Kiwi Surprise

Battling the Pinehurst course while holding off Tiger Woods, New Zealand's Michael Campbell won the U.S. Open--and couldn't believe it himself
June 26, 2005

History will show that Michael Campbell became a major championship winner on Sunday evening with a harmless bogey on the 18th hole of Pinehurst No. 2, but he was formally welcomed into the exclusive club of Grand Slam tournament victors a few minutes later in the men's room of the Pinehurst clubhouse. Campbell had retreated to the locker room moments after the final putt to make an emotional phone call to his wife, Julie, who was at home in England with their two young sons. After hanging up, Campbell ducked into a deserted bathroom to gather himself for the trophy presentation. He reached the sink, splashed water on his face for a while, and upon straightening up he got a jolt at the sight of the man standing next to him. This dude, wearing Nike running shoes and a cap jauntily pushed back on his forehead, was gargling mouthwash with gusto. After spitting it out, Tiger Woods turned to Campbell and said, "Hey, Michael, how ya doin'?"

In return Campbell could mutter only a soft "Hey." What is the protocol, anyway, for addressing the world's best golfer after you have just dusted him in the final round of the U.S. Open?

Woods shook Campbell's hand, gave him a hug and said, "Congrats, man. That was some great golf today. You deserved to win."

At this, Campbell finally let down his guard. "I have one question for you," he said. "How do you do this so often?"

"Luck," Woods said, and with a smile he breezed out the door.

Modesty aside, it takes a lot more than good fortune to survive the meat grinder that is the U.S. Open. Capitalizing on a shocking collapse by the third-round leader and defending champion, Retief Goosen, Campbell, the only player to finish the tournament at par, conquered one of the most exacting setups in the Open's carnage-filled history with brilliant shot making and clutch putting. During a memorable back nine on Sunday, he absorbed Woods's best shot without a flinch, making Tiger a runner-up in a major for only the second time in his career.

When it was all over, Campbell, winner of nine tournaments in Australia, Asia and Europe, seemed as surprised as anyone at what he had done. He kept checking and rechecking the names on the trophy--paying special attention to his idol, Ben Hogan, a four-time Open winner--and expressing disbelief that he had joined the pantheon. The new U.S. Open champ kept referring to himself as "little old me": a kid from Wellington, New Zealand, who had made one of golf's most unlikely journeys before finally arriving at age 36.

Twelve years ago Campbell was a tantalizing prospect, winning the 1993 rookie of the year award on the Australasian tour. At 26 he was the Next Big Thing, finishing third at the '95 British Open. By 29 he was seriously contemplating retirement--a nagging wrist injury and accompanying swing miseries had sent his career into a downward spiral. During the '98 season he shot a round in the 80s in three consecutive tournaments, leading him to ponder a career "selling golf balls," as he puts it.

Campbell's competitive rebirth began a few months later, after his son Thomas was born. "It changed my whole attitude completely because I needed to provide for my family," he says. Slowly he pieced his game back together, applying the natural athleticism that as a boy had made him a standout in rugby, tennis and basketball. In 2000 Julie gave him a second son, Jordan. Dad responded by breaking through with three victories on the European tour, on which he is still based, and earning a spot on the Presidents Cup international team. On the eve of the competition he performed a traditional Maori Haka dance to fire up his teammates.

Campbell is intensely proud of his ancestry, which blends New Zealand's indigenous people with those from the country that gave birth to golf. His great-great-great-grandfather Sir Logan Campbell was a Scotsman who helped found Auckland in 1845. Michael's Maori roots have imbued him with what he calls a "very religious, very spiritual" nature. While crisscrossing the golf world, he often wears a greenstone pendant that he says helps him travel safely over water. For the final round at Pinehurst he donned a shirt emblazoned with Maori letters that translated roughly as "be strong."

Bob Charles was the first New Zealander to win a major, the 1963 British Open, but Campbell's victory figures to have more impact back home. Just as Woods's arrival helped spur the growth of golf in minority communities across America, Campbell hopes to become a cross-cultural icon, inspiring Maori youth to take up the game. Woods's caddie, Steve Williams, is also a Kiwi and has been a close friend of Campbell's since their junior golf days. On Sunday evening Williams said, "This is the biggest sporting moment in New Zealand history, for a Maori to come this far. Obviously my interests are with Tiger, but I'm over the moon for Michael."

Williams waited behind the 18th green to congratulate Campbell--a gracious gesture that sent tears streaming down Campbell's face. Later he would have "a good cry" when speaking with his dad, Tom, who was in New Zealand. And he would get misty again when Prime Minister Helen Clark phoned to add her congrats.

The copious tears marked a poignant end to an unusually emotional week. Six years had passed since the last Open at Pinehurst, which culminated in Payne Stewart's victorious 15-foot putt on the final hole. Four months later Stewart died when the private jet in which he was flying lost cabin pressure, rendering its passengers unconscious.

But life, as well as death, will forever define that '99 Open. Stewart's foil that week was Phil Mickelson, whose caddie carried a beeper that would have gone off had Mickelson's wife, Amy, gone into labor back in California. Last week it was David Toms's wife, Sonya, who was about to give birth, scheduled for a cesarean section the day after the Open concluded. It's a wonder she didn't go into labor on Friday afternoon, when her hubby tumbled from the top of the leader board with a double-bogey, triple-bogey finish. (Toms would finish a commendable 15th, then hightail it back to Memphis for the Monday delivery of Anna.)

