Michael Campbell wears a number of hats these days. That much was evident upon a return to New Zealand by the former US Open champion in a whirlwind two-week holiday at the start of this year.
As a loving son, he celebrated his mother Abby’s 70th birthday at the family home in Titahi Bay, north of Wellington. As patron of New Zealand Maori Golf, he hosted the annual national championships in Taupo. As a brand ambassador for Manuka Doctor, he espoused the benefits of the iconic honey as a superfood and skincare product. As a golfer, he discovered the wonders of Tom Doak’s Tara Iti golf course. And as a proud Kiwi, he showcased the country’s natural beauty to his fiancée Gunnel.
A lot of water has passed under the bridge for Campbell, who effectively walked away from professional golf in 2014 as he struggled with poor form, injury and a marriage break-up. In a blog post at the time, he acknowledged he wasn’t “either fully physically or mentally ready to play tournament golf at the highest level”.
Unfortunately, we never got to see Campbell again at his best. Thankfully, though, we will get another chance to see that beautiful rhythmic swing once more. The Spanish-based Campbell turns 50 on February 23 on the eve of the New Zealand Open in which he’ll compete for the first time since that premature retirement. It’s the beginning of a new chapter in his life that sees him tackling the American senior tour.
“He’s in a pretty content place at the moment,” says long-time friend Lucas Parsons, who first met Campbell at Wellington’s Miramar Golf Club in 1986 when the 15-year-old Australian pipped him to win the NZ Under-18 Championship. During Campbell’s sojourn back home in January, the pair reminisced about the good old times sharing a room together when they first set out on their professional journeys.
Parsons, a former winner of the NZ Open, NZ Amateur and NZ Junior, says his good mate is raring to have another crack at professional golf. His boys Thomas (20) and Jordan (18) are now adults, while his Swedish partner Gunnel is independently successful, running her own fashion business.
Campbell has been granted 14 invitations to play the PGA Tour Champions in 2019 as well as in 2020. He joins the over-50 circuit in a special exempt category that includes fellow Major champions Darren Clarke and Paul Lawrie. The aim is to earn about $US395,000 in prizemoney to crack the top-50 on the moneylist and become fully exempt on the notoriously closed circuit.
Before that American odyssey begins, he will tee off in Arrowtown during a special week for Kiwi golf at The Hills and Millbrook Resort. “To be a part of the celebration for 100 years of the New Zealand Open is a perfect launch pad,” Campbell says. “I think it’s a nice correlation with me turning 50 and the New Zealand Open starts five days later.”
Basking in the Mediterranean
Campbell’s return will be much anticipated after walking away from the European Tour in 2014. He had planned to play in last year’s NZ Open and use 2018 as a prelude to his Champions Tour debut. That plan was put on ice with Campbell citing a torn peroneal tendon in his left ankle for his absence.
The 2013 season was the last time he played full-time in Europe. He made just four cuts from 16 tournaments with a best result of T-16 at the Qatar Masters. His only other sightings on the European Tour – where he has a lifetime exemption – have been one-off appearances in Abu Dhabi in 2014 and 2015.
“During the past five years I’ve lived in Spain and it’s given me the opportunity to start my own golf academy and just do other things,” Campbell says. “It’s a nice break because I’d been on tour for 20-something years.
“I’m not going to be playing 28 events this year, I’m just going to play 14. My mindset of where I am right now is different to when I was an active full-time player on the tour.”
Since then Campbell has turned his attention towards coaching. The catalyst was a conversation with the great Jack Nicklaus after winning the 2005 US Open. The 18-time Major winner told Campbell: “Michael, now that you’re a Major winner, you have the responsibility to actually grow the game.”
Those words stuck in Campbell’s mind until he grasped the opportunity to create his own golf academy at Marbella in southern Spain. He put his own capital into establishing the Michael Campbell Golf Academy at Villa Padierna Golf Club, an exquisite 54-hole golf complex on the sun-drenched Mediterranean coast that has the six-star Hotel Villa Padierna at its epicentre.
