By Vartan Kupelian, PGATOUR.COM Correspondent
Hal Sutton is ready to build off those spurts of golf where he felt like the Hal Sutton of old. That’s miles better than feeling like an old Hal Sutton.
Sutton, a major player and presence during his days on the PGA TOUR for more than two decades, has found the transition to the Champions Tour a challenge. Unlike many of his contemporaries who played their way from one tour to the other, Sutton put his golf game on the back burner.
Now, after a lengthy layoff and hip replacement surgery in October, Sutton is ready to play some good golf. He showed signs of excellent form with a first-round 3-under 69 at Fallen Oak in the Mississippi Gulf Resort Classic. Sutton couldn’t keep it going -- he finished T18 -- but he’s OK with taking the positives of the performance as signs of better things to come.
He’s been waiting for something like that.
“I really felt good on the golf course,” Sutton said. “I have not had a round since I've been out here that I felt as solid. So we'll just keep trying to do the same thing.”
Sutton’s hiatus from golf was prolonged.
“Before I came out on the Champions Tour I quit golf for five years entirely,” Sutton said. “When I came back my hip was killing me.
“I don't have much good over the last eight years basically that I can talk about. And it's not been fun because I don't see myself playing golf the way I've been playing. It's hard to have patience, but you have to keep reminding yourself that I'm coming from a long ways back, and we'll just keep working on the right things and hopefully they'll gel and we'll do some right things.”
What happens to golfers who haven’t played much or who have tried to make compensations for an injury is that mistakes creep in and eventually become chronic.
“I've been trying to correct some bad habits that I had from that bad hip,” Sutton said.
“It hurt so bad for so long. My hips were sliding. You don't hit the ball well when your spine is going like this, when you're backing up in the shot. It just makes it really hard to hit a good shot. And that's what I was doing to avoid the pain.
“And then when I came back out this year, your brain remembers that. Even though there's no pain, your brain still remembers what you were doing.
So it's been difficult to break … you can't keep your eye on the ball to save your life, because your head's going like this.”
The result was glancing blows against the ball, not the solid, powerful impact the best players are accustomed to.
“I tell you, that's not a good way to play golf,” Sutton said.
A week earlier, at the Toshiba Classic, he had more of those encouraging swings.
“In the second round I made eight birdies and should have made 11 birdies and shot 70 is all,” he said. “So I still hit a lot of bad shots. But I saw enough good I knew what I was working on was working, and I've just been continuing to work on it.”
Sutton’s start in Mississippi was the first time he had led or shared the first-round lead since the THE PLAYERS Championship in 2000. That round – also a 69 – sent Sutton on his way to one of the signature victories in his career. On the Stadium Course, he famously held off Tiger Woods when Woods was at the peak of his golfing powers.
A Louisiana native, Sutton went from college standout to a PGA TOUR winner at the 1982 Walt Disney World Golf Classic. A year later, he won the PGA Championship, the Player of the Year honors and topped the money list.
But there were hard times to come. Sutton went nearly 10 years without a victory and needed to use his one-time exemption in the top 50 of the all-time career money list. His comeback began with a win at the 1995 B.C. open and culminated at The PLAYERS Championship, the 12th of his 14 PGA TOUR victories. Twice in his career, he has enjoyed a lengthy stay in the top 50 of the Official World Golf Ranking.
Sutton is no stranger to adversity – or to career-rescuing comebacks. He’s working toward another.
Sutton’s lengthy departure was due, in part, to his outside interests, including a course design business, and his charitable support. In 2006, he opened Christus Schumpert Sutton Children's Hospital in his hometown of Shreveport and he hosts an annual charity golf tournament that has raised $6 million to benefit the hospital. That year, he shared the Golf Writers Association of America's 2006 Charlie Bartlett Award with Louisianans Kelly Gibson and David Toms for their combined $2 million-plus in aid to Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita victims.
When Sutton talks about not much good happening over the last eight years, he’s talking only about his golf. But if a golfer’s brain remembers the bad, it also remembers the good. Sutton is counting on it.