It’s been 13 years now since I won the US Open, but the benefits from what is the highlight of my career so far keep on coming.
Every five years or so, the United States Golf Association hosts a reunion of champions during US Open week. It started at Merion in 2013, where the likes of Bill Casper, Arnold Palmer and Jack Fleck – all no longer with us, sadly – were in attendance. This year we headed to Pebble Beach for a game of golf at nearby Cypress Point and a dinner – which 32 of the 36 surviving champions attended.
You won’t be surprised to hear that I had a great time. It was pretty special for a golf history tragic like me to be around guys like Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Lee Trevino, Tom Watson and Tiger Woods. You don’t see those guys in the same room at the same time very often.
Anyway, we started with that round at Cypress Point. Anyone who wanted to play was welcome and most of those not in the field for Pebble did so, 16 in all. Man, it was cool. We teed-off around 7.15 on the Tuesday morning. Jim Nantz of CBS, who lives on the Monetary Peninsula, was there to be the “starter.” It was very informal, with Jim being “normal” rather than employing the television persona we are all familiar with. It was just him introducing some friends.
The first group was Jack, Gary, Tom Kite and Hale Irwin. The only people watching were some Cypress members, who came to celebrate the occasion. It was very intimate. And funny. When Jack and Gary were teeing-off, Lee was behind the tee giving them some good-natured abuse. “Why are we putting the slowest player in the group off first?” he asked, in reference to Jack.
Watching, I had this great sense that those guys have been doing things like that for 50 years or more. They are old friends as well as competitors – and it showed. It was just like it would be if I was playing with Louis Oosthuizen, Adam Scott and Branden Grace. We’d be giving each other shit on the tee and having a great time.
The best thing though, was seeing these legends of the game behaving just like you and me. We treat them all – quite rightly – with such reverence that we forget that, at the end of the day, they are just guys, just golfers, like the rest of us. So to see them being “normal” was so cool. It emphasised too just how long we can all play the game and have to be the same no matter how young or old we are. It was pretty special, especially as the weather was stunning.
I sometimes get a bit jaded having played golf all around the world, but days like that are why I took up the game in the first place and why I still play now. It was a privilege to be there.
My group was me, Steve Jones (1996 champion), Michael Campbell (2005) and Angel Cabrera (2007). Michael and I took on the other two and won the money. Which was nice. It was a comfortable group because I had played so much with all of them over the years. I know them all really well. It would have been nice to play with one or more of the real legends, but we all probably had more of a comfortable day because we played with more direct contemporaries. It was great fun and reminded me how great it can be to play golf on a great course with your mates. It ticked every box.
In passing, I have to say I did hit the green on the iconic par-3 16th. My hybrid – my between 3-wood and 3-iron club – tee-shot finished maybe 15-feet. But I missed the putt. The most fun though was watching Michael play. It was his first time at Cypress and he was enjoying it so much he couldn’t believe we had played six holes already when we got to the 7th tee. He was genuinely shocked. His day was disappearing way too fast, which is a great gauge of how much you are enjoying a round.
Afterwards we had a casual lunch in the clubhouse. Again, the banter was flying and a lot of old stories were told. And the food was outrageously good.
That evening we had dinner in the Beach Club at Pebble Beach. If you have ever been to the course or watched an event on television, it is the building you see left of the 17th tee, just to the right of the 4th fairway. Which is not a bad spot, looking out over Stillwater Bay.
“We all appreciate more than we can say how much we enjoy being part of this little 'team'.”
All of the significant others were there too, so we maybe had 60 people in total. Jack got up and spoke a little, stopping to chat with one guy at every table about their US Open win and experiences. He tended to choose the older guys, which was fine. They are way more interesting than we are.
What struck me is that, while we might get a little blasé at times about things like yet another dinner, this was not one of those. I think I speak for every past champion there when I say that we all appreciate more than we can say how much we enjoy being part of this little “team”. It was so nice to know that we are all “into” being US Open champions that much.
I sat next to Lou Graham, who won in 1975 at Medinah. Steve Jones and his wife, Bonnie were there too. I’ve known both of them for a long time. Steve is an interesting story. His whole career was plagued by illness and injury but he got the job done when it mattered. As an aside, we discovered that the week he won at Oakland Hills, I won the German Amateur. I think that made him feel old.
Scott Simpson, who won at the Olympic Club in 1987, was also seated near me. My biggest memory of Scott, however, is of Payne Stewart beating him to the title at Hazeltine in 1991. His metronome practice swing also sticks in my mind. The last member of our group was Retief Goosen. He was talking about the shit show he and Stewart Cink had on the last green at Southern Hills in 2001. Both of them missed from under two feet.
To sum up, I must admit I did spend a few minutes contemplating just what I achieved at Winged Foot in 2006. But I spent more time thinking about what everyone else had done. It’s nice to know that, when you’ve won a major, no one can ever take that away from you. Plus, the passing of time makes it all seem more important. I knew winning was a big deal at the time. But it seems bigger now. It certainly means more to me now, both emotionally and commercially. Being a US Open champion has opened so many doors for me.
And yes, I’ll be back for the next reunion in five years’ time. Wouldn’t miss it.