On Saturday, 2005 US Open champion Michael Campbell announced his retirement at the age of 46.
The New Zealander said on Twitter: "Retiring from playing the game I love was very difficult but the right decision. Looking forward to my next chapter."
Back in 2011, we spoke to Campbell about his previous thoughts on quitting the sport after failing to live up to his success at Pinehurst.
In close to eight years at bunkered, I have become accustomed to asking people difficult questions without so much as a blink. It is an occupational hazard, some might say.
Even so, as I ask Michael Campbell if he ever considered quitting golf when he sank as low as 827th on the world rankings last year, I can’t help but feel something tugging on my conscience.
This is a guy, a likeable down-to-earth bloke, who has double-digit wins around the world and a major title to his name - and here I am querying why he didn’t chuck in the towel and throw away not just his career but everything he has ever worked for when he lost his form. I feel a little indignant, intrusive even - but not worried.
You see, whilst some players might have baulked at such a question, and others might have barked at it, New Zealander Campbell is - and always has been - refreshingly honest, and, despite the bluntness of the question I’ve just put to him, he doesn’t falter.
“Quitting? Yeah, I definitely thought about it on at least a couple of occasions. It never really lasted more than a day at a time but, yeah, it crossed my mind.”
He goes on: “It was difficult to motivate myself to come to tournaments, for sure. Sometimes I just didn’t want to be out there, away from my family and struggling to get round courses.
“I lost my motivation and, when that goes, a hard job just gets a whole lot harder. But I’ve emptied my cup of all that stuff, I guess you could say, and filled it with all good stuff.”
Thoughts of quitting. A loss of motivation. How did it ever get so bad? To find the answer, and as strange as it sounds, you need to go all the way back to 2005 and Campbell’s most successful year to date.
After opening his campaign with five straight missed cuts, the Kiwi suddenly hit form and missed only one more in his next 16 events.
His good form followed him to US Open sectional qualifying at Walton Heath where he sank a six-foot birdie on his last hole to secure his place in the field for Pinehurst. Ten years earlier, Campbell had finished tied-third in the same championship at Shinnecock Hills but had since missed the cut in the event five times in nine years, including four-in-a-row from 2001 to 2004. So, there was really very little evidence to suggest that he’d mount a challenge that year.
He did better than that, though. As the rest of the field toiled in the final round, Campbell shot a 69 and held off the advances of a prowling Tiger Woods to win his first major by two shots.
The following month he tied for fifth in the Open at St Andrews. The month after that he finished tied-sixth in the US PGA Championship at Baltusrol.
That was August. In September, he won the then richest prize in golf, the HSBC World Matchplay Championship at Wentworth.
All of this combined to help Campbell finish second on the European Tour Order of Merit, reach a career high of 14th on the world rankings having started the year in 89th place, and be awarded a slew of honours, among them the tour’s ‘Player of the Year’ title and the ‘Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit’ accolade in the country’s New Year Honours List.
To all intents and purposes, ‘Cambo’, as he is affectionately known, had finally arrived.
The kid who dreamed of conquering the world as a member of the mighty ‘All Blacks’ rugby union side (his mother put paid to those plans) had seemingly laid down a marker that he was now a force to be reckoned with on golf’s professional tours. More honours, more wins and more majors, presumably, awaited him.
Only it didn’t work out like that. Not at all. Rather than be spurred on to even greater things by his US Open triumph, Campbell found the win difficult to deal with.
“It was great being announced on the first tee around the world as the US Open champion,” he revealed. “But when all the dust settled after it, I remember thinking, ‘Okay, what next?’ and it was almost like there was no ‘next’. Winning a major was my Everest, I’d achieved what I set out to do at the start of my career and suddenly it was like, ‘Alright, what do I do now?’.
"I thought I’d hit the pinnacle of my career so I took my foot off the accelerator"
“I thought I’d hit the pinnacle of my career so I took my foot off the accelerator, applied it to the brake and, well, things obviously started to go wrong.”
They didn’t half. From finishing second on the European Tour Order of Merit in ’05, Campbell slipped to 31st in 2006. His US Open defence ended meekly and abruptly when he missed the cut at Winged Foot. In fact, of the four majors that year, he only made the cut at the Open, finishing a distant 35th. By the end of the year, he’d slipped to 25th on the world rankings.
Things didn’t get much better in either 2007 or 2008 but, in 2009, the wheels really came off.
Of the 22 events he played, Campbell made just six cuts. His stroke average ballooned to 75.14 - up by more than four strokes from 2005 - and he made just €19,655, finishing 249th in the inaugural Race to Dubai.
Remarkably, last year (2010) was even worse. Blighted by a persistent shoulder injury, he made just three cuts from 20 events, added almost one more stroke to his scoring average and earned a paltry €13,576. A tie for 79th at the French Open in July was as good as it got for him last season and it wasn’t until the Sicilian Open in March this year that he pocketed another cheque.
