When Hal Sutton won the 1986 Memorial Tournament, the victory was his seventh in four-plus years on the PGA Tour. He was 28, handsome, strong, talented and rich—the Bear Apparent, ready to take on the role of a new Jack Nicklaus. But Sutton hasn't won since, and this year he is off to the worst start of his career. When he returned to Muirfield Village for the Memorial last week, he was a player for whom making the cut had become cause for celebration.
After a shaky 75 on Thursday, Sutton did make the cut with a 70 on Friday. But he soared to a 77 on Sunday and finished 35th, 17 strokes behind winner Curtis Strange. Sutton's performance underscored the problems of his bleak season. Before Muirfield Village, he had missed seven cuts in 14 tournaments. During one stretch, he shot 76 or higher in six of seven rounds, including an 80-77 performance at the Masters. "I've had a deplorable year," says Sutton. "It's been sickening, as a matter of fact."
In truth, if Sutton is to be judged by the standards he set for himself early, his slump has lasted longer than the five months of 1988, longer even than the two years since he last won. After being named rookie of the year in 1982, he exploded in his second season, leading the money list and winning the TPC and PGA on the strength of precocious tee-to-green excellence. Sutton's talent, poise, and ambition, as well as a brawny star quality, made it easy to call him Prince Hal. When Nicklaus, the man he beat by a stroke to win the PGA at Riviera in Los Angeles, congratulated him on his first major, he told Sutton, "I have a feeling this is the first of many."
"Obviously, Jack has not been as right as I would have liked for him to be," says Sutton with a smile. "I haven't played to my capabilities in three or four years."
During his period of underachievement, Sutton has still been good enough to earn more than $1.5 million and win four tournaments. But he admits that he has lacked the dedication that was responsible for his early success. "About 1984 I kind of stopped working hard on my game," he says. "The thing was, I still played pretty good, and I just started taking it for granted that my game was always going to be there."
This has been the year when it finally wasn't. After the Nabisco Championships in November, Sutton retired to the 1,300-acre Arkansas ranch he and his father, Howard, own; for two months he did almost nothing but learn to ride cutting horses. When Sutton returned to the Tour in January, he had completely lost the reins on his golf game. "I knew full well that as I was spending all that time riding. I was neglecting my career," he says. "But I decided to do some things I hadn't had a chance to do."
It was the kind of move that golfers with less ability and shorter horizons make all the time, but that those who aspire to greatness don't. The implications of his decision have caused Sutton to take a hard look at where he has been and where he is going. "I'm spending a lot of sleepless nights worrying about my golf game," says Sutton. "I guess I'm catching the struggling part of golf later in my career."
In his early years Sutton always seemed to be ahead of the game. "Hal never played with the kid across the street when he was growing up," says Howard, a wealthy oilman. "He and I did a lot of things together, with me pushing, and it's been part of Hal's life to always be ahead of people his own age."
Finding a support system apart from his parents has been perplexing for Sutton, who is largely a loner on tour. Two early marriages failed, the first ending after five months in 1982, the second after less than a year in 1986. "In defense of both my wives," he says, "they just didn't know what the Tour was like until it was too late." Sutton has recently fallen in love with a woman who, he believes, understands the demands of his life-style. He and Jennifer Herndon, of Hope, Ark., plan to wed on July 23.
"Hal has been carrying a lot inside him the last few years," says his mother, Mary. "He doesn't look it, but he's very sensitive, and people can be cruel." Sutton admits that it hurts when he hears others refer to him as "Halimony."
At the Memorial's pretournament shoot-out among 20 players, a hushed crowd of about 3,000 looked on as Sutton addressed his first tee shot. Suddenly Fuzzy Zoeller cracked, "Hey, Hal, how many of your ex-wives are in the gallery?" As laughter from the crowd turned to embarrassed murmurs, Sutton remained expressionless; he never looked up. When the spectators became quiet, he smashed his drive down the middle and ignored a conciliatory pat on the back from Zoeller. Nine holes later, Sutton beat Zoeller to advance to the final round of the shoot-out, which he won. "I thought Fuzzy's comment was a little bit in poor taste," said Sutton. "I will say that it was very gratifying to go to the last hole and get to beat him."
The competitiveness is still there, but the rest of Sutton's game remains problematic. Nicklaus is now cautious in his assessment of Sutton. "Hal is probably one of the top 10 players in the world," he says, "but it was a little unfair for people to project him as a dominating player. He's just not as powerful as guys like [Seve] Ballesteros or [Greg] Norman, and his putter has hurt him."
Sutton would like nothing better than to prove Nicklaus wrong. "I fully expect my game to come around before this year is over," he says.
If that's anything like getting back in the saddle again, Sutton got plenty of practice in the cutting pen. "I had one horse throw me into the fence," he recalls, "and the trainer said, 'She's just trying to find out if you are a real cowboy—or what you are.' "
Before too long, Sutton should find out what kind of golfer he is.
After taking time out mainly to horse around, Sutton has had difficulty making the cut.
Strange conquered Muirfield Village, where just two years ago Sutton reigned supreme.