PGA Championship

Valhalla Golf Club

Risk + Reward

By Guy Yocom Photos by Dom Furore
August 09, 2014

Photo by Dom Furore

I HAVE A TEMPER on the golf course. When my fuses start to melt, I have to react immediately, or else I'm useless the rest of the round. Because I can't punch myself out, I tend to take it out on my clubs. My clubs are my friends, and as such I have a bunch on my conscience for how I've treated them. I've lost count of how many drivers, fairway woods and wedges I've murdered. To the 7-iron I broke during the 2011 U.S. Open—and the clubs I undoubtedly will break in the future—I humbly apologize.

WE SWEDES are descended from Vikings, which might explain why I'm tough on golf clubs. They were a ruthless people who sometimes took out whole villages. I watched a series on them a while back, and I thought, So that's where my temper comes from. Primitive as the times were, the Vikings were highly skilled. If there had been endorsements for hatchets and spears in those days, the Vikings would've had their names on everything.

IN 2001, I was in a period where I had no idea where the ball was going off the tee. My misses could be shockingly bad, 70 yards off line in some cases, usually to the right. Even the practice ranges weren't wide enough. There are fears in golf most amateurs are familiar with. The fear of being embarrassed by missing a short putt. The fear that comes with hanging on to a 1-up lead with two holes to play. But the fear I felt at tournaments was something very different. I was terrified of taking someone's head off with a drive. Standing on the tee, I'd see the tunnel of people just in front of the tee box, craning their necks forward to watch, oblivious to the very real danger they were in. The image of hitting someone would enter my mind and not go away. Coming back from that dark place mentally has probably been my best accomplishment.

IN THEORY, a one-foot putt should be almost impossible to miss. Take aim, close your eyes and move the putter, and the ball will go in. But when you get the brain involved, strange things can happen. The angle of the putterface, the speed of the movement and a million tiny complexities you suddenly become aware of start to make the simplest thing difficult, sometimes impossible. You start compensating for things without knowing what you're compensating for. I've never had the putting yips, only the driver yips. But I have respect for the putting yips and sympathy for the yipper.

I WON the Players Championship in 2009, but I'm not going to make the argument that it's a major. That would be blatantly self-serving. Sure, it has the best field in golf. It has tradition, history, a huge purse, is timed in perfect sequence with the four majors, has no pro-am, gets you a five-year exemption and is played on a strong course. But make the case that it's a major? I wouldn't think of it.

I NEVER MET Allen Stanford, and it's safe to say I won't be visiting him in prison. If I did come face-to-face with him, what I might do to him could get me arrested also. Look, I lost millions to that guy [in a Ponzi scheme]. I didn't have all my eggs in his basket, but I had a lot of eggs there, and it hurt. It was a tough experience, but life has a way of setting things right. Last fall, after I won the Tour Championship and the FedEx Cup, I flew from Atlanta to Orlando more than $11 million richer. The plane that I was on very possibly flew over the federal prison in Florida where he's serving a sentence that could be the rest of his life. There's some satisfaction in that, but I also think of the people who lost a tremendous amount of money to him but weren't fortunate enough to be in a position to make a lot of it back.

I LEARNED of the Stanford loss in February 2009. It affected me, but I got over it emotionally faster than some people might. I was able to pick up the pieces and move on, and it helped that I won the Players Championship only a few months later. I knew that investing carries risk, and as a golfer I'm used to taking risks. Golf is all about assessing risk and deciding how much risk to take. Do I lay up short of the water or go for it? Do I shoot for that tucked pin or go for the middle of the green? A pro golf career is basically a gamble, at least starting out. The annoying thing about the Stanford investment was, I assumed there was only normal risk, when in truth I was destined to lose the whole investment, and not by normal means. Nobody saw that coming. But it all fell under the category of "risk," so I tried to accept it and move on.

