Michael Campbell made up four strokes and more on expressionless leader Retief Goosen in the final round and held off emotional charger Tiger Woods. That was the short road to U.S. Open glory. As difficult as handling a pair of celebrated two-time Open champions was, the long journey of the last decade has been filled with far more obstacles. When you ponder quitting and chopping your clubs into pieces, you don’t envision becoming the latest commemorative statue material at the famous Pinehurst Resort.
Campbell circa 1997 was a mental and physical wreck, a card-losing mess on both the European and Australasian tours. The New Zealand Maori was ready to take two weeks off, then quit. Visions of pro shop cash registers emerged. “I was going to throw the game away and sell golf balls,” he said.
A professional golfer considers a career shift when 18-hole scores creep higher than hot temperatures.
“I was shooting 80s all the time, close to 90s,” Campbell said. “I just could not play the game. I could not focus on what I was doing. I could not swing the golf club. I remember throwing my clubs across the hotel room one time. I thought, ‘This is it, it’s all over.’ ”
All over but the Paul Bunyanesque hacking.
“I was about to get an ax and chop them up in two pieces and throw them away,” Campbell said.
But before Stephen King could make a movie out of all that, Campbell’s wife, Julie, talked some sense into him and he parlayed sponsor invitations into a 1998 resurgence.
Still, he didn’t quite resemble an Open giant slayer as 2005 commenced. He missed the cut in his first five starts. He shot a pair of 76s in Malaysia. He went for 78 in Dubai. Asked if he then foresaw anything resembling an Open contender, Campbell’s caddie of seven years, Michael Waite, didn’t hestitate. “No chance,” he said. “He was struggling and had no confidence.”
But Campbell felt he was close and was working on the right stuff. He hired longtime coach Jonathan Yarwood full time and rebuilt his swing. “Everything,” Campbell said. Favorable results came quickly, namely five top-15 finishes in Europe since late March.
So he was in form. But a simple rule says that if you don’t enter the Open, you can’t win the Open. And Campbell didn’t plan to enter until his management firm and caddie talked him into it. What’s more, if the 333 CAMPBELL U.S. Golf Association hadn’t instituted a qualifier in England this year, the London-based Campbell wouldn’t have been in the field. As it was, Campbell qualified on the number. One stroke higher at Walton Heath in Surrey and he never lays eyes on Pinehurst’s Little Putter Boy.
Campbell splashed onto the international golf scene in 1995 when he led the British Open at St. Andrews after 54 holes en route to tying for third, one stroke out of the playoff won by John Daly. But that would be his lone top 10 in his first 28 major championships. He especially had struggled in recent U.S. Opens, missing the cut in 2001-04 thanks to five scores of 77 or higher.
The 36-year-old flew into North Carolina so far under the radar – and stayed there most of the week – that fellow New Zealander Steve Williams did a double take. “When I saw his caddie (Waite), I wondered what he was doing here,” said Williams, who loops for Woods. “I didn’t realize (Campbell) qualified.”
Campbell was an afterthought all week until Sunday, when he became the first come-from-behind Open winner in seven years.
Defending champion Goosen entered the final round alone under par, at minus 3. The South African began the day three strokes ahead of articulate 46-year-old Olin Browne and refreshing Nationwide Tour player Jason Gore. Campbell started four back, Woods six.
Campbell, like Woods, would be among the four players who shot a Sunday-best 69 at Pinehurst No. 2, whose hump-backed greens became progressively firmer and faster. Goosen equated the 1-under score to “7 under on another course.”
The Kiwi’s par 71-69-71-69–280 was the highest winning total since Lee Janzen shot the same in coming from five behind Payne Stewart the final day in 1998 at The Olympic Club. Forty-two years after Bob Charles captured the British Open, Campbell would become only the second New Zealander to win a major.
He had gone to the 18th tee with a three-shot lead. Interestingly, he thought of the man who surrendered such a lead on the last hole of the 1999 British Open. “I said, ‘Just keep your focus,’ because look what happened to Jean Van de Velde,” Campbell said. “Sorry, Jean, I shouldn’t mention your name here. But I said, ‘Keep your focus’ probably 30 times before I got to the tee.”
Before and after making a closing bogey to beat Woods by two, Campbell looked to the sky and thought of his late grandmother, a woman who instilled confidence in him and once told him he would change people’s lives. “I just thought to myself that she’s there, smiling down on me.”
Right after tapping in he walked across the green by himself and covered his face with his hands, crying tears of joy. For several seconds he buried his sobbing head into the chest of his caddie. And as he walked off the green, Steve Williams was waiting for him with a hug.
“I told him that was the single greatest moment in New Zealand sport,” Williams said.
