Who's that?" asked a fan at this year's Masters, failing to
recognize the stocky young player walking onto the 9th tee with
fifth-year PGA Tour player Chris Riley during a practice round.
"That's Chad Campbell," said a spectator from West Texas, a hint
of hometown pride in his voice.
"Jack Gamble?" asked the first man.
"No, Chad Campbell," said the Texan. "He's ..." Why, he's the
best player you never heard of. He's the biggest thing to come
out of the Permian Basin since George W. crapped out of the oil
business. Not to brag, but Chad Campbell could knock a squirrel
off the branch of a cottonwood from 240 yards with a two-iron,
not that he would. Why, he's ... he's ... "... from Texas."
In recent weeks, with the Tour swinging through Houston, Dallas
and Fort Worth, it's a good bet that many of the spectators had
at least heard of Campbell, the 29-year-old pro from Andrews.
Some knew him as the alltime leading money-winner on the Hooters
tour. A few might have been in Odessa, Texas, in 2001, when
Campbell hit a Nationwide tour-record 66 greens in regulation
and won the Permian Basin Open with a nifty 24-under-par 264. A
handful might even have remembered him as a junior college
All-America at Midland College and, before that, as the 1992
Class 4A champion at Andrews High. That's not to say, however,
that many of them could have picked his face out of a threesome
that included Annika Sorenstam.
But if the public still thinks that Campbell is something you
heat in a saucepan, his tournament-playing peers know better. A
recent SI GOLF PLUS survey asked Tour players who they thought
would be the next player--other than Phil Mickelson--to win a
major championship for the first time. The top vote-getter was
10-year Tour veteran and three-time Ryder Cupper Jim Furyk, who
has played in 31 majors, with 11 top 10 finishes. But right
behind Furyk was Gamble, uh, Campbell.
Campbell has his fans. Charles Howell, one of the Tour's bright
young stars, says, "Chad's a fantastic player." Tour sophomore
Ben Crane says, "He's a great young talent. Chad can see the
shots before others can." Second-year player Tim Petrovic, asked
if it would shock him to see Campbell win a major, shakes his
head and says, "It might be a huge shock to Chad, but not to me."
How does a player with a homemade swing and a small-town outlook,
a player who has never won a PGA Tour event, who failed to
advance in five tries at Q school, who has never even made the
cut in a major, get picked by his peers to win one of them? How,
for that matter, did Campbell rise to 11th on the 2003 money list
without getting a fraction of the publicity accorded to, say, Ty
Tryon, who is 156th?
Go to Campbell and put these questions to him directly, and he is
pleasant and forthright. Of his ranking in the SI poll, he says,
"It means a lot to get noticed by your peers. It's definitely a
compliment." Asked to explain his low public profile, he smiles
and shrugs. "I'm not very outspoken."
His wife, Amy, a grade school teacher and the daughter of
Campbell's freshman basketball coach at Andrews High, will attest
to that. Their wedding, last November, was a low-key affair in
the Dallas suburb of Lewisville. "No parades!" she says,
laughing, alluding to the spirited New Orleans nuptials of Chad's
UNLV roommate and best friend on the Tour, Riley. "Ours was cut
and dried, short and sweet." She adds that Chad, possibly the
most humble man in Texas, hadn't even told her about his high
finish in the SI survey. ("Hello, I'm your wife!")
To really understand Campbell, then, you need to find your way to
the West Texas oil capital of Midland-Odessa and take Highway 385
north into a prairie dotted with pump jacks. Thirty-five miles up
the road you'll find Andrews, population 10,182. Turn right on
East Broadway and grab a quick lunch at Buddy's Drive-In (STEAK
FINGERS SINCE 1969), then swing by the modest clubhouse of
Andrews Country Club. The public track behind it, Andrews County
Golf Course, is where Chad and his older brother, Mike, learned
"Chad was small as a kid," says his boyhood friend Neil Payne,
who lives a few blocks from the elm-lined fairways. "He couldn't
hit it very far, but inside 150 yards he was phenomenal. His
swing was homemade, very simple. He used a baseball grip until he
was in seventh grade." Payne, a district sales manager for Mohawk
Industries, says that his pal also had a down-home
temperament--and still does. "He's probably the most
even-tempered, mild-mannered guy you'll ever meet. His expression
never changes on the course. You never know if he just made a
quadruple bogey or if he aced the hole."