At the end of that round the coleaders at two-under-par 138 were the seemingly unflappable Goosen; Olin Browne, a chatty veteran who played his way into the Open with a 59 during qualifying; and Jason Gore, a career minor leaguer who became a crowd favorite thanks to a personality as outsized as his waistline (Life of Reilly, page 84). Campbell (71-69) was two off the lead and feeling, he said, "very at ease with the golf course. I play a lot of courses like this in Australia and different parts of Europe."

Campbell is not a particularly long hitter, but he is a creative shot maker with a strong short game. His crafty ball control was perfect for the par-70 Pinehurst No. 2, where the narrow fairways were so firm and fast that they could have been measured with a Stimpmeter. Hitting--and holding--the brick-hard greens was even more challenging than keeping drives from skittering into the lush bermuda rough. Peter Jacobsen said approaching the famous crowned putting surfaces was like trying to land a ball on an upside-down salad bowl, while Lee Janzen likened the typical green to a pitcher's mound.

Such extreme conditions usually bring out the best in Goosen, who was attempting to become only the sixth player to win at least three U.S. Opens. He took control of the tournament on Saturday, forging a three-stroke lead over Browne and Gore with a fearless 69, one of only two subpar rounds on the day. Afterward many of his fellow competitors privately conceded the tournament to him. Said Arron Oberholser, "We're all human out here--except for one of us, and he's atop the leader board."

On Sunday the flesh-and-blood Iron Byron short-circuited, blowing up to an 81. Goosen usually has a supernatural ability to hole clutch putts, but his stroke was jittery from the start. He missed an eight-foot bogey putt on the 2nd hole, three-jacked at the 3rd and 4th, and blew short par putts on the 5th and 6th. His collapse cracked the tournament wide open. Campbell, four back at the start of the day, birdied the 1st hole and followed with six pars. Suddenly he was leading the U.S. Open--though Woods, just revving up one group ahead of him, was about to begin his pursuit.

Tied for seventh at the start of the final round, six behind Goosen, Woods was hunting for his first come-from-behind victory in a major. At Pinehurst he delivered his best ball striking performance in ages--he would lead the tournament in greens in regulation and driving distance--but he was spooked by the greens, taking a combined 70 putts in the second and third rounds. After a bogey-bogey start on Sunday, Woods was eight strokes off the lead. But with birdies on the 4th, 7th, 10th and 11th holes, he vaulted into second place, two strokes behind Campbell.

After the two traded birdies--Campbell with a 30-footer on 12, Woods's set up by a gorgeous tee shot to the par-3 15th--Tiger blinked. On the 492-yard, par-4 16th he drove into the rough, slashed out short of the green and then pushed an eight-foot par putt, bumping Campbell's lead to three strokes. On the 17th Woods had a 20-footer for birdie but walked off with a three-putt bogey after blocking his five-foot comebacker. Campbell gave a stroke back with a bogey at 16 but iced the tournament with a 25-foot birdie putt on 17. Happiness is a three-stroke lead on the 72nd tee.

In defeat Woods fell back on an old mantra--"second place sucks"--but he was clearly thrilled with what he called the "big, giant steps" he has made with his swing since his gritty Masters win two months ago. Woods will be an overwhelming favorite at next month's British Open in St. Andrews. The last time he visited the Old Course, for the 2000 Open, he eviscerated the ancient links, shooting a record 19 under on the way to an eight-stroke victory.

Campbell also looks forward to returning to the Old Course. It was there that he kicked away a two-stroke lead in the final round of the 1995 Open. "It wasn't my turn," he said on Sunday night. "I've stayed patient for 10 years. Deep down inside I knew that I had it in me to do something special." Like shooting a final-round 69 at Pinehurst.

During the trophy presentation Campbell spoke eloquently about what it meant to win the first U.S. Open at Pinehurst since Stewart's death. The most heart-wrenching moment of Campbell's Father's Day victory came when he called Julie from the quiet of the locker room. Upon hearing her voice he was so overcome he couldn't speak. Gasping for air, he finally asked, "Are the boys watching?" It was, after all, past midnight in England.

Told that they were, Campbell buried his head in his hands and let the tears pour. For 10 seconds or more he wept into the phone. Finally, he choked out six words: "I can't believe I've done it."

Woods delivered his best ball striking performance in ages, but he was SPOOKED BY THE GREENS, taking a combined 70 putts in the second and third rounds.

"I've stayed patient for 10 years," said Campbell, referring to his near miss at the '95 British Open. "Deep down I knew that I had it in me to do SOMETHING SPECIAL."

TWO COLOR PHOTOSPhotographs by John Biever GIMME A V Campbell only hit 10 greens in regulation on Sunday, but his putting yielded a celebration on 18. TWO COLOR PHOTOSDARREN CARROLL (2) SPUTTER Misses by Woods on 16 (below left) and 17 led to bogeys that blunted his Sunday charge. COLOR PHOTOAL TIELEMANS [see caption above] COLOR PHOTODARREN CARROLL WITH FEELING An overwhelmed Campbell unleashed a torrent of tears, while Goosen contemplated the magnitude of his collapse. COLOR PHOTOROBERT BECK [see caption above]

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)