Howard Sutton was crushed when, one day in 1971, his son, Hal, then an eighth-grader at Northwood High in Shreveport, La., came home and told him he didn't want to play football anymore. Hal preferred instead to concentrate on golf. As with most things Hal undertakes, he had a reason. "I was putting out my very best, and we weren't winning," he says. "I wanted to play a sport where if I did what I should, I'd be rewarded for it, and if I didn't, I'd take the blame." For Howard, the switch was particularly painful. He had to give up the dream that his son would someday play linebacker for Howard's beloved Arkansas Razorbacks.
Twelve years later, Hal, who's in only his second year on the pro Tour, has won one major tournament (the 1980 U.S. Amateur) and a half-major (the 1983 Tournament Players Championship). He was the 1982 rookie of the year and, heading into this week's U.S. Open, second on the '83 money list with $260,174. Small wonder, then, that Howard is dreaming again. "To be very candid," he says, "I dream he can be the best."
That's best as in best-ever-to-play-the-game, and the elder Sutton's dream isn't so farfetched. Hal has already established himself as one of the finest young players around. His success can be credited in no small part to his father, a wealthy, self-made oilman of old-school values. Howard has been the dominant force in Hal's life, though the father is quick to insist that he doesn't dominate his son. "Everybody gets the impression that he's going to do what I tell him to do," says Howard. "I've got news for you: I really and truly wish he did. I wish I could take credit for some of his success."
"Dad's responsible for everything I've done," says Hal. "We're as close as two people can be." Says the father of the son, "I worship the ground he walks on." It's clear that Howard hasn't driven Hal anywhere Hal didn't want to go.
June 19, 1983
That relationship is also the source of the biggest conflict in Sutton's life. He wants to be the best golfer he can be, but he also wants to emulate his father's success in business and raising a family. Sutton has made noticeably less progress there. He bailed out of his December 1981 marriage to Kelli Crawford after less than six months because marriage was interfering with his golf game. Since the split, Sutton has won two tournaments and nearly $470,000—more money than anyone else on the Tour. Sutton does not blame his former wife for his slow start in his rookie year, when he won about $30,000 in five months. "It wasn't her," he insists. "It was the situation. I didn't know what I was getting into, and she certainly didn't."
Whatever the cause of his unimpressive start, Sutton's golf certainly has improved over the last year. The most spectacular manifestation of this was at the TPC in March, when Sutton won on a golf course criticized by many Tour veterans as unfair. He had rounds of 73-71-70-69 for a five-under-par total of 283, with birdies in the final round on the 16th and 17th holes, the latter an infamous 132-yard par-3 to an island green. Sutton hit his tee shot one foot from the pin and sank the putt to lock up the top prize of $126,000, the biggest paycheck in Tour history. He not only plays the tough courses well—his penchant for straight drives and accurate iron play means he usually hits from the mowed grass—he's also a long hitter. At 6'1" and 175 pounds he's bigger than he looks, and he has Steve Garvey-model forearms.
Sutton's postmarital life revolves around the Tour and his family—Howard, his mother, Mary, and his sisters, Debbie, 23, and Pam, 18. And in many respects, the family's life revolves around him, and has ever since he decided to devote himself to golf. His mother and sisters often accompanied him to junior tournaments, and today Pam handles all of his travel arrangements, though occasionally Sutton flies grandly to a tournament in the 11-seat Merlin IIIB turboprop he owns with his father.
Howard has never been shy about pushing Hal to the very limit of his capabilities. "I did make life miserable for him," Howard says. "I really believe that between the time Hal was 14 or 15 and 21, pretty near every day I was on the brink of alienating him forever." There was, for example, a four-ball tournament in Shreveport when Hal was 17. "He was lallygagging around, just going through the motions," Howard says. "He got to the tee on the seventh hole, a dogleg right. There were 50 people standing there. I said, 'Well, Hal, I think you've run your mouth and put on a show long enough. I think it's about time you started playing golf.' It made him so mad, you wouldn't believe it. He never said a word. He hit the ball straightaway out of bounds. He had never done that on that hole because he had never hit it that far. He made a bogey. Then through the last 11 holes he shot seven under.
"Some of my closest friends used to tell me, 'Hey, you're just too tough.' Well, if Hal was made out of the same thing I was, then I didn't think so, simply because my daddy done me the same way. I played five years of basketball at a little ol' bitty school in Blevins, Arkansas, and I'm telling you right now that if I got home at 10 p.m., it would be 1:30 before we went to bed. My daddy would want to talk basketball with me and argue about the way I'd played. And my daddy never played basketball in his life." At the time of the Western Amateur in 1979, Howard and Hal weren't speaking. After the final match, Hal called home. "Well, I won the tournament," he said. "I guess we're talking now." Replied Howard, "We'll talk some."
