Hal Sutton turned 44 on April 28 but wanted to keep I the day as uneventful as possible. "When you get to be my age, you want your birthday to pass," he says. Sutton's wife, Ashley, and the couple's three young daughters had other ideas. That afternoon they surprised Hal with a cake-and-presents party after he returned home from practice. "The girls were so excited to get those presents open, even though they were for me," Sutton says. He pauses a moment, then sighs. "I can't believe I'm 44 years old. Everything's gone so fast."
For the most part Sutton has held the upper hand in his match with Father Time. Since turning 40, he has won six events on the PGA Tour (the fifth-most wins by a fortysomething in Tour history) and was a rock for the U.S. in the 1999 Ryder Cup. Recently, though, Sutton has been showing his age. Last week he shot 77-73 to miss the cut at the Compaq Classic of New Orleans, the seventh time in 11 starts in 2002 that Sutton has failed to make it to the weekend. He has won only $135,864 to rank 135th on the money list.
That a 44-year-old Tour pro should hit the wall is hardly remarkable; it's happened to almost every player that age. What's noteworthy is that this particular 44-year-old is a member of the 12-man Ryder Cup team that will take on Europe Sept. 27-29 at the Belfry in Sutton Coldfield, England. Normally the teams are finalized a month before the match so that the hottest players are chosen. But this year's sides have been locked in since the tournament was postponed last September because of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Back then Sutton was 16th in the World Ranking (chart, G14). He has since plummeted to 66th, the lowest ranking among U.S. Ryder Cuppers and behind all but two of the Europeans.
Sutton has plenty of time to resurrect his game, but he is characteristically blunt when assessing his play. "If the Ryder Cup were tomorrow and I was playing the way I've been playing the last four months, I would hurt the team," he says.
Adds Ashley, who's been married to Hal since 1994, "This is the most frustrated he's been with golf since I've known him. At his age you wonder, Will I ever find my game again? Do I quit? I know all of that is in the back of his head."
Quitting has not been Sutton's M.O. Once billed as the next Nicklaus, Sutton won the PGA and the player of the year award in 1983, when he was 25. Then came a horrific slide: Sutton won only one tournament—the 1995 B.C. Open—between June 1986 and September 1998. The nadir came in '92, when he made eight cuts in 29 starts and earned $39,234. His problems were exacerbated by his propensity to accept advice from anyone who cared to offer it. By the end of 1998, however, Sutton had climbed back to fifth on the money list, and in 2000 he won the Players Championship by outdueling Tiger Woods. His game dipped a little last year, but he still had three top 10 finishes, including a win at the Shell Houston Open.
Sutton says he started struggling with his swing at the beginning of the 2001 season but had a hard time explaining the problem to Floyd Horgen, who coached Sutton at Centenary College in the late 1970s and remains his instructor. Frustrated, Sutton decided last fall to visit Dave Phillips, the head teaching pro at Caves Valley Golf Club in Owings Mills, Md. Using videotape and a computer program to compare Sutton's current swing to his action a few years ago, the flaw became apparent. "My lower body was getting out in front of me, which was causing me to get on the outside of the ball and pull it left," Sutton says. "Now I'm working to get my right shoulder under the ball more."
Even though he wore out a set of irons on the practice range over the winter, Sutton was still practicing his new move on the range at Augusta National last month when he pulled a muscle on the right side of his rib cage. He had to withdraw from the Masters before the opening round and then took three weeks off. Sutton rejoined the Tour in New Orleans, where he played mostly pain-free. "The easiest way to get away from the pain is to go back to my old swing," Sutton says. "If I'm feeling the pain in my ribs, that means I'm doing what I need to do."
Equally troubling are the nagging thoughts that his time may have passed. "You can call it hitting the wall or whatever you want," Sutton says. "The bottom line is, God did not intend it to be this way. You're fighting the system if you want to play at the highest level in your mid- to late 40s."
As if the aches and psychological pains weren't enough, Sutton also had to contend with sleep apnea, a disorder that, 40 times an hour, caused him to stop breathing for 10 to 15 seconds and wake up. He had been feeling unusually tired last year, and when he felt his heart racing during the Western Open in July, he went to an emergency room as soon as he returned home to Shreveport, La. "I thought I was having a heart attack," he says. Since being diagnosed with apnea, Sutton wears an oxygen mask while sleeping. He still wakes up occasionally, to adjust the mask, but now reaches REM sleep and feels rested when he awakes.