LINKS LETTER, JUNE 2003

LIVING LARGER

By Don Pooley

Maturity takes time.

That may not be the sagest advice you’ve ever heard, but I do play the Champions Tour now, so I’m allowed to muse a bit. And one thing I have learned is that growing older doesn’t mean much if you’re not still learning and you’re not still loving life.

So I take time everyday to consider the big lessons in my life, and I do all I can to enjoy the life I’ve been given. One year ago, I had just about the best weekend a guy could ever have. In a way, you may have been there with me.

The setting was Caves Valley Golf Club outside Baltimore. It’s a great old course that doesn’t surrender birdies very easily. And when the USGA sets up a course for a national championship, well, you know how tough that can be. Last June, Caves Valley was the site of the United States Senior Open.

I nearly did not make it into the tournament in the first place. In qualifying, I had to birdie the last hole to get into a playoff, then made birdie on the first extra hole to qualify along with my good friend Morris Hatalsky, who had shot the low round of the day. Morris and I celebrated getting into the tournament together, but I had no idea how significant making the Open was going to be.

I had not played well for the first four months of the season and had taken my troubles to Dr. Bob Rotella. I had never worked with a sports psychologist before, but I knew that my thinking was not good and I didn’t know how to snap out of it. He gave me some advice that fell right in line with the biblical principles that I normally rely on, so I felt like I had a hold on the truth.

By the time the Open came around, my game had started to shape up, too. I played decently the first two days and found myself in tenth place, one-under par.

I played those first two days with Tom Kite, who has worked with Bob Rotella for years, and Bob watched us play some. When we finished on Friday, I asked him, “Bob, can you give me any help out there? I think I’m doing what you’re telling me to do, but I’m still struggling right around par.”

His comment was funny, although we didn’t know it at the time. He said, “You know, I think you’re doing everything right. Just one of these days it’s all going to come together.”

I thought, OK, I’ll hang in there, then. Little did I know that “one of these days” was just hours away.

On Saturday, my putter caught fire. I made nine birdies and shot 63, the lowest round in the 23-year history of the U.S. Senior Open. More than that, it vaulted me from tenth place, six shots back, to first place, three shots ahead! It was a massive jump for me, and it set up the final round with Tom Watson, which was the thrill of a lifetime for me.

Now you probably remember how you were there with me—at least via satellite. The golf writers had a lot to say about what a wonderful match Sunday’s showdown between Tom and me turned out to be. Thomas Boswell wrote in the Washington Post: “For sustained tension and clutch shots under pressure, this old codger’s event will go down as one of the best in many years.” I’m not rushing to call myself an old codger, but I do hope you got to see it, because it was the thrill of a career for me. If I hadn’t been one of the participants, I sure would have loved to watch it myself!

My wife Margaret flew in on Friday night, which was planned beforehand, and it was great to have her there over the weekend with me. But I must say, she slept a whole lot better than I did on Saturday night.

Going home with a three-shot lead, knowing I was going to be playing with Tom Watson, probably the best player of my generation, I was excited. I was right where I wanted to be, obviously. But I was nervous.

I really had no trouble going to sleep. The trouble was I didn’t sleep very long, only about three hours. I woke up at two o’clock and it was like somebody had thrown water on me. I was wide awake. I thought, Oh boy, I guess I’m not going back to sleep anytime soon. So I started reading. I had a book with me, and I read some of that. I read the Bible. I thought through the round, mentally preparing for how I wanted to play. After a couple of hours, I was finally tired enough to go back to sleep—but only for about an hour. After that, I was up for good.

I didn’t pay much attention to the chatter at the golf course when I got there, but I’m guessing most of it was not about me, Don Pooley, two times a winner on the PGA Tour, with no victories since 1987. My guess is that the gallery was more intent on former U.S. Open champion Tom Kite, who was four shots back, and Tom Watson, winner of eight majors. These guys were “names.” I was, as the writers like to say, a “journeyman.”

