Furyk at 50

How Jim Furyk carved his unique path to a Hall of Fame career

January 29, 2020
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Eric Larson

There really isn’t anyone who doesn’t have some kind of story about playing golf for the first time with Jim Furyk. After all, how could you not remember that swing, the one David Feherty once described as looking like “an octopus falling out of a tree.”

“I remember thinking, Boy, they teach the golf swing a lot differently in Pennsylvania than they do down here,” says Justin Leonard, who was 15 the first time he played with Furyk—a few days before an American Junior Golf Association event in Texas in 1988. Leonard laughs. “Then I noticed something else: He got everything up and down and made it look pretty easy.”

Bill Calfee had played on the tour for 10 years in the ’70s and ’80s and had gone to work for the tour in the early ’90s. During the 1993 mandatory orientation session for rookies who had survived PGA Tour Qualifying School, he took two young players—Furyk and Pete Jordan—out to play nine holes at TPC Sawgrass after the day’s seminars were over.

“I’d never met Jim before,” Calfee says. “Very nice guy. Very quiet. But when I watched him swing the golf club, I thought, Poor guy’s got no chance. I said that to Pete when we finished. He agreed. I laugh now when I think about it, because look how it turned out.”

The way it has turned out is this: The guy with no chance, with the swing people didn’t know whether to laugh or cry about, will turn 50 in May and has done the following since making it to the tour at the start of 1994:

• Won a U.S. Open.

• Won 17 times on the PGA Tour.

• Played on nine Ryder Cup teams.

• Captained a Ryder Cup team.

• Earned more than $71 million, ranking third on golf’s all-time money list.

• Broken 60 on tour twice (shooting 59 at the BMW Championship in 2013 and then becoming the first player to shoot 58 in a tournament, at the Travelers Championship in 2016).

The money-list stat is deceiving because it doesn’t take into account the remarkable spike in prize money since Sam Snead won 82 times and earned a total of $712,972. Still, when the only two people ahead of you on any list are Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, that’s pretty impressive.

“I think I’ve had a good career,” Furyk says, relaxing in the locker room after a pro-am last November. “I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished.” He pauses and smiles. “But I tend to think more about the ones that got away than the ones I won. I’m thrilled that I won at Olympia Fields [2003 U.S. Open], of course. But I could have won the [U.S.] Open a couple other times, too. I could have won the Masters in ’98, the Open [Championship at Royal Birkdale] that same year.”

Almost as if he’s picturing it in his mind again, Furyk adds, “Never hit the ball better in my life than that last day at Birkdale. I just couldn’t make anything.”

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Eric Larson

AN INDIVIDUAL SWING, BUT A TEAM PLAYER

Furyk has heard all the jokes about his swing but has never been bothered by them. He heard them growing up, he heard them as a young pro, and he hears them now. He has had one swing coach his entire life—his dad. Mike Furyk, who was once a teaching pro, realized the swing came naturally to his son and was getting the job done. The same is true of Furyk’s cross-handed putting grip.

“I never thought about trying to change his swing,” Mike says. “I’m from Western Pennsylvania. Arnold Palmer was my hero growing up, and he had that whirlybird finish to his swing. Jack Nicklaus had a flying right elbow. Lee Trevino’s swing was unorthodox. I could go down the list forever. I always looked at results. He always got results.”

When Jim was being recruited as a high school senior, Mike and his wife, Linda, went to dinner with one college coach who said, “I can’t wait to get Jim to school and start remaking that swing.”

Mike laughed at the comment and said, “Coach, thanks. Now you’ve made it easy for me to take you off our list.”

It was Arizona coach Rick LaRose who said to the father about the son: “I don’t recruit swings, I recruit athletes.” After that, even though Jim visited Stanford and Northwestern, among others, he was pretty much destined to play for LaRose.

Even now, unlike most pros, Furyk has never been tempted to change or even tweak the swing.

“You walk up and down ranges for as many years as I have and, inevitably, you see guys fiddling with their swing,” Jay Haas says. “They’ll ask someone to take a look at them—another player, a teacher who is on the range—someone, anyone. If there’s one guy I know has never done that, it’s Jim. He’s completely comfortable with his swing. I think that’s one of the reasons he’s been so consistent. He may have ups and downs like we all do, but he never loses confidence in what he’s doing.”

