2005: Riding the wave

Win a U.S. Open out of nowhere and all of a sudden you feel like Mick Jagger. The champagne flows, gifts and letters arrive nonstop and your hometown throws you a ticker-tape parade. People offer rides

in corporate airplanes and luxury cars, fans scream your name and the New Zealand prime minister wants to shake your hand.

This is Michael Campbell’s life, post-Pinehurst. Only the band and entourage are missing.

“I’ve been like a rock star,” said Campbell, smiling bigger than Carly Simon. “I’ve been in all these private jets and all these fancy cars and people are giving me stuff.”

Campbell happened to mention that he drank Dom Perignon champagne out of the trophy at his celebration bash the week after the Open victory, and soon after, two cases of Dom arrived on his doorstep. Not that he and his friends needed to drink any more of it. Some 80 guests had 200 bottles of the bubbly available at the 12-hour party at his London home.

He was sent high-end watches, too. And other presents. He is living proof that people like to shower the rich and famous with more fortune and fame.

Love poured in, too, in the form of letters from around the world. Campbell says his cambogolf.com Web site received 7,500 congratulatory e-mails in the two days after the Open, all of which he answered with a generic e-mail. He got letters that were addressed simply, “Michael Campbell, U.S. Open champion, England.” He received letters, too, from golf royalty, including Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus

and Gary Player. And the likes of Greg Norman, Darren Clarke, Padraig Harrington and Thomas Bjorn called in “well dones.”

Campbell returned home to New Zealand right after the British Open in July, and received star treatment reserved for a national hero. Some 120,000 people packed both sides of a 1-mile stretch of Lampton Quay, a main street in Wellington. People hung out of office buildings and doused him with confetti and cheers as he and his wife, their two boys and other relatives rode by on a float.

“It was wonderful,” Campbell said. “I felt the electricity.”

Things are going so well that he was paid a promised $10,000 bonus by AMP Insurance of New Zealand even though their contract expired nine years ago. The company’s slogan boasts about keeping promises. Campbell, in turn, turned the money over to New Zealand junior golf.

He spent 10 days at home in July and was photographed more than Heidi Klum. Finally, the youngest of his two boys, 5-year-old Jordan, piped up and said he had had his fill of paparazzi. “No more photos, Daddy.”

One upside to Open glory is that Campbell, at 36, has a bit more hop in his step. He says he feels different. His peers seek his advice now, instead of the other way around. He is nothing if not confident. Other major champions have boosted him by saying, “Welcome to the club.”

He followed his Pinehurst victory with ties for fifth at the British Open and sixth at the PGA Championship. In 28 previous majors he had only one top 10 – a tie for third, one stroke out of the playoff won by John Daly at the 1995 British Open. He especially had struggled in U.S. Opens, missing the cut from 2001 to ’04 because of five scores of 77 or higher.

“(Winning the Open) has made me realize to never give up, to never doubt yourself,” said the spiritual Campbell, whose mango pore (or hammerhead shark) symbol on the back of his signature shirts fittingly means never give up. “It’s fulfilled one of my childhood dreams, but I want more now.”

Next he gets the Sept. 22-25 Presidents Cup at the Robert Trent Jones Golf Club in Gainesville, Va. And this time Campbell figures to be one of captain Gary Player’s top guns, as opposed to his only previous appearance, in 2000, when he won only one of his three matches.

Five years ago, Campbell was best known as someone who before the matches did a haka, a traditional warrior dance of New Zealand Maoris. Ernie Els had asked him to do it for good luck. Campbell tried to teach his teammates the dance. “No chance,” he said. And all that shaking and chanting didn’t help, for the Internationals lost 211⁄2-101⁄2.

That year marked one of Campbell’s comebacks. He won three of his six career titles on the PGA European Tour in 2000 and finished fourth in the Order of Merit. Only three years earlier he had lost his card on the European and Australasian tours and thought about quitting. He said he actually considered becoming a telephone line repairman, a job he held full time from age 16 to 21. He said he would miss putts on purpose to miss the cut so he wouldn’t further embarrass himself on weekends.

“I was shooting in the 80s,” he said. “I couldn’t break an egg.”

The bottom came at the 1997 French Open in Paris. After two rounds in the 80s, he returned to his hotel room and ruminated. The incessant internal dialogue ate him up for about three hours.

