Luke DeCock

2005 US Open golf champ Michael Campbell remains a mystery

With the scoreboard behind him, Michael Campbell from New Zealand reacts after sinking his final putt on the 18th hole to win the 2005 US Open held at Pinehurst Sunday June 18, 2005.
With the scoreboard behind him, Michael Campbell from New Zealand reacts after sinking his final putt on the 18th hole to win the 2005 US Open held at Pinehurst Sunday June 18, 2005. NEWS & OBSERVER FILE PHOTO

The party went on late into the night and early into the morning, Michael Campbell and a few of his buddies from New Zealand given the keys to the bar at Pine Needles Lodge and Golf Club for their celebration after their revelry showed no signs of ending.

Campbell had arrived at Pine Needles that week in June 2005 as a virtual unknown, emerging from qualifying for the U.S. Open to outlast Tiger Woods on Pinehurst’s No. 2 course and become a most unexpected Open champion.

Campbell came from nowhere to win in 2005. He promptly returned to whence he came.

His precipitous fall since winning the U.S. Open has become as improbable as his win. He hasn’t won since September 2005, hasn’t made the cut at a major since 2008 and has only two top-10 finishes on the European Tour during the past six years, both in 2012. He has played 193 tournaments worldwide since 2006. He has only 14 top-10 finishes while missing the cut and going home penniless 113 times.

Campbell now lives in Marbella, on Spain’s Costa del Sol, where he runs a golf academy. In May, he announced he would not return to Pinehurst because of an ankle injury and personal issues. Now 45, all of the other exemptions Campbell earned with his win in 2005 have expired. This one will next year.

“I did think he’d kick on, no two ways about it,” said Golf Channel analyst Frank Nobilo, one of the best pros to come out of New Zealand. “It’s tough to win two majors, but I certainly thought he’d play more in America and be a regular winner. I didn’t expect him to fall off the map. It’s kind of sad, really.”

As the Open returns to Pinehurst without him, Campbell remains as much of a mystery as he was when he won.

‘A long time between drinks’

Steve Williams, then Woods’ caddie, grew up with Campbell in Wellington, New Zealand. He emerged from the Pinehurst clubhouse that Sunday night in a surprisingly loquacious mood, calling Campbell’s win “the single biggest sporting moment in New Zealand history.” Bob Charles won the 1963 British Open, and there have been many great rugby moments, but Campbell’s win sated a mighty thirst.

That was true down the road from Pinehurst, where Campbell pulled up at the front door of Pine Needles late Sunday with the U.S. Open trophy buckled into the passenger seat of his rental car, greeted by a celebratory banner hung by the resort, his home for the week.

Much champagne was consumed with resort owner Peggy Kirk Bell and her family, but Campbell and his friends still were going strong when resort president Kelly Miller finally left at 3 a.m.

“Here’s the deal, Michael. I have to go home,” Miller told Campbell. “I’m exhausted. I’m leaving the bar open. You guys can drink anything you want, just don’t take anything out of here. Drink it all.”

When Miller returned at 7 a.m., the night watchman told him the celebration had wrapped up only a few minutes earlier.

That celebration was nothing compared to the scenes in New Zealand, where the workday was just beginning. The entire country came to a stop, with delirious Kiwis stumbling out of bars and into the streets in joy. The website selling his line of shirts, Cambowear, crashed from the traffic. It was unquestionably the country’s biggest golf moment in more than 40 years, since Charles won the British Open.

“That’s a long time between drinks,” said Duncan Simpson, president of the New Zealand PGA. “We started the New Zealand Golf Hall of Fame in 2010, and they were the first two to be elected.”

If business was going well for Campbell, golf was going better. He finished sixth at the PGA Championship and won the HSBC World Match Play Championship in September. At 36, he finally was on his way.

And then nothing. He hasn’t won since.

On the European Tour, he has only 13 top-10 finishes in 169 events since. He has missed more cuts than he has made. He hasn’t made a cut on U.S. soil since 2008, playing mostly in majors and other big tournaments until his exemption ran out.

Nobilo, who played on three Presidents Cup teams, expected more from Campbell, a smooth and precise ball-striker. Everyone did. And yet even he wasn’t surprised by Campbell’s collapse.

“Yes and no,” Nobilo said. “There’s always a caveat there. He was a tremendous striker of the golf ball, but the reason why I reserve my opinion is within 12 months he’d changed clubs. His life changed dramatically.

“He started following down the same path other players had after winning a major: different clothing, different clubs and so on. That was my biggest concern. He got there the right way and then there was that sort of turn of events. From a talent point of view, there was never any doubting his ability.”