TRUE STORY from the European Tour: A well-known caddie was running to catch a train to get to a tournament. There was little time to spare, and he had to go to the bathroom very badly. Just as he gets to the train station, he trips and falls. The impact jars everything loose. Disaster. Fortunately, there's a clothing shop at the station. He shuffles in and buys a track suit, ignoring the wrinkled-up nose of the salesperson. He barely makes the train. Once the train was underway, he goes into the bathroom, takes off every piece of his clothing and throws it out the window. He removes the track suit from the bag and finds, to his horror, that the suit is missing the pants portion. So he turns the top upside down, forces his legs into the sleeves, zips it up and returns to his seat, topless. For hours he absorbs glares from strangers and the conductors. When he arrived at the tournament, he could barely speak for two days. A post-traumatic-stress situation.

TRAVEL isn't what it once was. Just ask Gary Player. But for me, at 38, it's grueling enough, especially as a true international player. I've earned gold status with rewards programs, but I use NetJets, too. If a player can save 30 days of travel per year, that's two more tournaments he can play, easy. If you play halfway decent in those two tournaments, that pays for the NetJets. And you feel better the other weeks as well. It's not a luxury, it's good business sense.

HERE'S A FIRST-WORLD problem for you. In 2007, my wife, Emma, and I had a small courtyard home built here at Lake Nona. When the kids, Lisa and Karl, came along, we couldn't fit all our stuff in the garage, so we decided to build a larger home in another part of the community. With the second home, it turned out there was a bald eagle living in a pine tree in the back yard, which caused a building delay because you need permits. Meanwhile, we couldn't keep living in the first home because it was too small, so we bought a third, larger home to live in while the second home was being built. The main home still isn't finished, because you can't build during bald-eagle nesting season. So right now, we're sort of homeless, even though we own three houses in Lake Nona.

WHAT ARE THE IMPRESSIONS of a European seeing America for the first time? When I made my first training visit to Arizona with the Swedish boys' team in 1994, I was amazed by the enormous amount of ice in the soft drinks. I couldn't believe how many Americans drank soda in the morning. I was impressed that drivers can turn right on a red light over here—you can't do that in Sweden—and dismayed that American drivers think nothing of passing on the right, which can be quite dangerous. I also couldn't believe the number of food commercials shown on American TV. That one still blows me away.

A FRIEND OF MINE hit a bad shot and whacked his carry bag with the iron he was using. When he reached for his driver on the next tee, the shaft was broken. Same thing with his 3-wood, 5-wood and 3-iron. He didn't find an unbroken club until he got to his 4-iron. When his tee shot with the 4-iron left him with a full 6-iron to the green, he found that his 6-iron was broken, too. Five clubs broken with one swing. When I asked him what he learned from the experience, he said, "If you're going to take a swing at your bag, make sure it's not a nylon carry bag."

IF YOU COUNT THE 58 shot by Ryo Ishikawa at a Japan Tour event in 2010 as legitimate—and I do—then that's the scoring barrier. On the first day of the 2007 Tavistock Cup, Chris DiMarco and I shot a best-ball score of 57. It was 15 under par on a pretty tough Lake Nona course, and Chris and I both played out of our minds. We gave Tiger Woods and John Cook, who played well and shot 65, a proper beating. It's one thing for two guys to shoot 57, another thing for one guy to do it. But it will happen. Maybe not for 10 years, but somebody will do it.

ONE OF THE GREAT Swedish sports heroes was Ingemar Johansson, heavyweight boxing champion of the world in the late 1950s and early '60s. I never met Mr. Johansson, but I heard he had a long post-career friendship with his arch rival, Floyd Patterson. They fought three times, yet for years after they retired they would fly across the Atlantic to visit one another. Golf is like that. On the course, we're as competitive as possible. But when it's over, the realization sinks in that we go through many of the same challenges. The longest friendships in sports are through golf. Look at Arnold and Jack. They've been friends for more than 50 years.

FANNY SUNESSON, who was on Nick Faldo's bag for 10 years and mine for five, is a huge pinball enthusiast and quite the player and collector. Fanny got me an "Avatar" pinball machine for my summer home in Sweden, and it's because of her that I got a "Spider-Man" machine for my home in Orlando. Pinball is like golf in that when you're playing it you really don't think of anything else.


