Tearing Up the Back 40 Hal Sutton is an anomaly among Tour players: He isn't getting older, he's getting better

May 06, 2001

Fresh off a win in Houston and ready to defend last year's
victory in the Greater Greensboro Chrysler Classic, Hal Sutton
returned to the Piedmont Triad last week in touch with his inner
golfer, not to mention his inner decorator. Sutton is having a
vacation home built on a ranch he owns in the Texas hill
country, and he needs to furnish it. Much has been made of the
salutary effect that his fourth wife, Ashley, has had on Sutton,
helping him return to the top of pro golf, and the faith between
them was evident last week. Any marriage in which the wife
trusts the husband enough to turn him loose with a checkbook in
the furniture capital of the nation is indeed a strong one. "Oh,
I'd much rather he do it," Ashley said last Saturday night from
their primary home in Bossier City, La. "He loves antiques. He
loves art. He'll drive me crazy going through galleries."

Sutton's taste runs to Western art, particularly landscapes,
although in the last few years he has rekindled an interest in
expanding one of his early collections: golf trophies. Sutton,
who celebrated his 43rd birthday on Saturday, won seven times in
his 20s but only once in his 30s. He has won six tournaments
since turning 40, which puts him in a tie for fifth in that
category behind Sam Snead (17), Julius Boros (10), Dutch Harrison
(7) and Gene Littler (7). "That back nine," says his longtime
caddie, Freddie Burns, of the one-under 35 Sutton had in windy
conditions on Sunday at the Houston Open, "that was the old Hal
Sutton. No, it was the new Hal Sutton."

Sutton came in 24th at Greensboro, eight shots behind the
winner, 45-year-old Scott Hoch. Unlike Sutton, Hoch has remained
a consistent contender throughout his 21-year career. Though
Greensboro is only Hoch's ninth victory, he has finished 40th or
better on the money list in 18 of the last 19 seasons. Three of
his nine victories have come since he turned 40. "I've done well
from 40 to 45, especially compared with the guys I grew up
with," Hoch says. "All those three-footers and everything else
take their toll. I have left enough tournaments out here that I
should've [won] that I still have something to prove." When he
called home to Orlando on Sunday evening and spoke to his
17-year-old son, Cameron, Hoch said, "Hey, your old man can
still do it, huh? I guess I still got it."

Sutton finished the week second in fairways hit and tied for
sixth in greens hit in regulation. He had two putts go at least
three quarters of the way around the cup and not fall, along
with other assorted lip-outs. "I'm doing everything right," he
said after Saturday's round. "The ball's just not going in." He
paused. "Life doesn't turn out every day the way we want it to,
does it?"

No one knows that better than Sutton. His climb out of a
decadelong slump in 1998 has been well-documented. What is
remarkable is the way he keeps climbing. Sutton won the Players
Championship and the PGA in 1983 and made the Ryder Cup team in
'85 and '87, but then his game fell apart. When he won only once
between 1987 and '97, it appeared that he would be best
remembered for his squandered talent and multiple weddings.

Actually, his '94 marriage to the former Ashley Powell of Tyler,
Texas, started him on the road to recovery. He says the births of
their three daughters, Samantha, 4, and twins Sara and Sadie, 2,
brought him a peace he never knew. "They make me young and
energetic," says Sutton. "One thing that drives me is I want my
girls to get old enough to see me do good things. I don't want
them to have to read that their daddy was a good player."

The list of stars who stopped winning tournaments as they
approached 40 includes such once dominant golfers as Nick Faldo
and Curtis Strange. In most cases their physical skills didn't
diminish; they just wore out mentally. "When you get in your
40s," says 1987 U.S. Open champion Scott Simpson, 45, "you get
tired of missing all the baseball games your son is playing. You
get tired of missing your daughter going out on dates. You start
thinking, Jeez, I would sure like to be home."