Most recently, a large portion of his time is taken up by what he refers to as “Michael’s Monsters” – a core group of eight golfers that he mentors. These amateurs and professionals, male and female, range in age from 18 to 28 and span a range of nationalities from Spanish, English, Irish and Austrian.
“I’ve been flat out working, just helping and giving back to the game and growing the game,” he explains. “Hopefully I can grow globally with my golf academies around the world. I really enjoy spreading the word because I think with my knowledge and experiences I can pass on [how] to improve and be the best they can be.
“Obviously, I teach them and stuff like that technically. But for me it’s all about the mental side as well as the lifestyle and what I can teach them off the golf course to improve their games. There are so many facets when you coach somebody like that at a very high level.”
Campbell’s foremost qualification as a coach is that he’s been there and done it as a player at the highest level. Now being more than just an instructor, it’s allowed him to appreciate the difficult transition from player to coach.
“What I do now, I demonstrate to my ‘Monsters’ because I do a lot of on-course coaching. So I teach them certain shots and short-game stuff. I find that very, very easy.
“Actually, the hardest thing I found was to translate. Because when you think about it, I was the receiver of all the information from my coaches. [They] would tell me what to do and I would just do it through instinct and feelings. And then when I first started coaching five years ago I found it hard to translate into words because where was this feeling?”
Jumping back on the bike
After everything he’s achieved in professional golf – a Major, 15 tournament victories and the accompanying riches that afford a comfortable lifestyle – it begs an obvious question. Why would Campbell want to thrust himself back into the public spotlight and face the inevitable scrutiny of his life?
Parsons senses that Campbell has a point to prove given how his playing career came to a rather sudden end. “When that’s the case, especially for him, somebody who has had that much success doesn’t want to be playing the game for any other reason than winning or wanting to compete.
“To be honest, he fell out of love with the game. And now he’s got a completely different life. He’s engaged again. All his boys are grown up. And he’s got this opportunity where he’s a bit of a kid in a toy store again. I think [for] most guys who hit that senior tour it’s like turning pro again.”
Campbell agrees, saying: “Something I’ve missed over the past six years is competing. It’s a gene that has been embedded in me somewhere and I’ve always loved to compete.”
Recapturing the natural, free-flowing swing that he used to conquer the world’s best at Pinehurst Resort in 2005 is the least of Campbell’s concerns. His recent preparation has been restricted – he injured his right knee and then cut his finger while cooking in late 2018. That meant he’s more like a once-a-month rather than once-a-week golfer.
While the intention was to ramp up his practice upon returning to Spain in late January, Campbell is understandably cautious about the year ahead. “I still play socially with friends of mine but it’s not the same as playing a professional tournament. I’m playing OK, shooting decent scores but it’s not the same as playing tournaments.
“I’ve got no expectations. I don’t know what to expect. I’d love to perform, obviously, and do the best I can do. And obviously that takes a lot of hard work.”
If there were one tournament Campbell wished to play again, it would have to be the 100th New Zealand Open. For one of two Kiwis to capture a men’s Major, the national championship holds a special place in his heart, having won the title in 2000 at Paraparaumu Beach.
Regardless of how he plays in Arrowtown and the rest of 2019, every Kiwi golf fan that cherished his moment in the sun 14 years ago should savour one thing: Michael Campbell is back playing the game he loves.
The X-factor of top players
The ability to score well is what separates a top player from the mediocre. And scoring is all about keeping mistakes to a minimum, according to Michael Campbell.
“It’s all about damage control,” says the 2005 US Open champion. “When you play at a high level, you have an A game, B game and C game. It’s as simple as that.
“It’s all about damage control to make sure that when you have your C game it doesn’t spiral out of control – to the point where you can shoot even-par. With your A game you’re shooting 63s. The B game is in the 60s.
Campbell readily concedes he was a streaky type of player who was either winning or missing cuts. When in top form, Campbell estimates he had his A game 20 per cent of the time. It was almost like being on autopilot. And for that to happen, a golfer’s personal life has to be in perfect harmony away from the golf course.
“The most important thing you’ve got to realise is that for you to have your A game, everything in life has got to line up nicely. Everything. All your ducks have to be lined up in a row.”