Mike Furyk says that sort of self-confidence goes way back to when Jim was the starting point guard at Manheim Township High School.

“They were playing a state playoff game against Lebanon Catholic. Kerry Collins [the former Tennessee Titans and New York Giants quarterback] was their point guard. With 12 seconds left, Manheim was down one and [coach] Pat Mowrey called time. He told Jim to get into the lane and find someone open. As they left the huddle, Jim said, ‘Coach, what if I’m open—should I shoot?’ At first, Pat said no but then said, ‘OK, but only if you’re open.’

“Jim took the ball, got triple-teamed and shot anyway. It went in, and they won. Later, after Pat told me what happened, I said to Jim, ‘Why’d you shoot when you weren’t open?’ And he said, ‘Because I knew I was the only guy on the team who could deal with missing it.’ He was a high school junior. I remember thinking, I’ve got something pretty special here.”

That willingness to take responsibility for a loss doesn’t mean Furyk never questions himself. In fact, he’s about as introspective as anyone on tour, constantly figuring out ways to play better, always questioning himself first when something goes wrong. He rarely answers a question quickly. He will sit for long stretches and think about what he wants to say.

When the subject of his 2018 Ryder Cup captaincy comes up, he sits and thinks for a couple of minutes before answering any question. He talks about the honor of being the captain; the enjoyment he and his wife, Tabitha, got from preparing for the event; the pride he takes in all the work he put into it.

When he’s asked how he feels about the outcome—a 17½-10½ European rout—the pre-answer pause is even longer than usual.

“I’ll never say that being captain was a bad experience,” he finally says.

“It wasn’t. But it’s been over for a year now, well over a year and it’s still … ”

A long silence …

“Painful. No, I don’t want to say that. It hurts. Stings. It still stings, and it will for a long, long time.”

He’s on a roll now, because—as usual—he’s thought about this failure a lot. “It kind of amazes me the number of people, some of them really close friends, who have said to me, ‘Would you do anything different if you had it to do over again?’ I don’t want to say that’s a stupid question, but of course I would do things differently. If I did everything the same, the result would be the same. You have to be an arrogant ass to work that hard to make something work, have it not work and say, ‘I wouldn’t change a thing.’ ”

He won’t criticize anyone—not Patrick Reed, who complained about not being paired with Jordan Spieth; not Tiger Woods, who went 0-4; and not Phil Mickelson, who went 0-2. Furyk will only question himself: “I should have played Webb Simpson [2-1] more. He was playing great, and the golf course fit him better than some of our other guys. It pisses me off that I didn’t recognize that.”

Mike Furyk probably understands better than anyone how much the loss hurt his son. “I could see the pain in his face when it was over,” he says. “But I think he’s at peace with it now because he knows he did everything possible to try to win. Sometimes, the other guy is just better.”

Furyk will be one of Steve Stricker’s Ryder Cup vice captains this year and will almost certainly be asked to play that role again. “If I’m ever named captain, Jim would be my first phone call,” Leonard says. “I’d lean on him from Day 1.”

A SURPRISING RESURGENCE

Now, after dealing with injuries for most of three years, Furyk is just happy to be healthy as he closes in on 50. “I went into last year thinking, Let’s see what I can do healthy, because it had been awhile,” he says. “I was surprised that I played as well as I did as soon as I did. I finished ninth at Honda in my third tournament and got into the Players. Then I finished second at the Players [shooting 67 on the last day to finish one shot behind Rory McIlroy], and all of a sudden, I was in the majors, which I hadn’t expected, and the World Golf Championship events. That was a nice bonus, but the best thing was finding out I could still play out here.”

Furyk intends to stick to the PGA Tour even after he turns 50 on May 12, and then assess where he is at season’s end.

“Regardless, I’ll probably play some senior events in the fall after the regular tour season’s over,” he says, “if only to get a feel for what it’s like out there.”

