Out of Spotlight Sutton Moves On

By Associated PressSeptember 9, 2006, 4:00 pm
36th Ryder Cup MatchesFREDERICKSBURG, Texas -- In his final act as the Ryder Cup captain, Hal Sutton rose before dawn to meet the European team in its hotel lobby, giving the winners a gracious send-off by shaking the hand of every player.
 
That was two years ago.
 
Sutton has barely made a peep in public since then.
 
Its almost as if he put on his cowboy hat and rode into the sunset, tail between his legs, after being at the helm of an 18 1/2-9 1/2 loss that ranked as the worst ever for an American team in the Ryder Cup.
 
Hal Sutton and Bernhard Langer
Hal Sutton's U.S. team fell badly at home to Bernhard Langer's European team.
He used a one-time exemption for career money to keep his PGA TOUR card this year, but only because he wanted to play the Nissan Open at Riviera, one of his favorite courses. Sutton missed the cut in February, sticking around long enough to see a lot of strange faces, wondering who they were and what were they doing in the locker room.
 
Or maybe they were wondering who I was and what I was doing in their locker room, Sutton said with a belly laugh, the sure sign hes living large again. Im OK with that.
 
Sutton can count on one hand the number of players who have called him in the last six months.
 
Hes OK with that, too.
 
Sutton has moved on to what he calls the second stage in his life, things he wanted to do as a younger man but never took the time because he thought golf was all that mattered, that success was measured only by the score on his card.
 
He opened Sutton Childrens Hospital in May, an 80-bed facility in Shreveport, La. The project was inspired by the death five years ago of 7-year-old Reagan Little, the daughter of longtime manager and friend Gilbert Little.
 
I chose to think golf was everything, that I had to perform, that thats where your self-worth came from, Sutton said. That was your identity, and you protect that. But the last five years taught me thats not nearly as important as I thought it was.
 
When he isnt at the hospital, Sutton can be found at Boot Ranch, the opulent golf club he is building in the Hill Country of Texas, a rugged piece of nature about 60 miles north of San Antonio and 60 miles west of Austin.
 
Sutton has spared no expense. The name plates on the lockers are made of sterling silver. The benches are covered with hides of ostrich, alligator and longhorn. Each member'former President Bush among them'gets customized boots to be worn on property, much like members in their green jackets at Augusta National.
 
The only evidence of his Ryder Cup captaincy is in the far corner of a garage below the clubhouse, where the red golf cart he drove around Oakland Hills is collecting dust.
 
The Ryder Cup is a distant memory, not necessarily a good one. That much was clear when Sutton was asked whether he enjoyed his two years as captain, and the answer was prefaced by a long pause.
 
Ill look back on it as a positive experience, he said. I think its the greatest marketing event in the world. Its a big to-do. And if somebody thinks you did something wrong, well, thats why its a big to-do. If somebody badmouths something I did, if in some peoples minute opinion they think putting Tiger and Phil together was a mistake ...
 
His voice grew loud, thick, determined, just as it was that Thursday before the matches when he announced Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson would be partners for the first time.
 
They lost both matches, setting the tone for a European rout.
 
Heres the truth, Sutton continued. Do you think they were going to get through their whole career on the same team and somebody wasnt going to put them together? You think the world wanted to see it? Absolutely! I wanted to see it. You wanted to see it. You had your opinion whether it would work, whether I was right or I was not. And its easy to talk about now.
 
He was lampooned for wearing a cowboy hat, a gift from the caddies whom Sutton had made feel like part of the team. He buried Chris Riley for complaining about being too tired after winning a key match with Woods. He was so irritated with Mickelson that he benched him Saturday morning and told the press the Masters champion would be a cheerleader.
 
Did that cost the Americans the Ryder Cup?
 
Or was it because it took seven shots before an American hit the first fairway in the opening session? Or that no one could make a putt? Or that his team was tight, as usual, trying desperately not to lose instead of playing to win.
 
No matter.
 
Sutton suddenly was captain of the Titanic, the latest line of U.S. captains who get blamed for defeat.
 
Now the burden falls to Tom Lehman, who leads the American team Sept. 22-24 at The K Club in Ireland, trying to stop Europe from winning the Ryder Cup for the fifth time in the last six matches.
 
Am I prepared to get abused if we lose? Lehman said with a wry smile.
 
It has been so long since Lehman has spoken to Sutton that he thought it was six months ago at Bay Hill, not a a year-and-a-half ago.
 
We talked a long, long time, Lehman said. At the end of the day, he doesnt have great feelings about his experience. I cant speak for him, but I think it hurts him.
 
Paul Azinger might be the next U.S. captain after Lehman.
 
Ive thought about whether its worth it, and Ive decided it probably is, Azinger said. But theres a lot of experts out there that dont know squat.
 
Azinger called Sutton about two months ago when he had not seen him and wondered if his absence was voluntary. He was happy to hear about Suttons hospital and about Boot Ranch, and he checked up on Suttons wife and his four children.
 
He doesnt need this, Azinger said. Hes got a killer ranch, hes building a golf course. Theres not anything he can do out here that will change the way he is perceived.
 
And how is Sutton perceived?
 
Is he the guy who won The Players Championship and the PGA Championship at age 23? The player who lifted himself from a deep slump and beat Woods in a gutsy showdown at Sawgrass? The winner of 14 tournaments?
 
Or the Ryder Cup captain of a humiliating loss?
 
Theres a feeling I disappeared because I was embarrassed by what happened? Sutton asked. Embarrassment has never driven me off. Youre not trying if you havent failed. Im not afraid to fail, and I dont consider that a failure. I didnt hit a single drive or a hit a single putt all week. At the end of the day, failure is about whether the ball goes in the hole when it comes to golf.
 
I think theres a much bigger picture out here.
 
For all he has done in golf'a career that began by beating Jack Nicklaus at the PGA and culminated with a victory over Woods at The Players Championship'Sutton asked his father not too long ago what he thought was his favorite memory. The answer was the NCAA Tournament when Sutton was at Centenary, losing to Jay Don Blake of Utah State in a four-hole playoff.
 
The reason it was my fondest memory is my dad put his arm around me and said, You did the best you could, Sutton said.
 
Did his father say anything to him after the Ryder Cup?
 
He told me, Everybody is going to have an opinion. You did what you thought was right. Dont look back, Sutton said.
 
The hospital now has a 7,000-square-foot outpatient clinic that opened two weeks ago. A pediatric emergency department is expected to be ready this fall.
 
Indeed, Sutton is moving on.
 
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