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Howard Sutton was crushed when, one day in 1971, his son, Hal, then an eighth-grader at Northwood High in Shreveport, La., came home and told him he didn't want to play football anymore. Hal preferred instead to concentrate on golf. As with most things Hal undertakes, he had a reason. "I was putting out my very best, and we weren't winning," he says. "I wanted to play a sport where if I did what I should, I'd be rewarded for it, and if I didn't, I'd take the blame." For Howard, the switch was particularly painful. He had to give up the dream that his son would someday play linebacker for Howard's beloved Arkansas Razorbacks.
Twelve years later, Hal, who's in only his second year on the pro Tour, has won one major tournament (the 1980 U.S. Amateur) and a half-major (the 1983 Tournament Players Championship). He was the 1982 rookie of the year and, heading into this week's U.S. Open, second on the '83 money list with $260,174. Small wonder, then, that Howard is dreaming again. "To be very candid," he says, "I dream he can be the best."
That's best as in best-ever-to-play-the-game, and the elder Sutton's dream isn't so farfetched. Hal has already established himself as one of the finest young players around. His success can be credited in no small part to his father, a wealthy, self-made oilman of old-school values. Howard has been the dominant force in Hal's life, though the father is quick to insist that he doesn't dominate his son. "Everybody gets the impression that he's going to do what I tell him to do," says Howard. "I've got news for you: I really and truly wish he did. I wish I could take credit for some of his success."
"Dad's responsible for everything I've done," says Hal. "We're as close as two people can be." Says the father of the son, "I worship the ground he walks on." It's clear that Howard hasn't driven Hal anywhere Hal didn't want to go.
That relationship is also the source of the biggest conflict in Sutton's life. He wants to be the best golfer he can be, but he also wants to emulate his father's success in business and raising a family. Sutton has made noticeably less progress there. He bailed out of his December 1981 marriage to Kelli Crawford after less than six months because marriage was interfering with his golf game. Since the split, Sutton has won two tournaments and nearly $470,000—more money than anyone else on the Tour. Sutton does not blame his former wife for his slow start in his rookie year, when he won about $30,000 in five months. "It wasn't her," he insists. "It was the situation. I didn't know what I was getting into, and she certainly didn't."
Whatever the cause of his unimpressive start, Sutton's golf certainly has improved over the last year. The most spectacular manifestation of this was at the TPC in March, when Sutton won on a golf course criticized by many Tour veterans as unfair. He had rounds of 73-71-70-69 for a five-under-par total of 283, with birdies in the final round on the 16th and 17th holes, the latter an infamous 132-yard par-3 to an island green. Sutton hit his tee shot one foot from the pin and sank the putt to lock up the top prize of $126,000, the biggest paycheck in Tour history. He not only plays the tough courses well—his penchant for straight drives and accurate iron play means he usually hits from the mowed grass—he's also a long hitter. At 6'1" and 175 pounds he's bigger than he looks, and he has Steve Garvey-model forearms.
Sutton's postmarital life revolves around the Tour and his family—Howard, his mother, Mary, and his sisters, Debbie, 23, and Pam, 18. And in many respects, the family's life revolves around him, and has ever since he decided to devote himself to golf. His mother and sisters often accompanied him to junior tournaments, and today Pam handles all of his travel arrangements, though occasionally Sutton flies grandly to a tournament in the 11-seat Merlin IIIB turboprop he owns with his father.
Howard has never been shy about pushing Hal to the very limit of his capabilities. "I did make life miserable for him," Howard says. "I really believe that between the time Hal was 14 or 15 and 21, pretty near every day I was on the brink of alienating him forever." There was, for example, a four-ball tournament in Shreveport when Hal was 17. "He was lallygagging around, just going through the motions," Howard says. "He got to the tee on the seventh hole, a dogleg right. There were 50 people standing there. I said, 'Well, Hal, I think you've run your mouth and put on a show long enough. I think it's about time you started playing golf.' It made him so mad, you wouldn't believe it. He never said a word. He hit the ball straightaway out of bounds. He had never done that on that hole because he had never hit it that far. He made a bogey. Then through the last 11 holes he shot seven under.
"Some of my closest friends used to tell me, 'Hey, you're just too tough.' Well, if Hal was made out of the same thing I was, then I didn't think so, simply because my daddy done me the same way. I played five years of basketball at a little ol' bitty school in Blevins, Arkansas, and I'm telling you right now that if I got home at 10 p.m., it would be 1:30 before we went to bed. My daddy would want to talk basketball with me and argue about the way I'd played. And my daddy never played basketball in his life." At the time of the Western Amateur in 1979, Howard and Hal weren't speaking. After the final match, Hal called home. "Well, I won the tournament," he said. "I guess we're talking now." Replied Howard, "We'll talk some."
After a high school career during which Hal won the 1974 Louisiana junior title, he turned down scholarship offers from powers such as Houston and Oral Roberts to live under his father's roof—and influence—and play for Centenary, which, besides being the smallest Division I school in the country, was on NCAA probation during Sutton's first two years for academic violations involving basketball Center Robert Parish, now with the Boston Celtics. In four years, Sutton won 16 collegiate tournaments and, in his only NCAA tournament appearance, the probation and the 1979 Walker Cup having taken care of his first three chances, lost the final to Utah State's Jay Don Blake on the 4th hole of a playoff.