course to play a tournament around because of the double greens and it makes the pace of play slow because you’re always waiting for groups coming back or going out. It’s six-hour rounds. But a tournament at St Andrews? Oh, my goodness. It’s the best thing there is.
What about non-Majors? Which was your favourite track?
I liked Riviera, though I never played well there. It’s really relatable for Australians. Most courses you play in the US are nothing like the courses you would come across in Australia. Riviera could be in Sydney. Riviera could be Concord. It could be one of those inner western suburbs of Sydney courses. It reminds me of that: kikuyu and gum trees. I liked that, but never played well there, so after a while you get a bit jaded because you don’t play well at a place.
I love Charlotte, Quail Hollow – before they changed it. That was my favourite regular venue to go to. I always played well there – before they changed it. Hilton Head (Harbour Town) was good too. It was a brilliant time. Kapalua. I played well in Kapalua, obviously. Kapalua is a true perk of winning a tournament. It’s legitimately getting an advantage and something cool that only people who win tournaments get. It’s so brilliant. There’s 30 guys in the field, the earliest tee-time is 10am, the practice rounds are in carts, sitting by the pool, no one’s really been practising. Brilliant.
Which did you dislike most?
Memphis. I never warmed to Memphis (TPC Southwind). I don’t dislike the course, per se. If it was my course and I was a member and I got to play it every weekend, I’d be fine about it. But I never made a cut there, I don’t think, so I just learned to not like. I’m glad that my era wasn’t a WGC there [laughs].
You’re 43 now, which statistically means you’re about to finish life’s ninth hole and head for the back nine. Crystal ball for me what you think Geoff Ogilvy’s inward half will look like.
I don’t really know, and I actually like that. I think it’s more fun to not know. I guess the picture in my head is: I would love to keep playing golf tournaments for the next seven years, but basically be a family man. Stay at home, play the odd golf tournament when I can, travel a little bit, get involved in the course design. I would really like to play a lot of golf and be a part of mentoring and playing with all the youngsters – playing with ‘me’ 25 years ago.
I know a lot of the younger guys at Victoria now, I’m trying to get a bit more organised and play more golf with them and just get to know the youngsters and follow their careers. And then, when I turn 50, I can see myself going back over [to the USA] and playing a few years because my kids will be gone by then, or old enough. If I miss anything about the job, I miss the good old young days when it was just a bunch of guys out there travelling, going to new places, having a couple of beers after your round. I feel the seniors tour is going to be the guys I was doing that with and you’re all back in that headspace. It will be brilliant.
Until then? Play a few tournaments, try to play really well. I’ve still got aspirations to win tournaments. I just don’t have aspirations to play 25 to 30 a year. But in a post-COVID world, who knows when we’ll be travelling internationally. Maybe I won’t? Maybe I’ll get so into courses and life moves around… maybe I’ll be doing something else. I doubt it. All I do is think about golf and play golf, talk about golf, read golf books… It’s not all I do, but it’s the main thing I do. I’m sure I’ll have some involvement. And some good scores hopefully in the future.
– additional interviewing by John Huggan