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Overmatched? With the Ryder Cup looming, Hal Sutton, 44, wonders if he'll have any fight left

May 13, 2002
May 13, 2002

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May 13, 2002

Overmatched? With the Ryder Cup looming, Hal Sutton, 44, wonders if he'll have any fight left

By Seth Davis Charts by Sal Johnson

Hal Sutton turned 44 on April 28 but wanted to keep the day as
uneventful as possible. "When you get to be my age, you want your
birthday to pass," he says. Sutton's wife, Ashley, and the
couple's three young daughters had other ideas. That afternoon
they surprised Hal with a cake-and-presents party after he
returned home from practice. "The girls were so excited to get
those presents open, even though they were for me," Sutton says.
He pauses a moment, then sighs. "I can't believe I'm 44 years
old. Everything's gone so fast."

This is an article from the May 13, 2002 issue Original Layout

For the most part Sutton has held the upper hand in his match
with Father Time. Since turning 40, he has won six events on the
PGA Tour (the fifth-most wins by a fortysomething in Tour
history) and was a rock for the U.S. in the 1999 Ryder Cup.
Recently, though, Sutton has been showing his age. Last week he
shot 77-73 to miss the cut at the Compaq Classic of New Orleans,
the seventh time in 11 starts in 2002 that Sutton has failed to
make it to the weekend. He has won only $135,864 to rank 135th on
the money list.

That a 44-year-old Tour pro should hit the wall is hardly
remarkable; it's happened to almost every player that age. What's
noteworthy is that this particular 44-year-old is a member of the
12-man Ryder Cup team that will take on Europe Sept. 27-29 at the
Belfry in Sutton Coldfield, England. Normally the teams are
finalized a month before the match so that the hottest players
are chosen. But this year's sides have been locked in since the
tournament was postponed last September because of the terrorist
attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Back then
Sutton was 16th in the World Ranking (chart, G14). He has since
plummeted to 66th, the lowest ranking among U.S. Ryder Cuppers
and behind all but two of the Europeans.

Sutton has plenty of time to resurrect his game, but he is
characteristically blunt when assessing his play. "If the Ryder
Cup were tomorrow and I was playing the way I've been playing the
last four months, I would hurt the team," he says.

Adds Ashley, who's been married to Hal since 1994, "This is the
most frustrated he's been with golf since I've known him. At his
age you wonder, Will I ever find my game again? Do I quit? I know
all of that is in the back of his head."

Quitting has not been Sutton's M.O. Once billed as the next
Nicklaus, Sutton won the PGA and the player of the year award in
1983, when he was 25. Then came a horrific slide: Sutton won only
one tournament--the 1995 B.C. Open--between June 1986 and September
1998. The nadir came in '92, when he made eight cuts in 29 starts
and earned $39,234. His problems were exacerbated by his
propensity to accept advice from anyone who cared to offer it. By
the end of 1998, however, Sutton had climbed back to fifth on the
money list, and in 2000 he won the Players Championship by
outdueling Tiger Woods. His game dipped a little last year, but
he still had three top 10 finishes, including a win at the Shell
Houston Open.

Sutton says he started struggling with his swing at the beginning
of the 2001 season but had a hard time explaining the problem to
Floyd Horgen, who coached Sutton at Centenary College in the late
1970s and remains his instructor. Frustrated, Sutton decided last
fall to visit Dave Phillips, the head teaching pro at Caves
Valley Golf Club in Owings Mills, Md. Using videotape and a
computer program to compare Sutton's current swing to his action
a few years ago, the flaw became apparent. "My lower body was
getting out in front of me, which was causing me to get on the
outside of the ball and pull it left," Sutton says. "Now I'm
working to get my right shoulder under the ball more."

Even though he wore out a set of irons on the practice range over
the winter, Sutton was still practicing his new move on the range
at Augusta National last month when he pulled a muscle on the
right side of his rib cage. He had to withdraw from the Masters
before the opening round and then took three weeks off. Sutton
rejoined the Tour in New Orleans, where he played mostly
pain-free. "The easiest way to get away from the pain is to go
back to my old swing," Sutton says. "If I'm feeling the pain in
my ribs, that means I'm doing what I need to do."