Struggles with success

Campbell grew up playing golf and rugby and worked as a telephone technician before his natural ability and success in international amateur events made it clear golf was a better career option. He didn’t turn pro until he was 24, in 1993. Two years later, he led the British Open after three rounds before giving way to John Daly.

In a harbinger of events to come, it took him 10 years to recover not from that defeat, but from that success.

“Michael has historically had a roller-coaster career due to mental fragility in my analysis,” his off-and-on English swing coach, Jonathan Yarwood, wrote in an email.

“There is a talented warrior in him, but also a shy kid from New Zealand who hates the attention and self-sabotages once a pinnacle has been reached. I’ve had his game better than the U.S. Open period technically, but it’s the mind that glues it together.”

A similar turn of events followed his U.S. Open win. While he closed out that season well, he was limited to 10 PGA Tour events on sponsors’ exemptions in 2006, which left him playing primarily on the European Tour. And if he wasn’t ready for the attention in 1995, he was even less prepared in 2005.

“I got lazy because I got so busy with off-the-course stuff, wrapped up with golf course design, appearances, charity days,” Campbell told the BBC last year. “It was a lot of fun the year after winning the U.S. Open but it ate into my time actually playing golf. I take full responsibility, it was my fault it happened, this whole spiral downwards.”

That spiral saw his European Tour winnings decline for five straight seasons, to a paltry 13,576 Euros in 2010. He struggled with injuries as well.

He considered giving up the game in 2011, but his wife Julie and two sons talked him out of it. He recommitted to golf and reunited with Yarwood, who had been working with him during 2005, sparking a temporary renaissance in his game.

In 2012, he posted his first top-10 finishes in four years, including third place at the Portugal Masters. But that revival was brief; while he worked his way back to 236th in the world rankings, he missed the cut in 12 of 17 events in 2013 – on three continents – and has played only once in 2014, missing the cut in Abu Dhabi in January.

“Put simply I’d say it’s like an actor that gets a touch of stage fright,” Yarwood wrote. “He’s lost his nerve under the gun to some extent. It’s easy to do, as the margins are tiny at the high level. There seems to be two distinct camps that win majors, those that can deal with it and those that can’t. Michael is in the latter along with quite a few other talents if you look at history.”

Since January, Campbell has been rehabbing an ankle injury in Marbella. Pinehurst would have been his first public appearance in months. Through his agent, he declined repeated interview requests for this story and his only comments were posted on his personal website in May.

“I have had some problems with a tendon in my left ankle that stopped me from playing for two to three months,” Campbell said in the statement. “The good news is that I am back swinging and now managing to play 18 holes.

“On a personal note, I have some sad news. Unfortunately Julie and I have separated. Our children remain our number one focus as we move forwards – as parents first and foremost while remaining both friends and business partners.

“As I do not feel that I am either fully physically or mentally ready to play tournament golf at the highest level, after much deliberation, I have decided not to play in the BMW PGA Championship, the U.S. Open or the events in between. I want to get back to my best and I believe this is the best strategy to achieve this.”

Lasting impact

For all his struggles, his influence on golf in New Zealand remains strong today. Lydia Ko, the 17-year-old LPGA Tour star who has usurped Campbell as New Zealand’s most prominent golfer, was 8 when Campbell won at Pinehurst. She doesn’t remember the celebrations. She certainly appreciates the impact.

“He’s done a lot for golf in New Zealand,” Ko said. “His win was like a confidence boost for the whole country. He kind of inspired kids my age to play golf and enjoy it and give us dreams that one day we can be in that position. But I realize more about what he’s done now than I did as an 8-year-old.”

A native Maori who also descended from some of New Zealand’s first Scottish settlers, Campbell’s victory in 2005 represented everything that was good about the country, melding all of its roots together. The celebration was massive, but Campbell’s win had long-term effects as well.

“He was coached in New Zealand as an amateur, so that helped validate a lot of the coaching,” Nobilo said. “Geographically we’re challenged. Even with the Internet, people would say everything overseas was better. When I was playing for New Zealand as an amateur, I was forced to see an Australian coach. So that’s one of the legacies Michael will have.”

There are two New Zealanders, Danny Lee and Tim Wilkinson, playing sporadically on the PGA Tour, but Ko represents New Zealand’s brightest hope since Campbell.

This spring, as Ko was making a splash on the LPGA Tour, she received a call on her phone from an unknown number. She debated not answering. She was glad she did. It was Campbell on the line, congratulating her on her success.

“It was just really exciting for me, to have someone of his profile call me,” Ko said. “I thought he got the wrong number.”

There have been only wrong numbers for Campbell since 2005, a moment of unlikely magic that captivated the world, if only briefly, and still inspires an entire country.

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