Simpson, who missed the entire 2000 season after breaking his
right ankle skiing, says he enjoyed everything about the time off
except the crutches. He surfaced on the leader board at
Greensboro last week--he finished in a tie for second--as did
43-year-old Joey Sindelar, who has known Sutton since their
college days, when Sindelar made All-America at Ohio State and
Sutton did the same at Centenary. "If you're good enough to get
to the other end of the tunnel," Sindelar says, referring to
Sutton, "the appreciation comes back. When you haven't gone
through that, you think, I've got to do another pro-am. It gets
old."

Because his daughters are so young, Sutton has a few years before
he is tugged by the lure of soccer games and ballet recitals.
When those events arrive, they better tug hard. The memory of his
lean years is powerful. "I am energized by the romance of trying
to be the best I can be," says Sutton. "It's exciting to be my
age and doing things the best I've ever done them. I threw away
several years in the early '90s. I was a participator. I don't
want to be a participator anymore. I want to be somebody who's
trying to win every time I'm out there."

That attitude helped Sutton face down Tiger Woods in last year's
Players Championship. That victory, along with his inspired play
in the '99 Ryder Cup at Brookline, established Sutton as one of
the most fearsome competitors in the game. "He's the reason we
had a chance to win [at Brookline] on Sunday," says teammate Jim
Furyk. In his recent book, A Feel for the Game, team captain Ben
Crenshaw called Sutton the backbone of the team. Sutton went
3-1-1, and throughout the weekend he urged his teammates to be
aggressive.

A year and a half later Sutton is still sensitive to the
Europeans' charges that he and his teammates acted
unprofessionally by exhorting the crowd. "I saw that s--- going
on from them all week long," he says. "They were bumping chests
in the middle of the fairway. Everybody wants to talk about what
we did. It gets sickening listening to it. You know what? They
were on the wrong side of history that day. That was it."

Sutton is sixth in the standings for this year's team. Over the
last couple of months he has been mentioned as the logical
candidate to captain the U.S. team in '03, an honor usually
bestowed upon a golfer on the 18th hole of his career. That's not
Sutton. He intends to play on the '03 team. "If I were chosen as
captain, I would be overjoyed," he says. "That wouldn't stop me
from making the team, and if I did, I'd get somebody else to do
the duties." Then he stops. "I retract that. I don't know what
I'd do. You had me thinking about the future. I live one day at a
time."

For all the notoriety Sutton received for his marriages--even he
used to refer to himself as Halimony--it's worth noting that he
and Burns have been together for 26 years, longer than any other
pro and caddie on Tour. "He loves Freddie like a brother,"
Ashley says. "He adores Freddie. He is frustrated by Freddie and
vice versa."

Burns, 49, can still recite the details of how he went to work
for the 17-year-old Sutton, in 1975. "His daddy actually hired
me," says Burns. "He gave me a check for $500 and a 1970 Ford
Fairlane, and he told me to meet Hal every day at 2 p.m. He paid
me $250 a week, which was good money."

Sutton is asked about having four wives but only one caddie and
he sees a common theme: It all comes down to loyalty. "It's hard
to go through life [and find] people who have the same goals that
you have, who allow you to chase your dream," he says. "Freddie
stuck by me and wanted to chase my dream with me."

So does Ashley. "I think Hal's success has to do with the girls,
with me, with Hal's growing up," she says. "Hal and I are around
for the long haul."

While in Greensboro, Sutton had a surprise visit from an old high
school friend, Kathryn Olenyik, who lives in Virginia but
happened to be in town. Olenyik knows Sutton well enough that she
remembered Saturday was his birthday. She organized the crowd
behind the 18th green to sing Happy Birthday as Sutton signed
post-round autographs.

When Olenyik called Sutton on Friday, they immediately started
catching up.

"Got kids?" he asked.

"Got two of them," she said.

"Kathy," Sutton asked, "are you happy?"

"I am," she said. "Are you?"

"Happier than ever."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JIM GUND COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JIM GUND SURVIVOR Hoch's win was his third since turning 40 and made him a millionaire for the sixth straight year.

Sutton, 43, is motivated by his young daughters. "I don't want
them to have to read that their daddy was a good player," he
says.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)