Michael Campbell is a legend of our sport. The 50-year-old, who famously held off Tiger Woods to win the US Open at Pinehurst in 2005, has had a career many Kiwi golfers only dream about. His success on the world stage began right here in New Zealand and in a fitting way Cambo came back to celebrate the 100th edition of the New Zealand Open. It was his first competitive event in six years – and he finished *** – but he wasn’t going to miss it for the world. The proud Wellingtonian first played the New Zealand Open in 1988 and famously won the title in 2000 at Paraparaumu Beach. Peter Thornton sat down with the NZ Golf Hall of Fame Member to reflect on his NZ Open memories and also to look forward to his European Seniors Tour career.
Take us back to Paraparaumu Beach in 2000 when you won the New Zealand Open.
Winning the NZ Open goes further back than that. My first New Zealand Open was in 1988 at Paraparaumu Beach so I played the tournament 12 years in a row. It was a great feeling when I finally got across the line with that victory at Paraparaumu Beach. It was pretty cool to have a playoff with Perksy [Craig Perks]. It was the first time that I had won in front of my home crowd and the first time I won with my Mum and Dad watching so that was really special.
There were massive crowds that week at Paraparaumu Beach, what was it like for you as a Wellington local who grew up playing at Titahi Bay, what was it like to win the NZ Open there?
I remember playing at Paraparaumu since I was around 14 or 15 years old. I competed there in the Wellington U-16 Junior Championship, and U-18s and others. There is a lot of history between myself and Paraparaumu Beach so to win the National Open there was a dream come true. If you ask any golfer from anywhere in the world they will all tell you that winning your own National Open carries a huge amount of weight. Winning the NZ Open was a dream for me. I have met a lot of golfers from all over the world and they all talk about their national open wins as real highlights. I was fortunate to win ours once.
The playoff with Perksy was full of drama, what are your memories of it?
We played the 18th twice. We both birdied the first playoff hole, the 18th which is a par five, and I remember the second playoff hole I sunk a 20 foot putt for eagle. It was a nice way to win, by eagling the second playoff hole.
What was that moment like on the 18th green when that putt dropped and the crowd all celebrated with you?
Mate you are going back 19 years. You are asking a lot. All I can remember is my family being around me. They all rushed onto the green and were hugging me. It was a really emotional event for me. It was a quite a blur for me what happened after I sunk that putt, but we definitely had a big celebration afterwards that is for sure.
During that time – from around 1999 – 2005 – you were exceptionally consistent, and it seemed like you always in contention and regularly winning tournaments, what was that period like?
You are right. That was definitely the peak of my career. From 1999 – 2005 where I won 12 times around the world. During that period. It is like any sport that you play it is all about confidence. Winning the Johnnie Walker Classic in October 1999 was big, and then I won the New Zealand Open in 2000 two months later. So that win of the NZ Open really kick-started my career. Confidence wise it gave me huge belief. I won another three or four times after that. The win at the NZ Open was the catalyst for what happened in my career in the next five years. It was a natural progression of playing well, dominating in Australia, and then going to Europe and playing well over there. The wins at the US Open and the World Match play flowed on from there. All of the wins along the way were stepping stones to finally winning a major championship.
As a golfer you always want to learn and get better. It is not just about going out there and competing and winning. During that period I was very consistent. I was up there all the time. I had a lot of top 10s and top five-finishes, and I was winning. That run all started in October of 1999 when I won the Johnnie Walker and then went on to win the NZ Open. Things started to rock n’ roll for me [laughs].
That was an incredible time in your career, how much did that time from around 1999 – 2002 help you win the US Open when you famously held off Tiger Woods?
During that time – even when I was at my best I still lost more than I won. If I look back on my career I have played over 500 tournaments and I won only 15 times. So my win rate is only two or three percent. If you think about that, it is not much. Tiger in his prime won 20 percent of the time. [Jack] Nicklaus in his prime was the same. Ernie Els, Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson and that sort of player, all very good golfers, have won seven or eight percent of their career. People don’t realise that you lose a huge amount more than you win. During that span of six years where I won 15 times, I lost more than I won but people don’t realise that, that golf is so different to almost every sport. If you look at the All Blacks for example. Their win rate is more than 80 percent which is just ridiculous. They are the best performing team in the world. They are freakish. It is bloody hard to win on any tour but the expectation is that I could go and win any week. I want to emphasise that the best player in our generation only wins 20 percent of the time.
What was it like for you dealing with that expectation and pressure that you’d win or come home and win New Zealand Opens?
It was really hard at times. Golf is such a mental game as well. I was out there trying to do my best. If you think about the stats and the figures, the chances are low, my win rate was only two percent. That is not much at all. Coming back home to New Zealand to play the 100th NZ Open, I am turning 50, isn’t that a wonderful story? There is a nice correlation between myself and the NZ Open. I am half the age of the NZ Open. I am there to celebrate the tournament. Once again coming into this tournament the expectation on my performance was high. But when I was active and played professional golf for 21 years I only won 15 of the 500 tournaments I played in. Only two percent. My chances of winning this NZ Open are much less than that because I haven’t practiced or played in the past six years. This was the first time that I have played a professional tournament in six years. But I chose to play it to be part of a wonderful and incredible milestone.
In 2006 you had another great chance to become a two-time NZ Open Champion, when Australian Nathan Green posted the early clubhouse lead and then the wind picked up and he won by two shots. What are your memories of that day?
It wasn’t great [laughs]. I knew the forecast that afternoon was going to be pretty tough that final day at Gulf Harbour. I was pretty much in total control of my game. I saw Nathan’s total and I remember thinking to myself ‘that is going to be tough to beat’. Because I had seen the forecast and I knew the winds were going to pick up in the afternoon. It was disappointing. You can’t control Mother Nature and the performances of other golfers.
Your upcoming tilt at the European Seniors Tour, are you looking forward to playing regular competitive golf again?
Absolutely. When I retired back in 2013 I didn’t hit a golf ball for two years. Imagine that. It was really good to get away from the game. I enjoyed that. I have been practicing a little bit. I am looking forward to being the rookie on tour and being back on tour with all of my friends again. I have seen these guys in a long time. I think there are 10 of us turning 50 at the same time. Retief Goosen, Ernie Els, Geoff Ogilvy, Angel Cabrera, Jim Furyk, Mike Weir, Darren Clarke, All of my mates that I played with back in the 2000s. It is going to be fun to see them again.
It is great to see Ryan Fox out there on the European Tour and competing so well, have you seen him and passed on some advice?
It is fantastic, great to see. We both have different lives. He is on tour and traveling the world, where I am here in Spain running my Golf Academy. I did see him at Valderrama a few years ago when he was just starting out on tour. We had dinner and I sat down and gave him what I thought was the right advice. He is an amazing talent with what he has done so far, it has been impressive. He can do a lot better with the right information and guidance. He comes from a great breed with his father Grant. Foxy was a champion rugby player so it is in the blood, in the family.
Michael Campbell –
1993 Canon Challenge
1994 Memorial Olivier Barras,
1994 Bank Austria Open
1994 Audi Quattro Trophy
1995 Alfred Dunhill Masters
1999 Johnnie Walker Classic
2000 New Zealand Open,
2000 Ericsson Masters
2000 Heineken Classic
2000 Linde German Masters
2001 Heineken Classic
2002 Smurfit European Open
2003 Nissan Irish Open
2005 US Open
2005 HSBC World Match Play Championship