The U.S. Open is golf’s ultimate exam in perseverance and patience. Not surprisingly, in the past decade, several players who embody those attributes, who have persevered despite having stared into the game’s abyss, have made themselves U.S. Open champions.
Qualifier Steve Jones came back from career-threatening injuries to win in 1996. The late Payne Stewart rediscovered his silky swing to garner his second Open title in ’99. And Retief Goosen overcame a life-threatening lightning strike to capture a pair of Opens (2001 and ’04). He seemed poised to capture his third in five years at Pinehurst No. 2.
Michael Campbell fits the gritty, never-give-up fighting mode of a U.S. Open champion. He climbed near the top of the world (as high as No. 18 a few years ago) only to tumble rapidly. He has been on the outside looking in at the World Golf Championship events, pining to climb back into the top 50 in the world. He nearly left the game altogether in 1998 to “sell golf balls” and credits his return to prominence to family support and the fact he and longtime instructor Jonathan Yarwood – whom he hired full-time six months ago after years of seeing him infrequently – completely overhauled his golf swing.
What did they do? Campbell laughed. “Where do I start?” he asked. “Everything. We’ve redone everything.”
His ballstriking numbers (eighth in fairways hit, 16th in greens in regulation) were sound if not spectacular. In the end, much like the case a year ago at Shinnecock Hills, it was great putting on Sunday that paved the way to a championship. A year ago, Goosen had 24 putts in the final round (compared to a pedestrian 36 on Sunday this time around). As those around him dropped with bogeys, Campbell held steady by making putts. That he missed a 5-foot tiddler for par at 18 was irrelevant. By then, on the heels of a 20-foot birdie putt at the 17th – one of four putts he made Sunday longer than 15 feet – his hard work was done.
When asked the best part of his game at Pinehurst, he answered, “Putting.” He paused. “No, short game. My entire short game.”
Though narrower fairways were harder to find than six years ago at Pinehurst, greens were a little easier to hit. At times, they were downright receptive. On Friday, when the greens were as soft as they’d been all week, Campbell took advantage by making six of his tournament-leading 16 birdies. The dense rough was challenging, but as it dried it proved playable (consider Mark Hensby, who battled and stayed in contention despite hitting a total of 11 fairways his first three rounds).
As other players became the marquee stories of the Open, Campbell quietly plodded along. His week mirrored the 180-degree turn his game has taken, fueled by patience, patience and more patience. Sunday, when he saw his opening, he pounced.
In years past, Campbell would write down his goals for the season ahead. When he looked at his log this year, he noticed a blank entry for 2004. “It’s time to write something down,” he told himself. He decided to aim high. He wants to make the Presidents Cup in 2005, and to make the World Match Play at Wentworth. And after not winning in 2004, he yearned to win again.
“There’s nothing wrong with baby steps,” he said in the quiet of the locker room after his second round.
Two days later, he was U.S. Open champion.
Some baby step.