What a journey I was about to take that Sunday afternoon!

I started quickly, with birdies at one and three. I bogeyed four, but then I started making a bunch of pars, and no one was making a run at me. At the turn, I was four ahead. I was feeling very good at the time, and I was playing well. So I wouldn’t get anxious or nervous, I kept telling myself, “You know, these guys are going to have to play awfully well to catch me.”

Sure enough, Watson played awfully well. He had birdied nine to get within four, then ten to get within three. I just kept making pars. In fact, from the fifth through the eighteenth hole, I made fourteen straight pars, so it was up to Tom to make birdies. He did, rolling in a 22-footer for his third in a row at fifteen. In a flurry, he had pulled even.

I was a little bit shocked that he actually could birdie that many holes on Sunday on a tough golf course. But I wasn’t really panicking. I was thinking, Well, you’re playing the greatest player. You have to expect stuff like this to happen.

The match, as they say, was on.

We went to sixteen tied at 10-under. Tom took out a driver, which is a very risky play at sixteen, and he hit it just perfect. He had nothing but a wedge left. My plan all week was to hit a 3-wood off the tee. If you hit a 3-wood in the fairway, it’s about a 7- or 8-iron in. So I stayed with my game plan. But I made a terrible swing, blocking it right, very short, on the side of a hill. It was the only time I really felt like I was in trouble all day.

When I got to my ball, I knew just how much trouble I was in. I had about 178 yards on this sidehill lie from pretty deep rough. This was looking very much like a two-shot swing in Tom’s favor. I had only one chance of pulling off my shot, which was to start a 6-iron about 10 yards right of the green and hit a low snap hook, trying to run it through the narrow gap between the bunkers—it was about a two-yard opening.

Then I hit what I consider to be a miracle shot to this day. The ball started low, came hooking in toward the green, avoided the bunkers, and wound up on the putting surface! Tom looked back at me kind of incredulously. I just kind of smiled and shrugged.

Inexplicably, Tom missed the green with his wedge and made bogey. I two-putted for par and suddenly I was one up again, when I thought for sure I would be at least one behind.

At seventeen, I drove it in the rough again, and this time Tom didn’t falter. In fact, he made birdie, and I had to make a great up-and-down to save par from behind the green.

Again we were tied. And we were headed to the hole that would become the story of the tournament. In the next 90 minutes, we would play the eighteenth four times.

The first trip down eighteen, the 72nd hole of the tournament, we both left ourselves with work. Tom made a long two-putt for par, and I made a par save from the bunker. We finished 10-under, and we made our way to a three-hole playoff, beginning back at sixteen.

We both made pars.

Seventeen was not so easy. We both drove into the fairway bunker, but Tom was farther back than I was, and he had an easier shot up over the lip. He hit a beautiful 4-iron up there on the green about 15 feet from the hole. I had to play my 4-iron out to the right, and I was left with a 40-yard chip. I knocked it within five feet, Tom’s putt slid by the edge, and again we had both made par.

Back to eighteen.

This time, I gave myself a golden opportunity, striping a driver, then knocking it within seven feet. Tom was in trouble, and I thought I might be able to get away with a two-putt for the win. But he saved par with a 12-footer. I stared down the line of my putt, was sure I had it right, but watched it turn sharply left, out of the hole. Par. Still even. And now we would play eighteen over and over until somebody won.

Off the tee this third time, we were both in great shape. We hit irons close. I rolled in my birdie this time, from about 15 feet. It was Tom’s turn to feel the pressure. He responded with a 12-foot birdie of his own.

I have to tell you that there was a wonderful rapport between us throughout the round. And as we got deeper and deeper into this thrilling match, I think we both realized how incredible this really was. I know that I was thankful to God the whole time just to be in a situation like this. A major championship battle against one of the greatest players of all time—that’s the kind of stuff you live for in golf!

