January 5, 2010

My Shot: Fuzzy Zoeller

Fuzzy Zoeller with Lilly, photographed May 29, 2006, at Floyds Knobs, Ind.

Being a tough competitor doesn't mean you have to be a jerk. My junior year of college, I played golf for the University of Houston. It was a national power, and the program was serious business. Early in the year I was paired with an Oklahoma State player named Henry DeLozier, a good friend. On one hole Henry topped his tee shot. His second shot with a fairway wood stopped one foot from the hole. I said, "Nice shot, Henry," and that was a mistake. When we finished, our coach, Dave Williams, lectured me for 90 minutes on how my compliment "relaxed" Henry and helped him play well. I disagreed with that philosophy and kept saying "Good shot" whenever I felt like it. We battled over that constantly, and it came down to either acting like a jerk to my fellow-competitors or quitting the team. So I quit the team.

Maybe Dave Williams was right. I played in three Ryder Cups and was a pathetic match player. My record [1-8-1] is awful, and guys did seem to play well against me. In 1983, I had Seve Ballesteros all but beat playing the 18th hole. He was in a fairway bunker 240 yards from the green, and I'm sitting pretty. From that bunker, Seve hit a 3-wood onto the fringe of the green and made par to halve our match. Some people say it was the best shot in Ryder Cup history. What did I say to Seve? The same thing I told Henry DeLozier: "Nice shot."

Many of the younger players on the regular tour today are just plain shy. They started at an earlier age than I did and from day one really had the game hammered into them. They grew up more insulated from the outside world. So they're a little less comfortable around people. It shows in their interviews, their interaction with the fans and even with each other. They just aren't people-oriented; caddies and teachers tend to get fired more often because of personality conflicts. I don't think they have as much fun as we did back in the 1970s and '80s. I have to say, I enjoyed the best years of the PGA Tour.

When I waved the towel at Greg Norman on the 18th hole at Winged Foot back in 1984 [the U.S. Open], I honestly thought I was done. I'd watched him one-putt four or five greens coming in, and that monster he made on 18, I thought it was for a birdie. I told my caddie, Mike Mazzeo, "That SOB is gonna beat us." There was no way I'm going to make a 3, not where the pin was that day. Only when I was ready to hit did a USGA guy walk up and say, "You know that putt was for a par, right?" I said, "You're kidding. Where the hell did he hit his second shot?" He said, "He put it in the bleachers." I almost couldn't believe it; the bleachers are a good 30 yards to the right of the green. I felt like I was given new life. The 18th at Winged Foot is a bear, but par to tie came pretty easy.

After I holed out for par, a little kid—he couldn't have been older than 12—said, "Mister, can I have that towel?" Without thinking, I gave it to him. I'm as nice as the next guy, but I've always regretted that. If you happen to see a grungy white towel hanging around, get it for me, will you?

I suppose you have to ask me about the Tiger incident at Augusta. Well, it's been terrible, the worst thing I've gone through in my entire life. What happened to me as a result? I got death threats against me, Diane, my kids. Even threats against the house. I received hundreds of terrible letters, almost all of them anonymous, and they're still coming—I got one this morning. It's been more than nine years now, and it still hasn't blown over. If people wanted me to feel the same hurt I projected on others, I'm here to tell you they got their way. I've cried many times. I've apologized countless times for words said in jest that just aren't a reflection of who I am. I have hundreds of friends, including people of color, who will attest to that. Still, I've come to terms with the fact that this incident will never, ever go away.

Everybody has a little idiosyncrasy in their swing. Mine is shoving the clubhead out beyond the ball just before I take the club away. When I was a kid, a pro over in Louisville named Moe Demling told me the best way to start the downswing is to feel the heel of the clubhead coming down first. That way you can't come over the top. The trouble was, I kept forgetting that little move. So Moe said, "Remind yourself by pushing the heel toward the ball." After hitting a million practice balls that way, I couldn't stop doing it, and I gave up trying 40 years ago. I've made a career out of hooking every shot, sand wedges included. Versatile, I'm not. Effective, I am.

My dad was Frank Urban Zoeller. Everyone called him Fuzzy. When I came along and they gave me the same name, I took over Fuzzy, and he became Frank. I never went by anything else. The last person to call me Frank was a nun when I was in first grade. A couple of weeks into the school year, she called my parents to report that their son might have a hearing problem, because he didn't answer when she spoke to him.

