COLUMBUS, Texas — Hal Sutton drives an hour and a half each morning from his home in a Houston suburb to a place called the Big Easy Ranch, where a golf academy bearing his name once represented his purpose after a distinguished career on the PGA Tour. Sutton pictured a retirement from competition that involved teaching, not learning.
The road gave him time to think. He’d turned 60 on April 28. He’d had hip-replacement surgery, his second such procedure. He’d been exercising more than ever. Sutton also had been helping young players understand the mental side of tournament golf, which in a roundabout way made him miss tournament golf himself—the adrenaline, the camaraderie, the discipline, the distinct thrill of hitting that one shot that mattered.
When he watched Tiger Woods win the Tour Championship in September, Sutton says, he made up his mind.
He plans to return to the PGA Tour Champions in February at the Oasis Championship in Florida. He hopes to make as many as 20 starts in 2019, his most since 2014, when he suffered a mild heart attack early in the season and never felt the same. Sutton says he regrets the way his poor health forced his retreat from competition, as Woods’ had. (“I have felt that torment,” he says of Woods’ own struggle to return.) Sutton says he began to realize that regret in July, at the funeral for Bruce Lietzke, where other players of his generation told him how much they missed seeing him each week in Birmingham or Naples or Newport Beach.
By that time, Sutton already had committed to a new fitness routine, and he’s down about 40 pounds from where he was when he started his resurrection. He also had begun working closely with Chase Cooper, the director of instruction at the Hal Sutton Golf Academy at Big Easy, a remote 1,300-acre hunting ranch and executive retreat about 80 miles west of Houston. Sutton and Cooper had been teaching a handful of high school players in Houston. Sutton says part of his return to competition is a way to provide his pupils with an example. He wants them to see his commitment.
More than anything else, though, Sutton wants another chance at finishing his career on terms that are his.
“In my estimation, I quit the game as a failure,” he says. “It’s time to quit the game correctly.”
Sutton was the surest of things once. He won the 1980 U.S. Amateur the summer after his senior season at Centenary College in his home state of Louisiana. He was the PGA Tour rookie of the year in 1982. He won the 1983 PGA Championship at Riviera and 13 other tournaments through 2001. He endured a slump during which he went nine years without winning. He played on four Ryder Cup teams. No one played better golf on the 1999 squad that rallied to win on that stupendous Singles Sunday at Brookline.
He captained the U.S. in 2004 at Oakland Hills. He paired Woods and Phil Mickelson in four-ball play. They lost, the team trailed by six points after two days and the Americans lost the Cup by nine. Sutton was criticized roundly.
Then he all but vanished. Sutton made two cuts in 10 starts in 2005. He played just once in 2006. He joined the senior circuit in 2008 without much success, and then had that heart attack in 2014 during the first round of the Ace Group Classic. He withdrew and had a stent implanted. He’s made six starts in the last two seasons. But he lacked the conviction he feels now. He hasn’t won a tournament since the 2001 Shell Houston Open.
Sutton doesn’t know if he can win again. He doesn’t know if winning matters the way it used to. He does know that he feels as good now as he has in a decade. He also knows that success can take many forms. All he wants to do is give himself another chance. He wants to live that life again, see his friends, make a shot that matters. He says he’s returning for himself alone, which means the definition of success doesn’t have to make sense to anyone else.
“There’s always another hill to climb,” he says. “This last hill is a personal hill.”
Sutton was a finalist this year for the World Golf Hall of Fame. He has always been a feel player—all eyes and fingers and feet, a man who needs to see his shots before he can hit them. But he says he now understands his swing more than he ever has. Cooper brought a devotion to technology to the golf academy at Big Easy Ranch. Cooper has used TrackMan, force-plate analysis and three-dimensional motion capture to help Sutton in his preparation for 2019. Sutton was doubtful at first. No more. Cooper recently clocked Sutton’s clubhead speed at 108 miles an hour, with ball speeds approaching 158. And that’s in the cool temperatures of a Texas winter.
“Our goal is to find the best version of Hal at this point,” says Cooper, a former collegiate golfer at the University of Nevada. “He’s getting back into doing what he knows.”
Sutton thinks about that a lot on those three hours a day on the road in his Audi SUV. He says he truly enjoys his new career at Big Easy, owned by his friend and fellow Louisianan Billy Brown. Hunters book trips to shoot whitetail deer, exotic game, pheasant and waterfowl. Thirty-five bird dogs live on the property. There are fishing ponds, some of them stocked with trophy Florida largemouth bass, some with stripers, one filled with saltwater and redfish. Chet Williams, whose portfolio includes Whispering Pines in Trinity, Texas, routed the nine-hole short course. Sutton designed the range.
His work with elite juniors at the academy reminds him of how he loved the game when he was a rising star in Shreveport. His office, filled with trophies and pictures and mementos and relics from his career, reminds him of the player he used to be. He’s not trying to be that player again. He can’t. He’s trying to, in many ways, to be a better one.
“It wasn’t the successes that brought me back,” he says. “It was the failures.”
Quit the game correctly.
What does that mean? Sutton says he’ll know when he knows. The road is a long one, its end not always in sight.
(Video produced by Luke M. Hendry)
Kevin Robbins teaches journalism at the University of Texas at Austin. His second book, The Last Stand of Payne Stewart, will be published in October by Hachette.