The Bear Apparent

A profile of Hal Sutton


The Bear Apparent, Prince Hal, Halimony… Hal Sutton was never short on nicknames—or game. The Shreveport, Louisiana, native burst onto the PGA Tour stage in the early ’80s, winning Rookie of the Year, a Players Championship, a PGA Championship, and a money title within 18 months of earning his card. But Sutton turned out to be a study in the fickle nature of golf. Although never short on talent, he went through a slump for the better part of a decade. First, he tried too little. Then, he tried too hard. While his career résumé is slimmer than it could have been, Sutton will always be remembered for raising his game when nearly everyone else’s faltered. He is the only player to stare down both Jack and Tiger on a Sunday, and end up with the trophy. An underachiever—maybe. But Sutton can never be accused of lacking moxie and mettle.

PGA Tour commissioner Deane Beman presenting Hal Sutton with the 1983 Players Championship trophy

After Sutton won his first major, the 1983 PGA, at age 25, runner-up Jack Nicklaus congratulated him by remarking, “I have a feeling this is the first of many.” Instead, it was one of… one. Sutton gave us greatness in spurts. He came out hot, went through tough times, and survived long enough for one late-career joyride.

Sutton’s game centered on his massive, Popeye-like forearms and his superb iron play. He had a sterling amateur career, winning the 1980 U.S. Amateur and bringing little-known Centenary College of Louisiana into college golf relevance. Perhaps it was because he set expectations so high that he never really lived up to them.

Sutton employing his substantial forearms to hoist the Wanamaker in 1983

As Sutton told Jaime Diaz in 1988, “About 1984 I kind of stopped working hard on my game. The thing was, I still played pretty good, and I just started taking it for granted that my game was always going to be there.” Sutton still won in the mid-’80s, just not as much as expected.

Then came the slump. That’s when he started trying too hard. After racking up seven wins in four years, Sutton went nine without one. As he went through one swing coach after another, his tee-to-green game, once surgical, became an embarrassment.

Finally, in the mid-’90s, Sutton recovered his form—but only when he made a conscious decision to stop pressing and just be himself. Here’s how he put it to Lorne Rubenstein in 2000: “Each and every one of us has a fingerprint. When you start trying to change that fingerprint, that’s when things go wrong.”

Sutton getting deep into the headset game as U.S. captain at the 2004 Ryder Cup

In the end, Sutton may be best remembered for the times he stood up to the greats. He took down Vijay in a playoff at the 1998 Tour Championship. He beat the Golden Bear at Riviera in 1983. And maybe most impressively, he topped Tiger at the Players in 2000—a year when no one was topping Tiger—and gave us a first-ballot Hall of Fame soundbite in the process…

The phrase “14 wins and one major” doesn’t quite capture what Hal Sutton could do against the game’s best when the pressure was on.

This profile accompanies our Shotgun Start Spotlight segment on Hal Sutton on 3/20/20. Rather than simply running down players’ accomplishments, we try to describe where they fit in the golf landscape of their time. Check out the full podcast below.