High school basketball is a religion in Indiana, and where I grew up there were three high schools that were fierce rivals. There was Providence, Jeffersonville and my school, New Albany. I played guard and was a pretty good sixth man. Not much on offense, but a nasty little defender. My junior year, we were playing Providence, and I get called off the bench. In the first minute, I get the ball on a fast break and drive in for a layup. There's just one guy between me and the basket. He submarined me—took my legs out from under me. I did a three-quarter flip and landed on the back of my head. Worse, I tore the muscles all through my lower back. I still see the fellow who submarined me. Not long ago he told me that every time he read about me having a back operation—I've had three—he hurt, too. No hard feelings. Just part of sports.

The doctor said I'd have spine trouble when I got older, and was he ever right. It started in 1979 at the Memorial Tournament, where I did the worst thing a guy with a bad back can do: took my laundry to the dry cleaner. When I stepped out of the car, I turned my body a certain way and went straight to the ground. Couldn't move. Every heartbeat was agony. They got me to the hospital and shot me full of cortisone, which just caked up around the vertebrae and made it worse. It's pretty amazing I had the career I did after that.

Vodka does not ease back pain. But it does get your mind off it.

At a tournament a while back some players were carrying on about "The Daly Planet" on The Golf Channel and how disgusting it was. "If you don't like it, why don't you just turn the channel?" I asked them. I got no answer, because the truth is, they don't want to change the channel. They want to watch so they can criticize John for what he does on the show and take The Golf Channel to task for airing it. I say, it's their right to air what they want, and if it annoys you, there's a good movie two channels over.

John Daly is not the only person who's had a drinking problem. He's not the only guy who's gambled too much or had troubled relationships. There are casinos in every city these days and bars on every corner, but you'd think he's the only human who's visited either one. It's his life, and he's living it the way he wants to live it. It's all his choice, and why can't we let it go at that? I'll tell you why: Because everybody's a critic.

People carry on about John's weight. But if the average person walked 18 holes five days a week—that's 30 miles a week—and hit as many balls as he does, they'd be in trouble. John has no issues with strength. His stamina is good. John Daly, believe it or not, is in shape.

Before I made it to the PGA Tour, I played a mini-tour in Savannah, Ga. We played the Savannah Inn and Country Club for six straight weeks. We had a blast. The Inn and the tour were run by Lou Rosanova, a wonderful guy who was affiliated with the Teamsters and was, shall we say, "connected." Lou's great pride was the Dean Martin Room, a swanky nightclub deal at the Inn. One day some people from Hilton Head sailed their big yachts over to Savannah and partied at the Inn. The party got out of hand, and the Hilton Head people tore up the Dean Martin Room. Lou never said a word, but you could tell he was angry. The next morning, we went down to the dock, and all you could see of those boats were the tops of the masts. Somehow they sank overnight. Only the Hilton Head yachts. Funny thing.

The Champions Tour's first full-field tournament of the year in 2003 was the Royal Caribbean Classic. I was asked to take a local TV reporter out on the course and give her a lesson. The tour approved it, and I was glad to do it. After the first round, a tour guy drove me out to the tee of the sixth hole, a par 3, and I gave the reporter a lesson. They asked me to demonstrate by hitting a few shots, so, aiming sideways a couple of fairways over, I hit a few shots with the driver. While my caddie was picking up my balls, another official drives up. "What are you doing out here?" he asked.

"Doing this thing for the tour. Giving a lesson."

"Well, you can't practice on the course after the tournament has started. I'm afraid we'll have to disqualify you."

They had to do what they had to do, I guess. I understand the Rules of Golf. But the sponsor was furious, I felt bad because it was my first DQ ever on that tour, and two years later Royal Caribbean was out as the sponsor.

One thing about the mini-tours, you never wanted to win by four or five shots. You wanted to manage your game so you won by only one shot, or two at the most. See, it was customary for the winner to pay the bar bill, and one year Bruce Lietzke ran away with a tournament and guys started drinking when he made the turn. By the time he finished—the guys knew Bruce was going to win and got a two-hour head start—there was a $500 bar tab waiting for him. Bruce wasn't much of a drinker. I think he felt a little deflated.

