Want a candid opinion? Brace yourself for straight talk from Mark Calcavecchia
It stands as golf's most vivid nightmare: Mark Calcavecchia, in the midst of losing a 4-up lead with four to play against Colin Montgomerie at the ultra-tense 1991 Ryder Cup, hitting a surreally awful 2-iron on the par-3 17th hole at Kiawah Island, an aerial camera tracing its sickeningly crooked and shockingly brief line before it splashed and sank in the lake a full 100 yards short of the green.
The shot and its aftermath devastated Calcavecchia and seemed sure to cripple a successful career. But as he has ever since his earliest days in Laurel, Neb. (pop. 986), Calcavecchia rebounded. Now 42, he is one of the PGA Tour's stalwarts. In 22 seasons, he has compiled 10 victories on tour, won the 1989 British Open, made four U.S. Ryder Cup teams, set the PGA Tour's 72-hole scoring record, and earned more than $14 million to rank eighth on the career money list.
But Calcavecchia's most enduring identity is as an unpretentious straight shooter. In interviews at his home outside Phoenix, where an American flag is draped on the garage and portraits of his two children reign as the main decorations, Calcavecchia discussed a variety of subjects: his experience at Kiawah, his friendship with Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, playing high school golf in front of Jack Nicklaus, blasting Arnold Palmer at the Masters, getting a divorce, winning a tournament on the day his dad died, and the pluses of growing up in a small town.
Throughout he was inimitably Calc — loose, self-effacing, funny, irreverent, sensitive and deceptively insightful. Like an old shoe — the meaning of his name in Italian — Calcavecchia wears well.
Golf Digest: Nicklaus watched you play a few times when you were a kid. How did you deal with that?
Mark Calcavecchia: I met Jack when I was 14, and it was like meeting God. Jackie and I played against each other in junior tournaments and high school, and Jack would show up. He was so nice to me, always saying, "Great shot, Mark," or "You're a heck of a player," or something encouraging. He made me a little nervous, but for some reason, I was the only guy in those tournaments Jack Nicklaus couldn't freak out. I almost always played better when he watched me. I liked that the best golfer of all time was watching me. And it still happens today: I get more excited playing with Tiger Woods or Davis Love; I always played great with Greg Norman or Nick Faldo.
The one day I played tennis with Monica Seles, one year during Bay Hill, it was the best tennis I ever played. I was on fire. Granted, it helps when somebody is grooving it right to you, but I was ripping it right back.
After winning a high school state golf championship, you went on to the University of Florida. What was that like?
I loved the whole college experience, but never did it cross my mind that I would ever graduate. I was there to play golf and have fun, and I did both. I stayed eligible for 2½ years. When I got a 68 on a sociology test instead of the 70 I needed to keep a 2.0 GPA, and the professor wouldn't give, I turned pro at the beginning of 1981 and hit the J.C. Goosie Tour.
I remember keeping track of every cent I spent, from gas to food to everything, and then if I made a $400 check, I would minus the expenses and go, "Hey, I made $213. All right!"
After about two months, the [PGA] tour school came up. I somehow qualified, which surprised me as much as anybody. I had zero pressure. I was 21. I read that before Ty Tryon, I was the youngest guy ever to make it all the way through qualifying school.
When you got out there, did you feel out of place?
I was in awe. The biggest moment of the entire week was, if I did make the cut, finding out who I was going to play with on Saturday and Sunday. I remember the Canadian Open my third season, Saturday I got paired with Tom Weiskopf and Sunday I got paired with Jack. I didn't care what I shot, I really didn't. I just wanted to see how good they were. I realized I had to get over the hurdle of standing around and watching, that I had to get out there and do it.
How did you feel as a youngster struggling on tour in the early '80s?
I was a little uncomfortable, yeah. I knew I wasn't as rich as almost all the guys out there, that I was staying in crummier hotels and eating worse food and had wrinkled clothes. Especially if someone like Lanny Wadkins — you know, he'd always have the tight pants on with no back pocket — would smirk at me. I'd look back like, Hey, this is it for me.
I wasn't brought up in a ritzy, well-dressed-type environment. And I think guys see that in me. I span the average, blue-collar-guy spectrum.
I do feel out of place when I've got to put on a coat and tie and hobnob with politicians or people who are far mentally superior to me. I'm not the sharpest tool in the shed. I mean, I'm kind of shrewd and I know how to survive and I've got a lot of common sense, but I can't remember the last time I read the front page of a newspaper. I go straight to the sports page and the weather page and the movie page.
But I can relate to the average guy, and he can probably relate to me.
Once you started making money, you didn't have any trouble spending it.
My philosophy was, if I wanted it, buy it, and worry about paying for it later. Once I did start making some money, it was an unreal amount to me. When I won my first tour event, in '86, I got 72,000 bucks. I was like, I'm completely loaded! Now I can buy whatever I want. Same thing in 1989, when I won at Phoenix and L.A. and bought a BMW and a Porsche two days apart. The Porsche was 108 grand; the Beamer was 81 grand.