A TRADEMARK of Swedes is a lack of self-consciousness about their bodies. I'm still reminded about hitting a shot from a water hazard at Doral in my underwear. It was at the 2009 WGC-CA Championship. I was five under, cruising along nicely, when I drove my ball inside the water hazard on the third hole—my 12th of the day. I knew mud was going to go everywhere, and I was wearing white pants. I didn't want to get them muddy, so off go the pants. I then realized my shirt was also going to get muddy, and why wear a muddy shirt with white pants? So off goes the shirt. My rainsuit wasn't an option, because it was a perfect day in South Florida and I didn't have it in my bag. So I went down to my underwear. I didn't think a thing of it, and neither did Fanny—she's Swedish also. I look at pictures of that episode, and she's all business, her head buried in the yardage book. I salvaged a bogey, by the way.

IT'S GOING TO BE TOUGH for me to top playing that shot in my underwear. Let's face it, I'm no Paulina Gretzky. I got so much attention from that incident. I wear Hugo Boss apparel, and on that day I was wearing the wrong brand, a Bjorn Bjorg model. Hugo Boss sent packages of their underwear to other players under contract to them with one of the pictures of me down to my skivvies and a note saying, "If you're caught in a similar situation, please wear the brand in the enclosed package."

WHERE I GREW UP in Sweden, you can play golf only from April to October. The winters there are harsh. But I wouldn't hesitate to grow up in a short-season climate again, and I would caution parents of a talented golfing child against moving to a warmer place. When spring did come, we were so eager to play. Better to have seven intense months than 12 months where you take golf for granted.

IN WINTER, I played a lot of badminton. Good sport for hand-eye coordination, agility and reflexes, all useful in golf. The feet are moving constantly. I was club champion when I was 14. All sports are good for golf, but badminton is right up there.

IN SWEDEN we had a golf boom just like the one in America. But as with all booms, it petered out. Golf was the cool thing to do, and everyone did it because their friends were playing. But a lot of people discovered they weren't very good at it, and they quit. Some of the smaller clubs went out of business and were turned into farms. I don't think any country has established a model for what the ideal setting or program should be. Everything comes with a financial price. Maybe the way to do it is to avoid thinking about growing all the time, and structure things to accommodate the people who are there and those you know for sure are coming in.

I'M DISMAYED at how outdoor sports activities are declining. I see fewer kids playing hide-and-go-seek under a street lamp, playing catch, or out stealing apples from the neighbors' trees. They used to play for hours, unattended. Now they're inside playing video games and surfing the Internet. Golf used to grow as a result of kids just wanting to play outdoors, but to grow it nowadays takes lots of organizing. Nobody knows for sure what to do. I'm only 38, and the dynamics have changed incredibly since I was a lad.

IF I WEREN'T A GOLFER, I'd probably sell things. Something people liked, something I could sell for more than I paid for it, and something they felt they had to have. I've got it. How about something to do with porridge, or as it's known in America, oatmeal? I'd invent porridge that tasted great and had all kinds of good nutrients to impress the people who look at the labels. I'd market it as Henrik's High-Test Porridge Bars, and package them so you could sell munchable versions you carry in your golf bag.

I'VE ALWAYS BEEN a practical joker. As kids we'd take what comes out the hind end of a dog and put it in a paper bag. We would put the bag on a neighbor's porch, light it on fire, ring the doorbell and run away. They would rush out, often in their house slippers, and stomp out the fire. Hilarious.

I'M NOT a superstitious person, but I dislike golf balls with the number 4. I just don't like the look of that number. When I get my supply from Titleist, the 4s are set aside for practice only. I use the 1s in the first round, 2s in the second round, 3s in the third round. In the fourth round, I use a blend of whatever's left. Sometimes I play balls numbered 5-6-7-8, but that creates another problem: Which balls would I use for practice? It's not a perfect world.

THERE'S ANOTHER DOWNSIDE to having that bald eagle in our back yard. It means we won't be getting a small dog.