Heading to the U.S. Open immediately after my victory was surreal. I had been preparing myself to walk off the final green at Congressional, hug my family and bawl my eyes out because my Tour career was over. Now I was soaking up congratulations from players I didn't think would even notice my win: Phil Mickelson, Adam Scott, Graeme McDowell. As fate would have it, the first two people I saw at Congressional were Toms and his son, Carter, and they were genuinely happy for me. I also bumped into Karlsson, and he was gracious. He said, "I had no idea of all you've been through. What a great win." He's such a class act that my whole family roots for him now.
I somehow finished 30th at Congressional even though my mind was wandering: How do we go about finding a house in Augusta? How do you get to Akron? One night I bolted upright in bed and said to Allison, "Ohmygawd, I think this victory gets me into the British Open. Has my passport expired? Has yours? Do we even know where they are?"
In fact, the victory didn't exempt me into the British, but I qualified later through the PGA Tour money list. Playing the Open was another longtime dream I had pretty much given up on. I had traveled overseas in 1998 for local qualifying but missed by a few shots and wondered if I would ever return. This time Allison and I went to England without the boys, and we had a great time. She was in the grandstand for my first tee shot. Just to hear Ivor Robson say my name was a thrill. After I bombed my drive I looked up at Allison, and she was beaming. I think we both shed a little tear.
I got off to a solid start at Royal St. George's, opening 72--70, but I lost my way on the weekend and finished 69th. That was the theme for the rest of my Tour season—I played pretty well but kept getting in my own way. I think I was trying a little too hard; some habits are hard to break. But I had another breakthrough around Thanksgiving, when I won the Pebble Beach Invitational, a cool little event featuring players from the PGA, Champions and LPGA tours. I'm not going to pretend that it's a big-time event, but the field did have a lot of tournament winners. The final round was played in nasty, windy conditions, but I felt totally comfortable. I told myself, You've done this before so just stand up and hit the shots. I played a gorgeous three-quarter pitching wedge to a back pin at 15, a great eight-iron into 16 and a really sweet five-iron at 17. I don't care what the tournament is, anytime you win at Pebble Beach it's meaningful.
Starting 2012 in Maui was another amazing experience. You look at the short list of players in the field, and it hits you how exclusive this tournament is. The whole family came with me, including my in-laws, and we got there a week early to goof off. Up until Monday of tournament week the Tour players can act like tourists on the Plantation course, wearing shorts and lounging in a cart. I took my boys out to play nine holes a few times. It was a unique way to prepare for a tournament, and I couldn't have been any fresher or more relaxed when the real golf started. I breezed to a tie for fifth and played even better the next week at the Sony Open, tying for second.
Of course, just when you think you've got this game figured out, you get kicked in the teeth. At Phoenix I opened 66--67 to earn a spot in the last group on Saturday. With all the hubbub at that tournament it's easy to lose your focus, and instead of just hitting shots I started thinking about winning and everything that comes with it, and once again I tried to force it to happen. I played terribly on the weekend to fade to 26th place. That weekend was a step backward, but I haven't beaten myself up over it. I know my game is there, and I even learn something from the bad rounds now. It's funny to be 40 and finally growing up as a golfer.
As content as I am with my place in the game, I'm still not satisfied. For the first time I have some job security—the win makes me exempt on Tour through 2013—and I'm determined to make the most of the opportunity. I'm motivated to get into the top 50 in the World Ranking so I can keep playing in the big tournaments. (I'm 86th.) The biggest of them all is still ahead of me: my first Masters. I started thinking about Augusta almost the second Karlsson missed his putt.
In the coming weeks I'm planning to make at least two scouting trips to Augusta National. Might as well milk it, right? The first time I want to go alone, just to get over the awe. I'm talking to Dustin Johnson and Ryan Palmer about going with them closer to the tournament. They know the course and can help me strategically. I'm long off the tee and hit my irons high—everyone says the course sets up perfectly for me. I'm not trying to put a lot of pressure on myself, but the plan isn't to go to the Masters for two rounds of sightseeing. I'd like to be a factor in the tournament.
Yes, I'm well aware that a year ago I was seriously talking about walking away from the game and now I have visions of contending at the Masters. It's mind-boggling how much my life and career have changed. How to explain it? I think often about one of my favorite sayings: If you don't like something, change it. If you can't change it, change your attitude. I don't believe it was an accident that I won the tournament I did. After all, St. Jude is the patron saint of lost causes.