- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 15, 2000

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. Hal Sutton has borne many labels during his 20-year odyssey on the PGA Tour. This week at Pebble Beach the only one of consequence is "Prototypical U.S. Open Player."

Nobody on Tour can fully appreciate the outrageous roller-coaster ride that has defined Sutton's career. The one player who could is no longer among us.

"I think Payne [Stewart] and I had a special bond because of all the ups and downs we had both been through on and off the course," Sutton said recently. "We became much closer at the Ryder Cup last year, and I miss him. He had a personality that's hard to get over."

Perhaps what Sutton will miss most about Stewart is the depth of understanding involved in their relationship. Stewart was a Tour rookie the same year as Sutton (1982). He watched as Sutton went from U.S. Amateur champion (1980) to Tour rookie of the year (1982) to PGA champion (1983) accomplishments that earned Sutton the title of "the next Nicklaus" at the age of 25.

But in the decade following Sutton's coronation as golf's next great, the two men grew apart. Stewart's career was on the ascent; Sutton's slowly spiraling toward rock bottom. After amassing seven victories in his first five years on Tour, Sutton entered a victory drought that lasted for eight years. While Stewart was winning his first two major championships (1989 PGA Championship, 1991 U.S. Open), Sutton was sliding into oblivion, a series of three failed marriages mangling his focus and crippling his ability to compete with the world's best players.

Stewart, who was then known as an arrogant, needling sort with a penchant for sticking his spikes in his mouth, rarely spoke to the man he regularly roomed with as a rookie. And Sutton, who was then known as "Halimony," a head case with perpetual problems on the home front, wasn't particularly approachable in any case.

The nadir for Sutton came in 1992, when he finished 185th on the money list and did not qualify for the last Open at Pebble Beach.

"That was probably the very low point in my career," said Sutton, who would have lost his card that year if not for his 10-year major championship exemption. "I remember I tried to qualify for Pebble and didn't make it. But I probably didn't deserve to be there anyway."

Sutton played slightly better in 1993, but still lost his playing privileges after finishing 161st on the money list. He had one option left, and he took it, using a one-time, yearlong exemption available to players on the top-50 career earnings list. Sutton made the most of his last chance, recording two seconds to move back into the top 30 on the money list. The next year, he officially broke out of his mid-life slump, winning the 1995 B.C. Open and marrying his current wife, Ashley. In the four years since, Sutton has become professional golf's Renaissance Man, winning five times and celebrating the birth of his first three children.

And Sutton was a stalwart for last year's U.S. Ryder Cup team, posting a 3-1-1 record for Uncle Sam's comeback bunch and rekindling his relationship with Stewart.

"I'm so proud of this guy. What a warrior," said Stewart at the Ryder Cup, one hand around the neck of a champagne bottle and the other around Sutton's neck as the U.S. players celebrated on the Country Club's clubhouse porch in Brookline, Mass. "There's nobody I would rather have with me in the trenches."

It was the perfect picture for two players, and two people, whose lives had come full circle. Stewart had shed his conceited image, committed himself to Christianity, and won his second U.S. Open in dramatic fashion just three months earlier at Pinehurst after several disheartening near-misses. Sutton had committed himself to his wife and family and returned to his former stature as one of the game's top competitors. And together, the two players best represented the old-guard blood and guts of the U.S. machine at Brookline.

Nine months later, Stewart is gone, dying in a tragic air accident just weeks after the Ryder Cup. But Sutton has continued his resurgent play, often speaking with his departed friend when pressure builds between the ropes. After beating Tiger Woods head-to-head this year at the Players Championship, Sutton told reporters that he had asked Stewart to give him added fortitude before the final round. Sutton won again two weeks after the Masters at Greensboro, N.C., and he comes to the U.S. Open ranked second behind Woods on the money list ($2,433,173).

Though a sore back has limited him to just one practice round at Pebble Beach, the 42-year-old Sutton seemed unconcerned yesterday about both his stiff back and his limited practice schedule.

"I'm just getting to be an old man," said Sutton in his Louisiana drawl. "You know what? I only played nine holes in the practice round at the Players Championship. So, practice rounds are not everything. I'm OK."

Realistically, Sutton should be considered one of the favorites this weekend. So far this season, Sutton ranks fourth on Tour in total driving, averaging 273 yards off the tee and hitting better than three out of four fairways. And he ranks eighth on Tour in greens in regulation, hitting seven out of 10. The Open's nasty rough and tarmac-like greens have always favored fairways-and-greens types like Sutton. Among the field's 156 competitors, only Woods (first in both categories) can claim to have a better combination of statistics in those crucial Open categories.

Perhaps equally valuable for his confidence, Sutton also believes he has a second man on the bag for him this week. He feels that if Payne Stewart can't defend his title in person, he can lend spiritual assistance to his close friend.

"Payne had a great record at Pebble Beach, and I may have to ask him to guide me around the golf course and show me the way," said Sutton. "I might just be out there talking within myself, but somehow I think he hears me sometimes."

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