Q&A: Former Ryder Cup Captain, player Hal Sutton on playing and teaching golf the right way

COLUMBUS, Texas -- As a former Ryder Cup captain and player, Hal Sutton is at Hazeltine National Golf Club in Chaska, Minn. this week for the 41st Ryder Cup.

Now a partner in the new Big Easy Ranch in Columbus, Texas, about 70 miles west of Houston, the 58-yard-old Shreveport, La. native is turning over a new chapter. He is opening up the Hal Sutton Golf Academy at Big Easy Ranch, and seeks to give back to the game the wisdom that carried him through his long playing career, which included winning 14 times on the PGA Tour, the U.S. Amateur in 1979, playing on four Ryder Cup teams (1985, 1987, 1999, 2002), serving as Ryder Cup Captain (2005), and winning the 1983 PGA Championship at Riviera Country Club when he outdueled Jack Nicklaus to win by a stroke.

Of course, Sutton will always be known for beating Tiger Woods to win the 2000 Players Championship on the PLAYERS Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass. Holding a one shot-lead on the last hole, he uttered the phrase, "Be the right club today," as he hit his 6-iron approach eight feet from the flag to hold off Woods. Hardly a day goes by, where somebody doesn't remind him of that moment, which was picked up by broadcast microphones for everyone to hear. In fact, Big Easy Ranch, which offers premium hunting, fishing and dining in addition to golf, uses the phrase in its marketing material.

I recently got a chance to spend some time with Sutton, who gave me a few tips on the range at Big Easy Ranch, not only about golf, but about life as well. Here's some of what we talked about:

Golf Advisor: What does Ryder Cup week mean to you?

Hal Sutton: I look forward to it as a past player. I played on four Ryder Cup teams, had a winning record (7-5-4). I love the competition of playing for your country. Nothing's better. There's nothing more fun than that.

Golf Advisor: What's your week like this week?

Hal Sutton: As a past captain, some of us play an event there this week. And I do another golf event earlier in the week off site. You spend time in the player room, team room, and on the golf course with them. You're just around supporting.

Golf Advisor: What's your favorite Ryder Cup memory?

Hal Sutton: The '99 Ryder Cup (Battle of Brookline). I played all five matches and led the team in score that year (3 1/2 points). I was 12 years removed from making a team, so I was just happy to be there.

Golf Advisor: Captain Ben Crenshaw said the eve of the singles matches at Brookline when you were down 10-6: "I'm going to leave y'all with one thought, and then I'm going to leave. I'm a big believer in fate. I have a good feeling about this. That's all I'm going to tell you." Was that just talk or did everyone on the team feel the U.S. team had a great chance to pull it out on Sunday?

Hal Sutton: I think everybody had a good feeling about it. Things just hadn't worked out to that point. We knew if we could all put it out on the turf at the same time, we'd be hard to deal with. And we were very hard to deal with on Sunday.

Golf Advisor: Do you consider your Ryder Cup experiences the highlight of your career?

Hal Sutton: Every kid I talk to, I talk about the journey. The journey has mountain tops and valleys. And I had some mountain tops in my career. And that would be one of them. I don't want to get too caught up in any one moment. I try to tell kids don't feel any more pressure than the next shot. Because it's just one shot in a lifetime. And if you can treat it like that, then you can go a long ways. The truth is when you look back on the journey, you will see that there is one shot that was really, really important, but you didn't treat it like that and that's what leads to hitting a great shot.

Golf Advisor: What can regular golfers learn from watching the Ryder Cup? What do you think are the best lessons for our own game and life, for that matter, from watching the Ryder Cup?

Hal Sutton: I think you'll see people rise and fall to the occasion. I think as long as you understand that's part of life, you can deal with life. Other than that, I don't know if there's any one thing you can pull out of that. And they all swing at it differently.

Golf Advisor: You have some strong opinions on how golf is taught today. You feel like it's become way too technical.

Hal Sutton: In the world we live in today, there are kids who are range rats. That look great swinging at it, but they can't control the flight of the ball or anything else or how to use the land to maneuver the ball. They just play the game in the air. That's all they know how to do. But that's not all there is. Sometimes you've got to hit the ground over there to make go over here (he said, pointing in two different directions).

We've got better equipment, and players as a whole are worse. How did that happen? Because we fell asleep. We've got scientists and engineers running this game. And that's a real problem.

Golf Advisor: Of course as an instructor, you have to teach the golf swing. But you have it boiled down to a concept, which comes in a lot of forms. Can you explain that?

Hal Sutton: A good golf swing is an exact sequence of events happening from the ground up as fast as it can happen. Understand, however, that from the ground, you're moving minutely and slowly. And the further you go up, the more violent the move is. But it has to happen in an exact sequence. If you throw that sequence out of whack, you create violence, correction and manipulation.

Golf Advisor: So what you're saying is that if you try to turn the legs too fast or throw the hips to hard, it will make the golf swing difficult?

Hal Sutton: Exactly. The legs have to stay under you, If your legs try to run out from under you, your spine will back up.

Golf Advisor: You think golfers are too obsessed with distance these days. You're really about teaching shot-making, right?

Hal Sutton: I have a lot of kids who talk to me about distance all the time. I tell them there are plenty of people who can hit it 400 yards and get lost in the woods, never to be seen again. It's all about controlling your irons. You make more three-footers than you will six-footers. You'll make more six-footers than 12-footers. You make more 12-footers than you will 24-footers. The way you shoot low is you hit your irons close.

Golf Advisor: Would you like to see more former tour players teaching the game?

Hal Sutton: I think some of us have to be concerned about the future of the game. And we've got to say, hey, I'm not finished. Maybe I'm finished as a player, but I'm not finished as far as the game is concerned. Take our scorecard, and read what we wrote.

With that said, here's what's written on the back of the Big Easy Ranch scorecard: "There was a time when no player had a swing coach, when a player used the same driver for decades and a set of irons were replaced when the grooves were worn flat to the face. It was when being a professional golfer meant that you had achieved a level of understanding about the game that only came as a result of tens of thousands of hours of dedication to every subtlety the game presents. The wisdom that found in that era is no less valid today."

Mike Bailey is a former Golf Advisor senior staff writer based in Houston. Focusing primarily on golf in the United States, Canada, the Caribbean and Latin America with an occasional trip to Europe and beyond, he contributes course reviews, travel stories and features as well as the occasional equipment review. An award-winning writer and past president of Texas Golf Writers Association, he has more than 25 years in the golf industry. He has also been on staff at PGA Magazine, The Golfweek Group and AvidGolfer Magazine. Follow Mike on Twitter at @MikeBaileyGA and Instagram at @MikeStefanBailey.
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Q&A: Former Ryder Cup Captain, player Hal Sutton on playing and teaching golf the right way