LUSS, Scotland – The lone figure pitching balls to Loch Lomond Golf Club’s practice chipping green at 6 p.m. the night before the Scottish Open served as a stark reminder that there is only ever one winner in the royal and ancient game.
Michael Campbell stood hitting 40-yard pitch shots long after nearly everyone else had left for the evening. On the nearby putting green, 20-year-old British Amateur champion Jin Jeong practiced his stroke. A young man trying to find his way in the game, and an older man trying to find a route back – any route.
“Isn’t it fantastic to see him still out here grinding away,” said Pat Janssen, a former European Tour caddie who now runs the UK division of golf management company Global Premier Sports. “After all he’s been through the last few years, it’s great to see he still has the desire.”
Campbell’s story is a salutary reminder that the game can never be mastered. Everyone who has ever played the game, no matter how talented, eventually comes to that same conclusion: the game may be controlled for a while, but in the end it will always beat you.
No wonder 1992 U.S. Open champion Tom Kite once said, “At some time or another this game has made cry babies out of all of us.”
Campbell knows what Kite means. No doubt the 41-year-old has shed a few tears behind closed doors over the last few years while trying to fathom how he fell from the pinnacle of the game into a deep crevasse from which there seems no escape.
Campbell’s story is one of the saddest in the game. The wider world of golf first heard of the proud Maori from Hawera, New Zealand, 15 years ago next week. After three rounds of the 1995 British Open at St. Andrews, the then 26-year-old held a two-shot lead over Costantino Rocca. A nervy 76 in the final round saw him finish joint third, one stroke out of the Rocca-John Daly playoff that Daly won.
It took Campbell 10 years to finally taste major championship success. Five years ago the New Zealander stared down Tiger Woods to win the 2005 U.S. Open at Pinehurst, becoming only the second Kiwi to win a major after left-hander Bob Charles won the 1963 British Open.
Campbell contended at St. Andrews five years ago, too, finishing fifth behind Woods. He also placed sixth in the PGA Championship.
He closed out the 2005 season with victory in the World Match Play Championship. That win took him to 15th in the official world golf ranking.
Heady days for the man known as “Cambo.” Since then he has fallen down the world rankings like a climber swept off a mountain by an avalanche.
He finished 31st, 55th and 69th on the European money list in the three years after his U.S. Open win. Then he entered that bottomless crevasse.
Campbell was 249th, ahem, best player on the European Tour last year, when he made just six cuts in 22 starts. He earned just €19,655 compared to the €2,496,269 he made in ’05.
He hasn’t made any progress this year. Campbell missed the first nine cuts of the season before making the cut in last week’s French Open, the first cut he’s made since October last year.
Cambo now is ranked 795th in the world, and 244th on the European Tour. If he thought playing four rounds in the French Open signaled the start of a turnaround, he got a shock in the first round of the Scottish Open when he limped in with an 80, his seventh round out of 22 this season in which he’s failed to break 80.
If that’s not a sign of how bad things have become, then consider this: His second-round 68 in France last week was the first time he’d broken par since last year’s Castello Masters!
Reigning U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell referenced Campbell when he talked about the pitfalls that come with winning a major.
“I read a great quote from Michael Campbell: ‘They teach you how to get to the summit of Everest, but no one tells you how to get back down again,’ ” McDowell said.
Actually, Campbell has found a way down. Seemingly, he went partway down the Hillary Step and then threw himself off the mountain!
Now he’s simply trying to climb back up to base camp.