When I design courses, I'm guided by the Diane Rule and the Career Day Rule. My wife, Diane, is an enthusiastic 29-handicapper who carries the ball about 130 yards. When I'm designing a hole with a carry over water or a bunker in front of the green, I ask myself, "Can Diane carry it?" If the answer is no, I'll do something to make it easier if I can, except from the championship tees, where the Diane Rule doesn't apply. The Career Day Rule is a little broader, but basically I want my course to be one where a 15-handicapper having a magical day can shoot 76. That can't happen when you put hazards and an automatic double bogey into play on 10 holes. I don't design one-time-fling courses where the average guy pays $180, shoots 180, and never comes back. I don't build monuments.

Sam Snead was the best I ever saw. It's a fact. One day in the mid-'70s I was paired with Sam, and on one hole we both had 140 yards to the pin. I hit my standard 9-iron shot. Sam hit a little cut 6-iron that flew 135 yards, took one bounce and stopped dead, stiff to the hole. The next hole was 170 yards, and Sam hit the 6-iron again, this time with a high, hard draw. I hit my standard shot with a 5-iron. See, when I hit a shot I had to go with my bread and butter. For Sam, any shot was his bread and butter. In my prime I was pretty damned good—I did win two majors—but Sam at 65 was a better shotmaker than I ever was. When I picture a 35-year-old Sam Snead, who was stronger and more powerful than the old version I played with, I see a golfer who had to be as good as anybody playing today, and far better than most.

People associate the yips with guys ramming three-foot putts six feet past the hole. But the yips in most cases are more subtle, and many tour players have had them. Hubert Green, for instance, had the yips four or five times during his career, and I'm talking his good years. He missed a million four-footers by burning the edges of the hole. To the average person his misses might have looked like misreads, but in fact it was his stroke. Paul Azinger has had them; why else would he switch to a belly putter?

At Savannah a few months ago, J.C. Snead had a 50-yard shot to a green. He putted it and got up and down. I asked why on earth he chose his putter, and he said, "Have you seen me pitch lately?" Boy, I admired him for having the courage to use his putter in front of all those people. The yips aren't limited to the putter, no sir.

If the pressure is getting to you, whistle. In a barely audible way. It's the best way I know of to let go of tension. Music gets your mind off the situation, and the act of whistling melts the tension out of your body. I recommend something nice and rhythmic. Classic country and soft rock works for me. Jazz does not. It's hard to whistle jazz.

There's nothing wrong with choking. The trick is coming back after you choke, and not choking the second time.

I live on a farm, but I'm not a farmer. I drive three tractors, but I don't do anything with them except ride around. I own cows, but we don't milk them. I'll tell you, I'm glad I don't have to make a living farming. Too much hard work. Too many variables you don't have control over, like, is it going to rain? All I can say is, God bless the real farmers out there.

Before a pro-am round one day, the practice green was crowded and all the holes were taken. So I stuck a tee in the ground and aimed at that. When I went out on the course the hole looked huge, and I made everything. It gave me the idea for a putting aid we call the Putting Peg. You stick it in the ground and putt at the peg instead of the hole. When the ball contacts the peg, it emits a sound like a ball falling in the cup. Sound in golf is very important—if you don't believe me, try hitting balls with ear plugs in—and putting is no exception.

Getting the Putting Peg up and running was interesting. My business partner, Dave Lobeck, had a tough time trying to find the sound chip that caused the peg to make the noise. Dave wound up having some e-mail exchanges with several companies in China. They manufactured the chips, but none of them understood English very well. Dave wrote out the concept as best he could, emphasizing that battery life for the sound chip was crucial—the Putting Peg had to be built to last. A few days later, he gets an e-mail from one of the parties in Hong Kong.

"Battery life not matter," wrote the man.

Dave typed again why battery life was extremely important. A short time later, he gets another e-mail reply.

"Insist battery life not matter," it said.

Dave, frustrated, writes back that damn it, battery life absolutely does matter. A few days later, here comes the reply from Hong Kong.

"Ball on musical tee ... club hit ball ... tee explode.... Battery life not matter."

We went with another company.

I've always loved galleries, the bigger the better. I'm a people guy, but more than that is the way they frame the holes. When you're close to the lead and the fans are there in big numbers, all you can see is the fairway and the greens. You can't see the rough because that's where the people are. It's like they're with you, showing you the way, giving you a road map. The rough, forget it. You can't hit what you can't see.

When I'm playing badly, it's just the opposite. On every hole I'm reminded I'm not playing worth a damn, because the biggest part of the gallery is off with the leaders. And now the rough is exposed, it's right there saying, "I've been here for you all week; let's see you hit me again." It snowballs. I've never been known for going from worst to first.