Campbell achieved it because of hot putting and a well-balanced game. On Sunday he one-putted 10 times and had 27 putts. For the week he ranked eighth in driving accuracy, fourth in total putts and first in birdies with 16. All that would add up to a golf highlight at the same hallowed venue where his idol, Ben Hogan, won his first Tour title – the 1940 North and South Open.
The seven other players in the last four twosomes Sunday combined to go 13 over par on the first two holes Sunday, whereas Campbell went one under. He opened Sunday with a 15-footer for birdie, then made birdie putts of 25 and 30 feet on Nos. 10 and 12, respectively. He made a key 6-footer for a sand save at 15 to stay three up on Woods. And soon after Woods bogeyed Nos. 16 and 17 (the latter on three putts from 25 feet) and birdied 18, Campbell holed a 20-foot birdie putt at 17 for a three-shot cushion. Campbell would play the 190-yard penultimate hole in nine strokes over four days. That included a bunker holeout for a deuce on Saturday.
“All media hype was on Goosey,” Campbell said. “I snuck in there without anybody noticing, really, and I won.”
Perhaps his wife gets an assist. She called him Sunday morning from England and asked if he was ready. He said yes. But apparently she wanted more enthusiasm. “No, Michael,” she said, “are you really ready for this one?” He confirmed he was really ready.
About the only problem he had Sunday was an overactive bladder. He visited the toilet five times, including twice on the back nine. “I drank a lot of water out there,” he said, “but it was definitely nerves. . . . I was very nervous.”
Fittingly, the back of Campbell’s featured an insignia symbolizing the Maorian expression “Kia Kaha,” which means “inner strength, be strong.” Now he says his game is strong enough to play in the United States. He tried that in 2003 without much success. He missed nine cuts in 14 starts and felt displaced after “uprooting my family from our house in England. Over here we had no house and were on the road 12 straight weeks. It was just complete chaos. We were very unsettled.”
So they packed up and moved back to the United Kingdom, where he has a historical link. In 1845 his great-great-great-grandfather Sir Logan Campbell emigrated from Edinburgh to New Zealand – a country he says has more sheep than people. Sir Campbell had many wives. “Lucky man,” the Open champion cracked. One bride was from the Maori warrior tribe.
Campbell won on a day when expectation and development didn’t match. Everyone seemed to take for granted the unflappable Goosen would win his third Open in five years. To hear people talk, there wasn’t going to be much of a Goose chase. Not only was he ahead, he seemed highly motivated because of a perceived lack of respect. Before the Open began, he said, “I’ve won a couple of U.S. Opens and there’s not a picture of you anywhere or nothing has been mentioned. In a way, it makes you more determined.”
The Golf Channel asked several players before Round 4 to size up Goosen’s place in world golf, assuming he would win. Longtime buddy Ernie Els called him the “best-equipped player for a U.S. Open.” Arron Oberholser lauded Goosen for having two Open essentials – “no heartbeat and a great short game.” And Tommy Bolt, the 1958 Open winner, marveled on site, “That guy’s as cool as ice cream.”
Melted ice cream, as it happened.
Goosen shot 41-40–81 – the highest final round by a 54-hole leader since Gil Morgan’s 81 at Pebble Beach in 1992 – and lost by eight, mainly because of a lost putting touch. The man who took only 24 putts the final day at Shinnecock Hills last year had 36 putts here. Remarkably, Goosen missed five putts from 5 to 7 feet on the first six holes. It took him only five holes to lose his lead and fall one stroke behind Campbell. On the back nine, Goosen resorted to joking about cricket with Gore and just trying to “finish up and go home.”
Oddly, Goosen, who was struck by lightning as a teen, fell behind right about the time a lightning warning was posted. The sign showed a yellow bolt.
“I played like rubbish,” Goosen said. “I couldn’t find the hole on the green. I haven’t putted this bad in a long time. . . . I messed up badly. Obviously I threw this away.” He would add, “This is nothing serious. Nobody’s died.”
No, but the final twosome wilted like a flower in 110-degree heat. On a Sunday when the best score was 1-under 69 and the average 74.46, Goosen and Gore (84) combined to shoot 25 over. The fun-loving Gore, No. 818 in the Official World Golf Ranking, said he hadn’t seen such a high two-man total “since the Sunday scramble at the club.”
Meanwhile, runner-up Woods and Vijay Singh, who tied for sixth, were wondering when they might make some putts. They finished 1-2 in greens in regulation but at the bottom in total putts. Woods led the way with 54 greens hit but had trouble on the sloped surfaces.
“I didn’t feel comfortable with my putter all week,” said Woods, who got within one shot of the lead early on the last nine while bidding to win the first two legs of the Grand Slam. “It was frustrating because I could never get the speed right.”
Campbell certainly brought his blade. With it and self-belief he cut a new, unlikely path. He has walked no better one.
“I stayed patient for 10 years and went through ups and downs and injuries,” Campbell said. “But deep down inside I knew that I had something in me to do something special. And today I did.”