So we stood on the eighteenth tee again. Telling it now, knowing that this was the last time, it’s easy to get very excited. Tom drove it in the rough this time, and I knocked it in the fairway. His approach went long, into deep rough. I hit my shot within 10 feet. It looked good for me, but of course, it had looked good for one or the other of us several times that day. Tom’s chip stopped about six feet from the hole—no Pebble Beach miracle. The door was open again for me.

I had backed away from several putts that day. Here I did it once more. Nerves may have been a factor, but my thoughts just weren’t where I wanted them. I needed to know in my mind that I was lined up right. I didn’t want to fight my own setup. I reset, stepped up, and rolled the putt. It went in. I was the United States Senior Open champion.

In the year that has passed, I have found that this championship was not mine alone. I have had the opportunity to speak to many groups and many individuals since then about the tournament, and I have been amazed to find that people all over the country were praying for me that Sunday afternoon. Some of these I knew about beforehand, but many more I did not.

That’s why I say you may have been there with me that day.

If you were, I want to thank you. I had a tremendous amount of peace and confidence that day, and I played my absolute best under pressure, probably the best in all my 30 years as a professional.

God’s peace was something I did not understand for the first 15 years of my life. I really had no interest in God, and I certainly had no idea that prayer could matter.

My mind was on other things. I was a very good athlete, and to me Sundays were days to play sports. My parents thought I could squeeze in church, but I hated it. Church was not my idea of a fun time.

In high school, I was introduced to a group called Young Life. It intrigued me because not only did the people in Young Life talk about spiritual things, but they seemed to have a really good time. So I would go to some of the meetings and kind of sit back and watch.

One weekend they offered a camp up in the mountains. Loving the outdoors and just about anything active, I jumped at the chance to go. I knew it would be fun. There was snow on the ground, and we played an assortment of great games.

On the third day of the camp, just before we headed down the mountain, they offered this optional chapel service. I knew what my option was: I would opt out. But all the friends I had come with said, “Oh no, this is the whole reason for the trip.” I thought, Yeah, this may have been your whole reason, but it wasn’t mine. But the peer pressure hooked me in, and I went.

For the first time I heard the Good News of Jesus Christ—or at least I understood how it could apply to me. I saw that I was not doing a very good job of living life according to my own design, so I made the decision to make Jesus Christ my Savior and my Lord. I asked Him to forgive me for the sin in my life, and He did.

Honestly, that changed everything for me. It changed my perspective, my priorities, the way I looked at things, the reason I did things.

As you can tell, it didn’t change my love for sports. I’ve spent all these years as a professional athlete, with the ups of victory and the downs of defeat. I paid for a lot of dinners that week after winning the Open, and I can tell you that I have enjoyed that victory more than any other in my career. Those were like a relief. This one I enjoyed all the way through, and I’ve continued to enjoy it long after. Those are the rewards of winning a national championship.

But golf, in my mind, isn’t that important. I truly believe that God does not care so much about what we do for a living. He cares more about who we are and what we’re becoming. That doesn’t mean that I can use Him as an excuse when things go bad out there. After all, He is the one who has given me the talent and the desire and the gift to play the game. But He doesn’t hit the golf ball for me. I have to go out there and work hard and perfect the skills that He has given me. But that’s true for everything in life. That’s not just golf.

Perhaps you understand just what I am talking about. You have tasted success and you have tasted failure. But neither one seems like a final outcome. There is something more to it all. That something is actually a Someone. His name is Jesus Christ. And from the moment you choose to follow Him, you will be celebrating for the rest of your life, because He will change everything that matters.

COPYRIGHT 2003 LINKS PLAYERS INTERNATIONAL

  • Don Pooley

    2 PGA Tour wins: 1980 B.C. Open, 1987 Memorial Tournament

    2 Champions Tour Wins (one major): 2002 U.S. Senior Open, 2003 Allianz Championship