Equally troubling are the nagging thoughts that his time may have
passed. "You can call it hitting the wall or whatever you want,"
Sutton says. "The bottom line is, God did not intend it to be
this way. You're fighting the system if you want to play at the
highest level in your mid- to late 40s."

As if the aches and psychological pains weren't enough, Sutton
also had to contend with sleep apnea, a disorder that, 40 times
an hour, caused him to stop breathing for 10 to 15 seconds and
wake up. He had been feeling unusually tired last year, and when
he felt his heart racing during the Western Open in July, he went
to an emergency room as soon as he returned home to Shreveport,
La. "I thought I was having a heart attack," he says. Since being
diagnosed with apnea, Sutton wears an oxygen mask while sleeping.
He still wakes up occasionally, to adjust the mask, but now
reaches REM sleep and feels rested when he awakes.

A by-product of the sleeping disorder has been a loss of
conditioning. The 6'1" Sutton has gained 20 pounds--he's up to
205--over the last three years. "The sleep apnea causes my
metabolism to slow down, so I can't lose weight," he says. "Plus,
I'm tired a lot, so I don't want to work out." Says Horgen, "For
a world-class player, Hal has fairly short arms, so his body
speed has to be pretty fast. The condition of his body is a big
part of his problem."

Many of Sutton's peers believe that if anyone can rise from the
ashes a second time, the cranky, fire-in-the-belly Louisianan
can. Sutton played in all five sessions of the '99 Ryder Cup,
teaming with Jeff Maggert to win two foursomes matches and then
beating Darren Clarke in singles on Sunday as the U.S. completed
the biggest comeback in Cup history. "Hal is a very emotional
player, and he really brought that to the team," says Phil
Mickelson, "not only on the course, but also in the hotel at
night."

Because of the one-year postponement, there is bound to be
second-guessing about the makeup of the 2002 Ryder Cup team,
especially if Sutton fails to regain his form while players such
as Chris DiMarco and Rocco Mediate, ranked ninth and 12th in the
world, respectively, are left at home. (The European squad might
face similar criticism in the case of Jose Maria Olazabal, who is
ranked 15th but was not selected for the team last summer.) U.S.
captain Curtis Strange argues against making roster changes and
steadfastly supports Sutton. "Hal is not far off at all," says
Strange. "He's a tough guy and has been down before. I'm not
concerned about him."

In trying to get his swing back, Sutton will be helped by the
equanimity in his personal life, which used to be notoriously
unstable. After going through three divorces in nine years, he
became known on Tour as Halimony. But in the former Ashley Powell
he found someone to help him strike a balance between his home
life and golf. Instead of constantly brooding about his game,
Sutton makes time to relax with Ashley and daughters Samantha, 5,
and twins Sadie and Sara, 3, at the secluded ranch they finished
building last fall near Junction, in southwest Texas. There
Sutton can hunt, fish and play papa to his heart's content. "I
have more fun being a dad than I do anything else," he says.
"Ashley has helped me take golf less seriously. I wouldn't say
I'm an A student, but she's working with me."

That kind of attitude, and patience, will be important in the
critical months ahead. "Sometimes people get down on themselves
too quickly," Sutton says. "When the right swing comes along,
it's as if somebody flips a switch. I know the right swing; it's
ingrained in my memory bank. When I hit it, I'll know it."

Until that switch is flipped, he will take encouragement wherever
he can find it. After a practice-range lesson from Strange last
Friday in New Orleans, Sutton shot a par-36 on the final nine
holes and felt as if he were close to finding a groove. "I took a
step forward," he said. "My thoughts right now are no different
than if I were playing great: It's time to play the next shot."