After a high school career during which Hal won the 1974 Louisiana junior title, he turned down scholarship offers from powers such as Houston and Oral Roberts to live under his father's roof—and influence—and play for Centenary, which, besides being the smallest Division I school in the country, was on NCAA probation during Sutton's first two years for academic violations involving basketball Center Robert Parish, now with the Boston Celtics. In four years, Sutton won 16 collegiate tournaments and, in his only NCAA tournament appearance, the probation and the 1979 Walker Cup having taken care of his first three chances, lost the final to Utah State's Jay Don Blake on the 4th hole of a playoff.
It was just about his last unsuccessful moment in 1980. That spring Sutton decided he would play only five amateur tournaments: the North and South, the Northeastern, the Southern, the Western and the National. "I just set winning those five as a goal," Sutton says. "I thought that was probably a little out of reach, which it was." But just barely. He won all but the Southern, and three of his victories were stunners: Sutton was the first repeat champion in the Western in 28 years. He won the final of the North and South 12 and 10 and of the National 9 and 8. But after he led the U.S. team to a 27-stroke victory in the World Amateur in October—and won the individual title by six strokes, Sutton's attention began to wander. He hardly touched a club until after Christmas. "I wanted to live a normal life," he says. "I was trying to learn the oil business, and I was resting on my laurels." There were no challenges left in the amateur world, he felt, and those golfers better than he were playing the Tour. But Sutton didn't want to join the Tour as a pro. He hoped to play selected tournaments, including the majors, while becoming an accomplished businessman. In the Suttons' vision, Hal would become a modern Bobby Jones, winning the U.S. Open as an amateur.
But Sutton failed to win a tournament in 1981. Two days after his defense of the U.S. Amateur title had ended in a first-round loss to Jodie Mudd, Sutton sent in his application to the Fall Tour Qualifying School in Huntsville, Texas. "I just told Dad, 'I'm not going through this agony anymore. I mean, at one time I was a good player, and everybody expects me to be that, and I'm not going out and embarrass myself in front of all those people. I'm getting in or getting out, one of the two.' " He got in, finishing in a tie for 17th at the school, good enough to earn his Tour card.
Soon after, he married Kelli, a flight attendant and former Miss Harris County (Texas), whom he had met at the Champions Cup tournament in Houston in 1980. "I would be willing to bet that it was the first golf tournament she'd ever been to," he says. Sutton married for two reasons. "I guess I wanted to prove I could make my own decision where that was concerned," he says. He also wed for love—of golf. According to Sutton's career plan, marriage was something you took care of somewhere between Tour School and Endorsements. "I thought maybe the best way to be on the Tour was to get married," he says. "Most of the guys who are doing real good are married."
The problem with that view of marriage was, Sutton says, that Kelli didn't like Tour life and didn't like the supportive role that Tour wives have to play. By the end of April, it was clear to Sutton that something would have to give. "I just looked at how I was playing, how well I was hitting the ball, and I wasn't making a damn penny," he says. At the '82 Memorial tournament at the end of May, he concluded that the marriage was over. He and Kelli separated the next week, and the divorce became final last month. "I think had she and I waited a year or two longer to get married, either we wouldn't have gotten married or everything would have worked out better," Sutton says. Through it all, Howard didn't say a word. "He never would," says Hal. "He's scared of women."
Two weeks after the separation, Sutton cashed the biggest check of his career, $10,400 for a ninth-place tie at Memphis. In successive weeks later in the summer, he finished third at the Anheuser-Busch Classic and second in the Canadian Open. In the Disney, the final tournament of the year, Sutton beat Bill Britton on the 4th hole of a playoff for his first win. His goals for '82—to break Jerry Pate's 1976 rookie earnings record of $153,102 (Sutton won $237,434), to finish in the top 30 in money (he was 11th) and to win a tournament—were fulfilled. Goals for '83 are to finish in the top five in earnings and to win a major.
Though he finds himself more comfortable every week, the differences between the Tour and what he sees as a normal life still grind at him. "Byron Nelson worked with me for a while in 1980 and 1981," Sutton says. "I asked him once, 'Mr. Nelson, what was your Number 1 goal in life? What made you get up in the morning? What made you go to bed at night?' He said, 'I'll tell you, Hal, the Number 1 goal in life was for me to be the best man I could be. That entails being the best golfer I can be, the best husband I can be and the best businessman I can be.' That's weighing on me right now. I want to be the very best I can possibly be. If I didn't have that goal in mind, I wouldn't play the Tour, because I don't think it's the ideal way of life."
This May, one year after deciding marriage was not for him, Sutton was sitting in a motel room in Dublin, Ohio, during the Memorial, where he tied for 14th. The lights were off, and twilight filtered through the curtains. "Take a look around this room," he said, leaning back in a chair in the corner. "Hilton didn't outdo itself in here. It's got a basic cold feeling about it. I'll go do a speech tonight and say whatever I'm going to say, and I'll come back here and hope some of the NBA playoff game will be on TV and watch the news. Hopefully I'll be tired and I'll fall asleep." Sutton indicated that he would not mind meeting that someone special—again. "I hope that she's right around the corner, whoever she is. If I'd been a loner all my life, maybe loneliness wouldn't be so hard to deal with." That's one thing even his father couldn't prepare him for—it's lonely at the top.