Jim Furyk sat in a corner of the locker room at TPC Sawgrass on a May afternoon a couple of hours after shooting an even-par round of 72 to open The Players Championship. Furyk treasures routine, and this steamy Thursday had been no different than most days in his 20-year career on the PGA Tour. He had played 18 holes, grinding on every shot, signed his scorecard and gone inside to cool off and get something to eat.
Then, he and his dad headed for the range, just as they have done thousands of times since Jim’s boyhood to see if there was something that could be tweaked to make his game just a little better.
“We hit a lot of drivers,” Furyk said, pausing to sip from a bottle of water. “It’s the oldest golfer’s lament there is, I guess, but I don’t feel like I’m that far away. A tweak here, a tweak there and I can be close to where I want to be.”
He leaned back in his chair and smiled.
“So, what’s up?” he asked.
I had asked Furyk if he had some free time and he had suggested we meet in the locker room at 4 o’clock. He was two minutes late – unusual for him – which is early for most athletes. My all-time record is Kevin Mitchell, the baseball player, who strolled into the Seattle Mariners' locker room at 5:15 for a 2 o’clock meeting and said, “I’ve only got about 10 minutes.” I will not repeat what I told him he could do with his 10 minutes.
Furyk is the anti-Kevin Mitchell, not only always punctual when he says he’ll be somewhere, but always patient and generous with his time.
So, when he asked, ‘what’s up,’ I answered directly:
“I want to talk about last year.”
Furyk’s smile disappeared. He swigged the water again and shook his head in a way that made me think he was going to say, “I’m done with that.” I wouldn’t have blamed him. I almost felt guilty about asking but believed it was worth it because Furyk is one of golf’s most thoughtful people. And I had no doubt he had thought about 2012 a lot.
By almost any standard, 2012 was a great year for Furyk. He had bounced back from what had been a terrible year for him in 2011. After winning three times in 2010 and being voted PGA Tour Player of the Year at age 40, he had dropped to 54th place on the money list and never finished higher than sixth all year. During one stretch he missed four straight cuts – unheard of for him.
In 2012, he had seven top-10s and two 11th-place finishes. He more than doubled his money, winning more than $3.6 million to finish 12th on the money list. He lost a playoff in Tampa; almost won the U.S. Open; should have won in Akron and made the Ryder Cup team – his eighth straight.
And yet, when the subject of that year came up, he visibly sagged in his seat.
“You know I’ve always taken the approach that you talk about your successes and you talk about your failures,” he said, speaking slowly, choosing his words every bit as carefully as he chooses a club on the golf course. “I don’t think I’ve ever been one to duck people.'
Furyk’s year was marked by three extraordinarily painful near-misses. His loss in a four-way playoff to Luke Donald in Tampa didn’t really bother him because he played well, birdied the 18th to get into the playoff, and felt as if the work he had done during the offseason was going to pay off before the year was over.
It did – sort of – but not in the way he would have liked. He was tied for the lead at the U.S. Open at Olympic with two par 5s to play on Sunday. But he hit arguably one of the worst shots of his career, a disastrous snap-hooked 3-wood off the 16th tee and ended up making bogey. Another bogey at 18 – needing a birdie to tie Webb Simpson – led to a tie for fourth.
“I’ve never been bothered that much by physical mistakes,” Furyk said. “We all make them. I have a 7-iron to the green from the middle of the fairway and I make a bad swing and put it in a bunker I’m not happy but I know it happens. Mental mistakes bother me – they stay with me. To me, those are avoidable. They shouldn’t happen.
“What happened at 16 at Olympic was a mental mistake that led to a really bad physical mistake,” he said. “I guess it’s fair to say that I got freaked out by where they’d put the tee. I just couldn’t make myself commit to the shot I needed to hit.”
The tee at 16 was part of Mike Davis’ U.S. Open set-up philosophy. Davis likes to create at least one shot a day during the Open that forces players to think outside the box. Moving the tee box up 101 yards on 16 was his Sunday outside-the-box move at the Open. Like a lot of players, Furyk doesn’t like to be forced out of his comfort zone.
“It’s one thing to say you have three tee boxes on a hole,” Furyk said. “It’s another to move the tee up 100 yards. I talked to Mike about it afterwards and he explained his thinking to me. It comes down to the philosophy of a player versus the philosophy of a guy setting up the course. There’s no right and wrong involved.