Eight-and-a-half months of nothing but missed cuts. No wonder he almost gave up. Still, unlike some other players who have been through massive slumps in their careers, Campbell’s not one to try and spread the blame.
He said: “I take full responsibility for everything that’s happened. I stopped practicing as hard as I should have, stopped going to the gym as much, and concentrated instead on just having too much of a good time.”
Luckily, he had the support of his family to rely on - “The kids didn’t care how badly I played. I’d go home at night and I wasn’t a guy struggling with his golf. I was just dad” - but, even so, the dubious imposition of being a major champion still gnawed away at him.
"One of the hardest things to deal with after winning the US Open was everyone’s expectations"
“Winning a major affects people differently,” he added with great honesty. “There have been a few guys who’ve won one and should have gone on to win more but the next few times they’ve teed it up in a major, they’ve tried too hard and when you do that, you’re in trouble.
“One of the hardest things to deal with after winning the US Open was everyone’s expectations. Your fellow players, the media, the fans - they all expect you to win more and more of them just because you’ve managed to win one. That was incredibly tough, especially when you’ve got your own expectations to live up to.
“I spoke to a lot of other guys on tour about it. Trevor Immelman, for example. He went through a hard time after winning the Masters in ’08 and he told me he also found it hard to get back out there and play with all those increased expectations on him. No one can really prepare you for that.
“I remember talking to Padraig about it, too, after he won his first major . I told him not to get caught up with what other people are thinking about you and just go out there and concentrate on doing what you’ve been doing.
“He told me after he won his second and third majors that what I’d said had stuck with him. He made it a priority to enjoy the game and his success. That’s something that I forgot to do altogether. I mean, come on, golf’s a game, it’s meant to be fun. Somewhere along the line, I forgot that.”
Slowly, Campbell is starting to rediscover that joie de vivre and is, once again, starting to take pleasure from his work.
First and foremost, he is making cuts again - by the French Open this year, he’d already made twice as many as he managed in the whole of 2010 - and the turnaround in his fortunes, he says, can be attributed in part to a frank conversation he had with British sporting legend Sir Steve Redgrave.
Redgrave, a five-time Olympic rowing gold-medalist, is a die-hard golfer and a regular in celebrity pro-am competitions, such as the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship. It was whilst playing in that tournament last year that he shared a courtesy car from Carnoustie to St Andrews - as well as some invaluable advice - with Campbell.
“I had a really good talk with Sir Steve and came away from it feeling really inspired,” revealed Campbell. “He’s achieved so much in his career, but only because he’s had to work incredibly hard. You know, he won his first gold medal, then had to come back and try even harder to win the second. And again, and again, and again. He ended up with five gold medals. So, I decided to take a leaf from his book.
“He said to me: ‘You’ve conquered your Everest. Well, next time, try and do it with no oxygen’. I thought that was a great perspective from a guy who’s been there, done that and reached the top of his profession several times over.
“He told me to work harder, too. He said: ‘Look, you’ve got the game to win majors, you’ve done it before and there’s no reason why you can’t do it again.’”
Rallied by Redgrave’s advice, Campbell has re-dedicated himself to the game.
He said: “I changed coaches last December. I’ve also hired a trainer as well as a physio to get the old body working the way it should be, which is going well. The combination of changing coaches and getting fitter has been a massive bonus for me this year and I think it’s starting to show in my results. I’ve had a few good results. Not end results but good scores and that’s encouraging.
“It’s nice to finally come out and think again about competing as opposed to just making cuts. There’s definitely light at the end of the tunnel. When I finally hold a trophy in my arms again, that’ll be a very special day.”
What’s more, far from believing his career peaked with his US Open win, Campbell, 42, now believes that he still has plenty to give and get from the game.
“Do I feel my best years are still ahead of me? Sure, why not? That’s the great thing about this game, it has no limits. As long as you keep yourself flexible and work hard, there’s no end to what you can achieve. The other good thing that I’ve got now is plenty of experience. I’ve won 15 times around the world, I know how to win majors, I’ve been on tour a long time. So, I’ve got that going for me.
"You need to accept that you are going to go through lots of ups and downs during your career"
“I’m eager to get back up there again and win some more majors. First and foremost, my goal is to contend for regular European Tour events but, definitely, I want to win majors again.
“I think I’ve turned the corner and I’m glad about that. I’ve missed it, you know? I’ve missed competing, missed winning. It’s been tough but I’m getting there.”
He also has advice for any young player who, at some point during their career, finds themselves in a slump like he did.
“What I’d tell them is pretty simple; that the most important thing is just to go out there, enjoy it, have some fun and not put pressure on yourself. You can be your own worst enemy, so try not to be.
“You need to accept that you are going to go through lots of ups and downs during your career but you just have to keep working hard and, most importantly, remember to have fun.”