It was 30 years ago that Hal Sutton stood on the 17th tee at TPC Sawgrass and hit a shot that would help put him on the map.
Trailing by a stroke, but charging with a great final round, Sutton’s tee shot at the famous island hole finished six inches from the cup. Sutton, who was dubbed “The Bear Apparent,” confidently hustled to the green, made his birdie and went on to win The PLAYERS Championship by a shot.
“I sort of slipped in,” Sutton said. “I was never in the lead, but I was kind of lurking in the background. I never had the lead until the end at 17.”
The win made Sutton a bona fide star. It proved that the 1980 U.S. Amateur champion was capable of competing against – and beating – the best players in professional golf.
Sutton, who turns 54 on April 28, now competes regularly on the Champions Tour. He still fondly remembers the bold stroke that led to a final-round 69 and resulted in the first of his two victories at Sawgrass. He won despite a first-round 73, which was the highest start by a winner. The tournament provided a wild finish, with 11 lead changes in Monday’s final round.
“I remember the course was playing really hard that week,” Sutton said. “It was very raw back then. You just tried to keep the ball in play.”
The greens and fairways were both much harder in 1983 and there was no question the tournament was played under more difficult and more uncertain conditions when it was held in March. But Sutton was able to stick with his plan and avoid a big number. He was especially good at the 17th hole, which he birdied in every round.
“I was hitting the ball pretty good coming into that tournament, but you never really know,” Sutton said. “Sometimes you can win a tournament even though you don’t feel like you’re hitting it real good. And other times when you’re hitting it really good, you may not win because you’re too fearless.”
Much had been expected of Sutton when he graduated as an All-American at Centenary. He was a two-time All-American and the 1980 NCAA Player of the Year. He was a two-time member of the Walker Cup and represented the U.S. in the 1980 World Amateur.
His rookie season in 1982 was solid. He had eight top-10s and finished 11th on the money list. Sutton’s best effort came at the end of the season when he won the Walt Disney World Golf Classic. It was a victory that proved he could play with the big boys.
“I had won Disney at the end of my rookie year (in 1982) and to be able to carry that forward and win the TPC was really big for me,” Sutton said.
The win at THE PLAYERS pushed Sutton to the next level. It gave him the confidence to win a major championship later that summer, when he beat Jack Nicklaus by one shot and prevailed at the PGA Championship at Riviera Country Club outside Los Angeles. It turned out to be his only major championship.
“Anytime you can win on a course like (Sawgrass), that gives you confidence,” Sutton said.
While others complained about unfair conditions at Sawgrass, Sutton usually kept his head down and continued to chug along.
“The course is such that if you hit it good out there, you can score,” he said. “But if you hit it poorly, it really punishes you.”
He approach paid off. He wound up with five career top-10s at THE PLAYERS, a feat bettered by only nine other individuals, and added a second win there in 2000. That victory, a one-shot win over Tiger Woods, also came with a Monday finish and provided one of the game’s best sound bites, when Sutton laced a 6-iron from 179 yards and said, “Be the right club today!”
“What I remember is both of those were Monday finishes,” Sutton said. “I’m pretty good on Monday.”