“When there’s silence in the room, your mind goes a thousand miles an hour,” he said. “I couldn’t think of solutions to my problems. I thought about changing coaches or jobs. Mentally, the game got too big for me. There was a lot of chit-chat in my head. On the course I couldn’t see the fairway. It looked so narrow. And the hole looked like I was putting a round ball into a square hole.”

So Campbell broke down and cried for about 30 minutes. Then came the anger. He picked up his golf bag with one hand and threw it across the room. It crashed against a wall, and clubs, balls and tees scattered.

“If I had some sort of sharp instrument, an ax or something, I would have broken the clubs,” he said. “I remember putting my hands on my face and saying, ‘I can’t do this anymore.’ I was telling myself, ‘Never again.’ ”

But his wife, Julie, would calm him down when he returned to England, and he changed coaches, to Jonathan Yarwood. He parlayed sponsor exemptions into a resurrected career. The birth of his first son in 1998 put golf in perspective and made him realize it’s “only a game.”

And this time he got used to the public attention, unlike when he burst onto the world scene at St. Andrews in 1995. That was a year before he hurt his left wrist while playing seven consecutive weeks in six different countries.

“I believe you get illnesses through mental, not physical, things,” he said. “I believe I got my wrist injury because I didn’t want to be in the limelight. I come from a very humble and shy background. All of a sudden I was shoved into the limelight as this golden boy of world golf. I didn’t like that. I just wanted to play golf. I didn’t like TV cameras.”

This time he’s more mature, and determined. He takes seriously the fact that his grandmother, Tit Cunningham, told him he would better society.

“I decided I was born into this world to better it,” Campbell said of his resurgence. “It’s about not wasting talent. I just had enough of being a golfer who makes up the field instead of one who contends.”

He hasn’t wasted it this year for several reasons. He hired Yarwood full time and they’ve rebuilt his swing, making it more compact. Therapists fixed his right shoulder and eye balance in April. But his putting was such a mess when he arrived at Pinehurst that he used a belly putter in a Monday practice round. Yarwood saw that and said in exasperation, “What are you doing?”

“I was so desperate,” Campbell said. “My putting was terrible. I tried cross-handed the week before in Wales. I also tried the chin-jobbie (long putter). Then I had a belly putter made up and used it all day Monday.”

That is, until Yarwood took him to nearby Pine Needles to work on the greens for about three hours. A complete rebuilding of a conventional stroke, Yarwood called it. Ball and eye positions, shaft and wrist angles, and posture were altered. The changes helped Campbell open and close the toe better.

“He was locked in after a half-hour,” Yarwood said.

Come Sunday, Campbell made several long putts in winning the Open. He would overtake one multiple U.S. Open champion (Retief Goosen) and hold off another (Tiger Woods). But he says his biggest accomplishment was handling his own mental demons.

“The biggest thing I stared down was myself,” Campbell said. “Obviously I knew Tiger was around there, but the biggest enemy was myself. If I conquered myself, I knew I could win this.”

His peers knew as much, too. The consensus on Campbell has been that when he’s hot, he’s white hot. And when he’s not, he’s bad. There hasn’t been much of a middle. That’s why Australian Peter Lonard told a reporter that Campbell could win the Open just as the New Zealander teed off that Sunday four strokes behind Goosen.

“His focus is unbelievable when he’s confident,” said European star Padraig Harrington. “And his focus is terrible when he’s not confident. You’re looking at two extremes. It was no surprise to me he won the U.S. Open. He stays that way a long period of time. He gets right in there in that zone.”

Nick O’Hern, who lives near Campbell in England, concurred that putting and confidence dictate Campbell’s play.

“When he gets on a roll, he’s pretty much unbeatable,” O’Hern said. “Then it can go the other way. I’ve played with him when he feels he can’t hit the planet.”

The question now is how long Campbell can sustain his good play. Harrington, for one, expects a longer than usual run. “You get a more sustained confidence by winning a major, so this time it definitely will be more prolonged,” the Irishman said.

Campbell said he plans to play the PGA European Tour the next three years, then join the U.S. tour full time while based in Australia. And Yarwood wouldn’t be surprised if Campbell is still riding high once he gets here.

“He’s found a wave of confidence,” Yarwood said. “He’s broken through such a mental barrier. So many monkeys came off his back by his winning the Open. He believes he’s a world-class player now. He feels he belongs. I don’t think he’ll crash and burn like he did in the past.”

Welcome to Golfweek.com's comments section.
Please review the posting guidlines here: Golfweek.com Community Guidelines.
All accounts must be verified using Disqus email verification