There is a general consensus that Furyk should do very well playing against the over-50 set. He’s never been a long hitter and is even less so now. His success has been built on hitting the ball straight, a great short game and an often hot putter. Unlike some players of his caliber who have fought the notion of playing with the older guys, Furyk’s fine with the idea.

“I can definitely see myself playing on that tour,” he says, then smiles. “It would be nice to not have to hit 5-woods and 4-irons into greens all the time. That said, I know there are plenty of guys out there who can still play, and, if you want to win, it’s a sprint to 20 under almost every week. Someone said to me a couple years ago that the courses aren’t as short as you might think they are, that a lot of them are 7,000 yards. This was right after we’d played Medinah [2012 Ryder Cup]. I said, ‘Well, 7,000 might not be that short, but I’ll certainly take it after playing at 7,650.’ ”

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Eric Larson

MAKING ADJUSTMENTS

Furyk lives his life the same way he plays golf: deliberately. He studies things from every possible angle before making a decision. He’s inclined not to go the route that guys like Davis Love III and Vijay Singh have taken—bouncing back and forth between the two tours. Once Furyk makes the decision to go to what the tour now calls PGA Tour Champions, he’ll probably stay there except for an occasional foray to some of the regular tour’s smaller ballparks.

“You put him on any course that isn’t super-sized, and he can still win,” Leonard says. “The courses that play 7,500 yards plus, that’s going to be tough for him at this point. But he can still win at TPC Sawgrass, Hilton Head, places like that, where the game’s about more than power.”

Furyk finished the 2019 season ranked 48th in the world—he was 55th at year’s end, one spot ahead of his longtime friend and rival Phil Mickelson, and has fallen to 68th this week, having yet to play a tournament in 2020. Furyk’s last official tournament of the 2018-’19 season was a bummer. Needing a high finish at the BMW Championship to get into the Tour Championship, he started the week with a six-under-par 66 at Medinah. But he shot 72-75-72 the last three days and dropped from 48th in the FedEx Cup standings to 51st.

“That was disappointing,” he says. “I haven’t made Atlanta in a few years [2014], and I thought I had a legitimate chance to do it. I just didn’t make anything. Didn’t get it done.”

Furyk was a lock to make Atlanta in 2015 after winning at Hilton Head in April, but he hurt his wrist the week of the BMW—two years after shooting 59 in the event—and had to have surgery, costing him six months. He came back to play remarkably well after his long layoff, finishing T-2 in the U.S. Open at Oakmont and almost making the Ryder Cup team.

Love had asked Furyk to be a vice captain, but after Furyk’s performance at Oakmont and a solid summer, he began to think that Furyk, with his calm and experience, might be a good captain’s pick for a young American team. It was Furyk who told Love not to pick him.

“Typical Jim,” Love says. “We had a bunch of guys up to Hazeltine the week before the Cup started, and I played with Jim. I still had one pick to make. The golf course was wet and playing long. I was staying over, so I drove Jim back to the airport. On the way he said, ‘You can’t risk the course coming up wet with me on the team. It’ll be too long for me. You need to pick someone else.’ ”

Ironically, Love ended up picking Ryan Moore, whose game is similar to Furyk’s, and Moore played extremely well—including coming from behind to beat Lee Westwood in singles on Sunday for the clinching point.

That story defines the way most players feel about Furyk. Ask them to tell you a funny Jim Furyk story, and you will almost always get a long pause, a shake of the head and “Let me think about that one” as an answer.

Charles Howell III, another Furyk friend, does have a story that he thinks sums Furyk up pretty well. “In 2007 at Riviera, we played late Sunday, maybe second-to-last group,” Howell says. “We both had a chance to win. By the back nine, Jim was pretty much out of it. I wasn’t. The last few holes, he was encouraging me, pushing me, telling me to hang in—sort of a cheerleader and coach all at once. When I made a birdie at 18 to get into a playoff, he gave me a hug and said, ‘Now go win this thing.’ That’s Jim Furyk.”

Howell won the playoff—beating Mickelson—but he remembers Furyk, who finished three shots back, pushing him to the finish line almost as much as he remembers the win.