Time, Sutton knows, is no longer on his side.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JIM GUND Try, try again Sutton, who missed another cut last week in New Orleans, lost his swing a year ago.COLOR PHOTO: SIMON BRUTY Fallen star A hero in the '99 Cup, Sutton has plummeted in the rankings.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JIM GUND An eyeful Strange checked Sutton at the Compaq Classic.

Ryder Cup Ups and Downs

When the Ryder Cup was postponed for a year, to Sept. 27-29, the
rosters of both teams were frozen. Here's how the players have
fared since Aug. 19, 2001, the last day for American golfers to
earn Ryder Cup points. (The Europeans' final qualifying day was
Sept. 2.)

United States

POINTS EARNED WORLD WORLD
FINAL POINTS AUG. 26-MAY 5 RANK RANK
AUG. 19, 2001 (POINTS LIST RANK) AUG. 19 MAY 5

Tiger Woods 2,447.500 745.000 (1) 1 1
Phil Mickelson 1,710.625 560.000 (2) 2 2
David Duval 1,016.666 120.000 (52) 3 6
Mark Calcavecchia 765.375 145.750 (42) 20 30
David Toms 755.000 452.857 (5) 8 8
Davis Love III 749.500 315.000 (17) 6 11
Scott Hoch 657.000 56.000 (95) 18 25
Jim Furyk 647.875 213.750 (28) 13 18
Hal Sutton 613.000 0 16 66
Stewart Cink 586.625 0 26 45
Scott Verplank 508.500 325.000 (14) 25 16
Paul Azinger 389.667 120 (52) 24 29

Europe

POINTS EARNED WORLD WORLD
FINAL POINTS SEPT. 9-MAY 5 RANK RANK
SEPT. 2, 2001 (POINTS LIST RANK) SEPT. 2 MAY 5

Darren Clarke 2,281,477 412,377 (14) 8 14
Padraig Harrington 1,846,761 1,069,487 (1) 13 10
Thomas Bjorn 1,684,003 237,142 (34) 20 34
Colin Montgomerie 1,488,625 471,707 (10) 10 32
Pierre Fulke 1,287,877 259,183 (27) 44 73
Lee Westwood 1,255,620 124,504 (63) 16 51
Paul McGinley 1,087,584 717,713 (5) 40 39
Niclas Fasth 1,076,272 451,981 (12) 31 37
Bernhard Langer 1,072,120 601,759 (6) 21 17
Phillip Price 858,945 148,730 (55) 56 83
Sergio Garcia 665,368 912,821 (3) 7 5
Jesper Parnevik 409,716 74,749 (85) 22 33

If the Teams Were Picked Today
Ryder Cup points leaders from Aug. 26 (Sept. 9 for the Europeans)
to May 5 and where they stood on the points list when teams were
named.

POINTS LIST POINTS EARNED
RANK AUG. 19 AUG. 26-MAY 5

1. Tiger Woods 1 745.000
2. Phil Mickelson 2 560.000
3. Bob Estes 42 518.333
4. David Toms 5 452.857
5. Chris DiMarco 13 414.762
6. Justin Leonard 24 411.429
7. Rocco Mediate 18 380.000
8. Scott McCarron 31 377.857
9. Matt Kuchar NA 370.000
10. Scott Verplank 14 325.000
11. Jerry Kelly 32 320.000
12. Davis Love III 6 315.000

POINTS LIST POINTS EARNED
RANK SEPT. 2 SEPT. 9-MAY 5

1. Padraig Harrington 2 1,069,487
2. Paul Lawrie 22 984,144
3. Sergio Garcia 18 912,821
4. Jose Maria Olazabal 19 886,200
5. Paul McGinley 7 717,713
6. Bernhard Langer 9 601,759
7. David Howell 25 600,405
8. Carl Pettersson NA 513,332
9. Greg Owen NA 500,787
10. Steve Webster NA 462,723
11. Colin Montgomerie 4 471,707
12. Niclas Fasth 8 451,981

Charts by Sal Johnson

The bottom line, says Sutton: "You're fighting the system if
you want to play at the highest level in your mid- to late 40s."