Campbell A Champion Ten Years Later


ST. ANDREWS, Scotland -- Michael Campbell stood on the first tee of the Old Course, suddenly overwhelmed by the prospect of being just 18 holes from a life-changing victory at the birthplace of golf.
His legs shook. His hands quivered. His mind raced.
I had no idea what I was doing, to be honest, Campbell is willing to admit now, a decade later.
Come Sunday, if he finds himself in a similar position going to the final round of the British Open, expect a much different reaction.
Im a serious player now, Campbell said. I proved to myself that I can do it. Thats more important than anything else in the world. I know that if I can get to the same situation, I can probably handle it quite well.
Campbell is walking like a champion these days, just three weeks removed from a victory at the U.S. Open and 10 years down the road from his first flirtation with greatness, at St. Andrews of all places.
Back then, he was only 26 and virtually unknown outside of his native New Zealand. But Campbell took a two-stroke lead to the final round of the 1995 British Open, his confidence soaring after one of the most brilliant rounds in the tournaments long history on the penultimate day.
In howling winds that reduced most of the worlds best players to mere hackers, Campbell somehow managed a bogey-free round of 65, highlighted by an improbable escape from the dreaded Road Bunker alongside the 17th green'golfs version of Alcatraz.
Campbell hit a shot virtually straight up, the ball defying all laws of physics as it skimmed the face of the cavernous pit, stayed above the lip and rolled to a stop just 18 inches from the hole. He spread his arms wide, tipped his cap to the roaring gallery and stepped up for his par-saving tap-in.
Unfortunately for Campbell, it was only Saturday.
When he returned the following afternoon, the certainty in his game was gone. The ominous signs of a meltdown were apparent from the very first swing.
I nearly missed the fairway, he recalled Tuesday. Its like a hundred yards wide and I almost missed it. My mind was racing a lot. I had no way to calm my nerves down. I had a lot of consequences on myself. I thought about the consequences.
I was too young. I wasnt ready to win.
Campbell struggled that final day to a 4-over 76, one stroke behind John Daly and Costantino Rocca, the memory of that thrilling ride 24 hours earlier swept away as if caught in one of the North Seas towering waves.
The co-leaders went on a playoff won by Daly, while Campbells meteoric rise to the ranks of star-in-the-making would be eclipsed by a more spectacular fall.
A couple of years later, plagued by injuries, mired in a streak of missed cuts, and coming off two rounds in the 80s at the French Open, Campbell thought it might be time to give up the game.
He had a career to fall back on, having worked for a telephone company before turning pro.
I fixed telephones, Campbell said, able to grin now about one of the lowest times in his life.
He stuck with golf, his perseverance finally paying off at Pinehurst No. 2 last month.
With the games greatest player in his rearview mirror, Campbell produced a virtually flawless round at that toughest of tests, the U.S. Open.
More important, he did it on the final day of a major instead of the next-to-last day, holding off Tiger Woods by two strokes and joining the sports most exclusive club.
A decade behind schedule, hes finally a major champion. A decade later, he finally feels as if he belongs.
Jack Nicklaus sent along a letter of congratulations. So did Arnold Palmer. Greg Norman called. So did the prime minister of New Zealand. A couple of weeks from now, theyll hold a ticker-tape parade in Campbells honor back home.
It was worth the wait, Campbell said. A lot of players, caddies, friends of mine and complete strangers come up to me and say, Well done. Its kind of neat to have that respect from my peers. Ive really been enjoying that.
While Woods came up short at Pinehurst'a shaky putter the final day doomed his chances'hes still an overwhelming favorite to make it two major wins this year and 10 in his career.
Hes emerged from the second major swing change of his career, positioning himself for another remarkable run in the majors.
The two processes I went through were huge for me, he said. And trust me, I dont want to do it again because it takes lot of patience, a lot of hard work, countless hours on the range and at home in front of the mirror, trying to get it right. It takes a lot out of you.
Woods may not win seven times in 11 tries, as he did a few years ago during a stretch that included his runaway win at the 2000 British Open. But the eye of the Tiger is back, staring directly at Nicklaus record of 18 major championships.
Im just in my 20s and Ive won nine, said Woods, still a few months from his 30th birthday. I didnt think I would win this many in my 20s. A golfers prime years arent usually until their 30s.
Its going to take me a while. But at least Im heading in the right direction.
Largely because of Woods influence, Campbell is headed in the right direction, too.
He definitely raised the bar, Campbell said. He made me work harder, thats the bottom line. Made me go to the gym longer, work out harder, practice longer on the range. He definitely made a huge impact on my career.
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