A lot of amateurs are terrified of going up against a player who is clearly better than they are. They never play their best, because they aren't comfortable. There's one surefire way to get over that, and it's to ask yourself, "What if I beat him?" Imagine the possibility. Think of how much fun that would be. Think of the bragging rights, the pats on the back you'll get. The pressure is all on him. Relax, and go after it. You've got nothing to lose.

"Don't sweat the small stuff" is pretty good advice. The problem is, "small" is subjective. Let me narrow it down for you: Don't worry about things they make more of.

I cut my teeth playing in gambling games around southern Indiana. I did OK right off the bat because the threat of losing money never worried me. When I turned pro, same thing—I never thought about the money. Why? Because every day at the U.S. Mint they're making more of it.

Most rich people got rich because they have big egos. Their ego drove them to be successful. So you can't blame them for wanting even more—they're just being themselves. I took another route to success: I was given a natural gift. No ego required. If I hadn't become a golfer, I doubt I'd be wealthy, because I don't have the sort of ego that drives a person all day long. I might have wound up driving a tractor.

I know a lot of good players come out of California, Florida and Texas, but I still think climate is overrated. Winter never stopped us in Indiana. We played every day, even when it snowed. We played countless nine-hole rounds using a tennis ball and a 5-iron, which didn't hurt our games and probably helped.

Look at Arnold and look at Jack. One had a gift for touching people, the other had the gift of playing golf. Of the two, Arnold's gift was more powerful. My second year on tour, 1976, I was paired with Arnold, and the way fans embraced him was intimidating to me. I just hung back and watched, shot my 82 and got out of there. Arnold shot 73, but it was almost incidental in view of the way he mingled with the galleries. He was especially good with the very young and very old. There will never be anyone remotely like him again. We're in a different time.

The next time you fly, you'll notice that at some point most of the passengers are asleep. One reason is, what else is there to do? The other reason is, naps are the best thing in life. I feel my very best right when I walk off an airplane. Give me a 25-minute nap, and I'm good for the rest of the day.

Newspapers do a good job telling me what happened yesterday, but they'd be a lot more impressive if they could tell me what's going to happen tomorrow. The past doesn't interest me very much.

I started smoking when I was 27, which is pretty late to start a stupid habit like that. I had a golden opportunity to quit when I had my heart surgery. I went 45 days without one, and then one night I was out having a drink with friends and lit one up. Halfway through that, I swore out loud, because I knew I was hooked all over again. You know, I have a theory that some people are just cut out for smoking. It tastes better to them, fits their personality and is more apt to become a part of them than with other folks. I'm one of those people. I haven't even thought about quitting.

I live within 30 minutes of Churchill Downs. I was into quarter horses about 20 years ago, trailering them all over the country. But I got out of it. It cost me about $80,000 a year, which is a lot to pay for an occasional blue ribbon. It's a funny business. Everybody wants your good horses, nobody wants the bad ones, and all the horses eat the same and have the same vet bills.

Back in 1976, when I made eight birdies in a row at Quad City to tie the PGA Tour record, I wasn't the least bit apprehensive about trying to make it nine. Or 10 or 11. I guess that's sort of a gift, not being afraid to go low or do something unique. Most amateurs and even a lot of pros choke when they get a hot round going. Like I said, I'm not very interested in history. The birdie I just made was a thousand years ago. What can I do on the next hole?

When I got to the sudden-death playoff at the 1979 Masters, I couldn't have been more relaxed. It was my first Masters, and my only goal was to play well enough to come back the next year. With that in the bag, the playoff was pure gravy. Winning the Masters, believe it or not, for some reason felt incidental. When I missed a very makable putt to win on the first playoff hole, I wasn't let down at all. And when I made it from six feet on the next hole to beat Ed Sneed and Tom Watson, I was as surprised as I was elated.

Ten years after I won the U.S. Open, I go up against Greg Norman again in the final round of the Players Championship. Now when a guy's on, he's on, and no amount of voodoo or hitting him in the shins is going to stop him. I shot 20 under par that week, maybe the best golf of my career, and he beat me by four. I mopped his brow with a towel on 18 when it was over. I said "Nice shot" a lot that day.

Hale Irwin is 61, and he's still winning. He took the "window" theory, which said you had to get in your licks between 50 and 58, and blew it to smithereens. But I'm stubborn. I still believe in that magic window. Meaning, I'm just about done.