Payne grins and says, "His nickname was Skeeter. Be sure to ask
him why we called him that."
Next stop: Porter's Thriftway on Main Street, the town's only
supermarket. The store's owner, Denny Porter, is out of town, but
his sons, Trae and Judd, are there, and they've known Chad since
he was playing one-day, $5-entry-fee tournaments sponsored by the
North Texas Junior Golf Association. "Chad's game came along at
$4 a bucket," says Trae, watching the check-out clerks ring up
sales. "When he practiced, he wouldn't hit a certain number of
balls like the other kids. His goal was to hit 10 in a row on the
sweet spot, whether it took 20 minutes or five hours."
Judd, with a sly smile, says, "He has the first penny he ever
earned. He's very ... careful. I guess that's the word for it."
Asked if they had ever seen Campbell emote on the course, Judd
recalls the time that Chad, as a high school freshman, beat the
Basin's reigning phenom, a senior, in a playoff. "The guy takes
his ball and throws it across the street," Judd recalls, "and
that one time, well, Chad almost grinned."
Campbell was more effusive, the Porter boys say, when their dad
bet him a tank of gas that he wouldn't beat Sorenstam at the
recent Bank of America Colonial. "Dad likes to give him a hard
time," Judd says. "When Chad used to come home from the Hooters
tour, Dad would always play him for a tank of gas, knowing Chad
would win. That was so Chad could get to the next tournament."
Leaving Thriftway, you can cross Main and drive through the
pleasant, leafy neighborhood where the Campbell boys grew up.
Their parents, Phillip and Patsy, live in the white-brick ranch
with tree limbs swallowing the old basketball goal in the
driveway. (Phillip, a field supervisor for Caprock Operating
Company, an oil and gas exploration firm, speaks fluent Texan.
For example, when he says, "Robin Hood's eatin' on us pretty
heavy," he means, "They raised our taxes.") Not far away is the
Southwestern-style house of Chad's high school coach, George
Boynton, who used to run over to the 7-Eleven before a big match
to get apple juice for his star player. ("They say Chad has a
homemade swing," Boynton says, "but I think a lot of the teaching
pros ought to take a look at it and start teaching it.")
Finally, cross Main Street again and park outside Andrews High,
where Chad's brother teaches math and coaches the girl's golf
team. Mike will walk you down the halls of the airy, modern
building and introduce you to various teachers, who will
invariably preface their tributes to Chad with the words, "He was
a quiet kid...."
"Chad was quiet and a little shy," says Mike, who was a two-time
NCAA Division II golf All-America at Abilene Christian. "But once
you got to know him, he wasn't that quiet."
Does Mike know why they called his little brother Skeeter? "Uh
... no, not really. You'll have to ask Chad."
So a few days later, right after Campbell has shot a first-round
67 at the Colonial in Fort Worth, we stop him outside the
clubhouse and ask him. "I don't know why they called me that," he
says, looking sincerely baffled. "I wish somebody would tell me."
There are questions that Campbell will answer. He is certain, for
example, that he wouldn't be where he is today if he hadn't
gotten that golf scholarship at UNLV. He won only one tournament
there--the 1996 Golf Digest Collegiate, in Houston--but he got to
play alongside talents like Riley and Ted Oh, and he shared the
fun of his team's second-place finish in the 1996 NCAA
Championships. Campbell credits his coach at UNLV, Dwaine Knight,
for teaching him how to putt, and he says the brassy city
broadened his horizons. "Midland was the biggest town I'd ever
lived in," Campbell says. "Then Vegas, with a million people. But
I enjoyed it. It made me grow up faster."