Zach Johnson likes to imitate Furyk’s laugh, which comes out in bursts when he thinks something is truly funny. Johnson also remembers being paired with him the first two days at Hartford in 2016.

“He really struggled the first day,” Johnson says. “The next day it was hot, and there was plenty of reason for him to just pack it in. He came to the ninth hole, our last of the day, and had to get it up and down for par to make the cut. He really grinded over that bunker shot. Got up and down, made the cut on the number, and we all know what happened on Sunday. Classic Jim.”

On Sunday, Furyk became the first—and still the only—player to shoot 58 in an official PGA Tour round.

Love actually does have a funny Furyk story. He and Furyk were teamed against Love’s son, Dru, and Tom Lovelady in an off-day match with about five presses going on the 18th hole. It was old guys versus young guys—Dru Love and Lovelady are both 26 and prodigious long hitters.

“The 18th hole was a dogleg left with a hazard at the corner of the dogleg,” Love says now, laughing at the memory. “Dru and Tom just bombed their drives over the hazard and around the corner. We both had to play out to the right. I think Jim hit 4-iron. The shot just covered the flag. When the ball was in the air, I heard him say, ‘This is really going to piss Dru Love off.’ ”

The ball settled five feet from the flag, Furyk made the putt to win all the presses.

“Yeah, that was fun,” Furyk says, his laugh coming in Johnson-like bursts.

The wrist injury that cost Furyk both a spot in the Tour Championship and on the Presidents Cup team in 2015 was the first of several that caused him to miss time and to play hurt for three years as often as not. He had moments—notably at Oakmont in the 2016 U.S. Open—but wasn’t close to the Furyk who had cranked out top-10 finishes.

Before the wrist injury in 2015, Furyk had a win and seven top 10s in 19 starts. During the next three years, he played 47 times and had a total of six top 10s.

“It was frustrating, no doubt,” he says. “It was tough to tee it up against Brooks Koepka and Rory McIlroy knowing I wasn’t 100 percent and didn’t have much chance. In a way though, 2011 was worse, when I was completely healthy and played badly.”

That was the year after Furyk won three times, including the Tour Championship and the FedEx Cup and was voted player of the year by his peers—an accomplishment second in his mind only to his U.S. Open win.

“When I was a kid, I was like anyone who plays—I dreamed of winning a major. But I never once thought about being voted the best player for an entire year. Then, I heard Tom Lehman’s speech when he won [1996], and it really impacted me. He didn’t make the tour for years, and then he was the best player for an entire year. To actually have that happen to me was a big deal.”

A year later, after changing his equipment and the golf ball he was playing—“I was trying to hit it higher and longer and with less spin,” he says—he had (for him) a terrible year, finishing 36th on the FedEx Cup list.

“It was all on me,” he says. “I chose the equipment. I wasn’t terrible statistically, but every week it seems I hit one or two foul balls—completely out of play—and it would ruin a round or the week.”

The turnaround came at the Presidents Cup when he was paired with Mickelson in foursomes. Mickelson was experimenting with a new ball that had less spin. Furyk liked the ball so much he switched to it, went back to his old equipment and became Jim Furyk again in 2012. He didn’t win, but he had two runner-up finishes—including at the U.S. Open at Olympic Club, where he led until late on Sunday—a third and eight top 10s.

Now, as 50 looms in May, he feels confident he’ll continue to play well. “Actually, I’m not going to turn 50,” he says, laughing. “I’m boycotting it. … I don’t know how much longer I’ll play, but I won’t be out there when I’m 70—or maybe 60. I’ll play it by ear year by year.” Which is what he’s always done, sitting down with his dad to make goals and talk about making adjustments in his game at the end of every year. The one thing that will never change? The swing.

And when he’s done, how does he want to be remembered? As a U.S. Open champion? Player of the year? Perennial Ryder Cupper? Strangest looking swing of any Hall of Famer?

The usual long pause. A smile. And then: “I’ll be very happy if people just remember me as someone who did things the right way—as a dad, as a husband, as a friend, as a golfer. That’s plenty for me.”

There shouldn’t be any problem with achieving that goal.


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