Even though he won the PGA Championship in 1983 and also served as the U.S. Ryder Cup captain in 2004, Hal Sutton is best known for one defining moment in golf.
In 2000, at a time when Tiger Woods was dominating the PGA Tour with 11 victories in his past 15 starts, Sutton stared down the world’s No. 1 player in a back-nine duel at the Players Championship and proved to all of golf’s disbelievers that Woods was indeed beatable.
And, in a moment that defined his combative demeanor but captured the magnitude of his accomplishment, Sutton is best remembered for yelling at his 6-iron approach to the 72nd green at the Stadium Course, “Be the right club to-DAY.”
Seniors golf tournament set to begin in Fox Chapel
Fox Chapel Golf Club superintendent Jason Hurwitz describes how the course was prepared for the Constellation Senior Players Championship. (Video by Matt Freed; 6/24/2014).
It was, and he finished off what little thought possible: He beat Woods by holding him off in the stretch and not collapsing like so many others before him.
To Sutton, it was the greatest moment of his PGA Tour career.
“It’s because of the year he had,” Sutton said of Woods. “He’d probably look back at 2000 as one of his best years. It seemed like nobody would beat him at the time. Coming down the stretch, he beat everybody. Golf was beginning to wonder, could he be beat?
“Not only did Hal Sutton need that, golf needed that. At that moment, I felt like I was playing not just for me but for golf. Some people had some doubts whether someone could stare him down. We needed to squelch those doubts. We needed to say it can be done.”
Sutton was the first to do it, and his one-shot victory at the Players Championship — he and Woods had to come back on a Monday morning to finish the remaining seven holes — was the victory heard round the world.
Today, that victory still serves as the reminder for PGA Tour players that Woods was beatable, even though time and injuries to the 14-time major champion have continued to conspire to chip away at his invincibility.
“I remember in the media center all week long, I led that tournament from start to finish, and I remember everybody gave me every reason why it couldn’t be done,” Sutton said. “I wondered whose side all the media was on? What do you want, for me to get up, walk out and forfeit right now — is that what you want me to do?
“Finally, I got so aggravated. When I prayed in the morning, I didn’t pray to Tiger. I knew he was a man just like me. So I [knew] I can beat him, even though y’all [were] saying I can’t.”
Overcoming odds is something on which Sutton, 56, has built a career.
In his first two years on the PGA Tour, he won three times, including the Players Championship and PGA Championship in 1983. He won four more times in the next three years, including the 1986 Memorial. Despite all his success, Sutton mysteriously fell into a prolonged slump in which he said he just lost his game.
He was so embarrassed by the way he was playing that he would go to the end of the practice range because “I didn’t really want anyone to see it.” It took Sutton nine years before he finally won again, but he then he posted seven more victories from 1995 to 2001, including the Tour Championship and the showdown with Woods at the Players Championship.
Now he is at Fox Chapel Golf Club for the Constellation Senior Players Championship, trying to bounce back from replacement surgery on each hip and a mild heart attack he suffered in the first round of the ACE Group Classic in February.
“This is not as bad,” Sutton said Tuesday before playing a practice round. “I know I’m fighting some different sort of odds. This is physical odds, not mental, so I’m more patient with myself now than I was then. Maybe I’m more forgiving with myself now. That was a much harder struggle to come back from then.”
Sutton has never won in six years on the Champions Tour and is trying to adjust to playing with two artificial hips. His best finish in eight starts this season is a tie for 26th at the Big Cedar Lodge Legends of Golf, though he was encouraged by his final-round 68 Sunday at the Encompass Championship in Chicago and a 66 in a pro-am Monday in Cleveland.
Because he has prosthesis in each hip, Sutton said his biggest problem is proprioception — the sense of orientation of his limbs in space.
“I have no connection to the ground with hard tissue to my upper body,” Sutton said. “When your golf swing is moving 100-some mph, you need to know where your hips are at. It wasn’t nearly as hard when I still had one of my hips. One of them told me where I was at. But when both are gone, you don’t have that connection like that.
“I’m just getting to where I’m hitting it halfway decent. I’d hit two or three shots good, then I’d hit two or three shots I don’t know where they came from. I never hit shots like that. It’s been an adjustment.”
NOTES — Steve Elkington, Craig Stadler and Don Pooley withdrew. They have been replaced in the field by Barry Lane, Peter Fowler and Gene Jones. … Two pro-ams are scheduled for today at 7 a.m. and 12:25 p.m.
Gerry Dulac: email@example.com and Twitter: @gerrydulac.