He doesn't hesitate, either, when asked if he has fond memories
of the Hooters tour, where he won 13 tournaments and three money
titles in four seasons. "It wasn't very glamorous, but it was a
lot of fun," he says, waxing sentimental over the vagabond life
spent wheeling in his Chevy Tahoe between cheap motels and
forgettable courses. The turning point of his career came in
1997, when he took a four-shot lead into the final round of a
Hooters tournament in El Paso, Ill., and wound up losing by three
strokes. A week later, in Sikeston, Mo., he led by five at the
start of the final round. This time, though, he closed the deal
for his first pro victory.
Did he have a hard time sleeping the night before that final
round? Campbell shakes his head. "I've never had trouble
sleeping," he says.
Since Sikeston he hasn't had trouble winning, either. In 2000,
his final season on the Hooters tour, he won eight of the first
16 events. The following year, on what is now known as the
Nationwide tour, he set a single-season record for prize money
and won three tournaments, earning a late-season promotion to the
PGA Tour. Once there, he promptly impressed his peers by
finishing second to Cameron Beckman and winning $259,200 in only
his second start, at the Southern Farm Bureau Classic in Madison,
Miss. By comparison, Campbell's first full season on the Tour was
merely solid--he wound up 81st on the 2002 money list, with a
season-best tie for third at Greensboro--but this year he has
looked like a player on the cusp of stardom, finishing second at
Tucson, tying for second at the Honda Classic and tying for sixth
at the Players Championship.
"To be able to dominate two tours, four years in a row, showed
that he had the confidence to bring it to the next level," says
his manager, Dennis Harrington, who handles Chad's finances and
helps arrange his schedule. Campbell's caddie, Judd Burkett--yet
another childhood friend and a Hooters tour veteran--calls
Campbell "a freak of nature, he's so talented. His hands fit on a
golf club, and his body knows how to react to it. On the course
he's in his realm. It's almost as if he has already played the
round in his mind." It's a mind, Burkett concedes, as placid as a
farm pond. "There's not a whole lot of emotion to his game. Or
anxiety. Or excitement." But he immediately contradicts himself,
saying, "Chad hits a shot or two every day where I say, 'Gaaah,
that's amazing, partner. That's phenomenal.'"
It is possible that there is a bolder, flashier Campbell lurking
behind that shy smile. He recently bought a big black Hummer, and
his garage in Lewisville already featured a Corvette. On the
other hand, his idea of a champion's dinner is still a couple of
meat burritos at a drive-through window. "If he couldn't play
anymore," says Payne, "I think he'd buy a Taco Villa franchise
and put it as close to his house as possible."
Chad's parents certainly don't expect him to change. "Mama like
to had a fit when he went off to Vegas," Phillip Campbell said at
the Colonial, watching his son walk up a fairway lined with
spectators. "There's a lot of temptation there for a kid. You
worry he's out all night pulling the slots." He smiled. "But Chad
didn't lose his way." Patsy, enjoying the shade of a big oak
tree, said, "He makes us real proud. We're honored to be his
Our prediction, then--take it with a grain of bunker sand--is
that Chad Campbell will be the next "unknown" to win a major.
Like Mike Weir, winner of this year's Masters, he has the game.
Like Rich Beem, winner of last year's PGA Championship, he has
the grit. Like Retief Goosen, winner of the 2001 U.S. Open, he
has the patience to cope with punitive course setups. Most
important, Campbell is comfortable in his anonymity. He knows who
he is, even if you don't.
"Chad's a really patient person," says Amy. She remembers his
second major, the 2000 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. Stuck in an
impossible position in a greenside bunker, the young pro decided
that his best play was to turn sideways and splash his ball to
another position in the same bunker. A man in the gallery said,
"That is the stupidest thing I've ever seen. Who is that kid?"
If you're reading this, sir, here's the answer: Chad Campbell of
Andrews, Texas. The next big thing.
"BUT NOT TO ME."
OFF TO VEGAS."