“Bottom line is everyone in the field played the hole from there that day and I handled it worse than just about anyone.”
Furyk badly wants to win another major – and would especially like to repeat his 2003 Open victory at Olympia Fields. He was close at Winged Foot in ’06; close at Oakmont in ’07 and painfully close again in ’12. He’s well aware of the fact that another major win would virtually clinch a spot for him in the Hall of Fame. He has one major win; 16 wins on Tour in all and all those Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup appearances (15 in all). A second major would remove any lingering doubt.
“I try not to think about it (the Hall of Fame) because I still think I have a few more years of playing well enough that I’m not ready to start looking back yet,” he said. “But it comes up enough that I can’t help but think about it at times.” He smiled. “I didn’t lose the Open because I was thinking, ‘this will get me in the Hall of Fame.’ That’s one thing I can tell you for sure.”
He lost at Akron in early August because he badly chopped up the 18th hole on Sunday, making a double-bogey 6 to turn a one-shot lead over Keegan Bradley into a one-shot loss.
“That one hurt because I should have won the tournament,” he said. “I played beautifully almost the entire week. I could have won the Open; I should have won Akron. The worst shot I hit (on 18) was my third because I rushed through my routine, probably because I was upset with the first two shots. Again, a mental mistake. And then I let that lead to hitting a bad putt (from 5 feet) for bogey.
“That made me angry – very angry – with myself. It just shouldn’t have happened. It was my tournament to win and I gave it away. I’ve won 16 times in 20 years out here and I’ve been a pretty good player the whole time. What that means is when you get a chance to win, you better take it because it doesn’t happen all that often.” He smiled for a second. “Unless you’re Tiger Woods.”
The most painful loss for Furyk may have been the one at Medinah, when the U.S. blew a 10-6 lead to Europe on Sunday. Playing in the eighth singles match against Sergio Garcia (whom he had beaten in singles in 1999 when the Americans rallied from 10-6 down to win) Furyk was 1 up through 16 holes and it easily could have been 2 up. Garcia made a tough up-and-down from a bunker at 16 while Furyk missed a 15-foot birdie putt he thought was going in the hole.
Furyk then missed both the 17th and 18th greens and couldn’t make par-saving putts on either hole. Garcia parred them both to win, 1 up. Furyk readily admits that the 7-foot putt he missed on 18 was one of the most painful moments of his career.
“Believe me, I knew what was at stake,” he said. “I could see the scoreboards and I knew that half-point could easily be the difference at that stage. I read the putt right, I hit it well. It just didn’t go in.”
During the U.S. team’s postmatch news conference, someone asked Furyk if losing as part of a team was more painful or less painful than losing in an individual event. It was a rare moment when Furyk lost a little bit of composure.
“Obviously you’ve never been a competitor or you wouldn’t ask that question,” Furyk said. Then he recovered and said the Ryder Cup was a team event, which meant he knew he had 11 players, his captain and his assistant captains behind him – win or lose.
“It wasn’t so much the question as the tone of the question,” Furyk said, months later, readily conceding that he lost his cool. “It came across as condescending. I didn’t know the guy. Maybe if it was someone I knew, I’d have taken a deep breath before I said anything. But it wasn’t.”
Furyk had been talking for more than an hour. He hadn’t snapped at any question and, as always, answered thoughtfully and in detail. “One reason I’m looking forward to the Open is that maybe I can put last year behind me once and for all once we get there.”
I reminded him he would undoubtedly be asked questions about Olympic before teeing it up at Merion.
“Yeah, I know,” he said with a sigh. “I’ll deal with it.”
Furyk has always dealt with it – the good and the bad.
“I’m 43,” he said. “Next year, I’m going to cut my schedule back. It’s just time. I want to focus on playing places I like to play and where I think I can win. I’m not going to do a full Stricker (as in cut back to a dozen events a la Steve Stricker) but I won’t play 25 anymore. The important thing is I believe I’m going to win more golf tournaments.
“In 2010 I had three good chances to win and won all three times. Last year, I probably had more chances to win but didn’t get it done. All I want is more chances to win. I believe next time I get the chance, I’ll finish the job.”