We know what you did last summer: Jim Furyk breaks through to become a major winner who knows the value of life outside the game – The Golf Digest Interview
THAT HOMEMADE BACKSWING is as loopy as Jim Furyk gets. Who better to repel the advances of a topless woman while chugging toward his first major title, which Furyk did during the final round of last year’s U.S. Open? The man is all business, an old-school disciple who absorbed the virtues of hard work and toughness from his father, Mike, a former western Pennsylvania club pro and Tommy Armour sales rep.
Dad was the one who heard all the snickers about his kid’s funky action over the golf ball. Nine PGA Tour victories and $19 million later, Jim Furyk has choreographed a path to stardom, blessed not with Tiger Woods’ physical arsenal or Phil Mickelson’s flair but with one of the game’s most reliable toolboxes.
Although Furyk has gone so far as to pluck hecklers out of the gallery during practice rounds, distractions that might have sidetracked weaker minds have done little to slow his climb into the top five in golf ‘s World Ranking. A turbulent partnership with caddie Steve Duplantis ended in 1999, when Furyk hired Mike (Fluff) Cowan, who had worked for Woods. In 2000, just before the Tour Championship, Furyk injured his wrist while trying to be a defensive back in a stadium parking lot after watching his beloved Pittsburgh Steelers. Then, in early 2002, Furyk awoke one morning dizzy with a severe case of vertigo that troubled him for months. It wasn’t until he rallied past Ernie Els, Vijay Singh and Mickelson to win the Memorial later that spring that Furyk felt 100 percent recovered.
At various stages during his 2003 breakthrough season, Furyk, 33, met with us to discuss all of the above, and why winning a major isn’t about to turn him into something he’s not.
Golf Digest: When we started these sessions a few days after your U.S. Open victory, you said that on a scale of 1 to 10, the impact of a major title on your life was no higher than a 4. Are you gonna stick with that?
Jim Furyk: I probably had a hundred people tell me things were going to change dramatically after winning a major championship, and I’m still not sure what they meant. There’s a little more of a demand on my time, a little more opportunity to play in foreign events, a little more endorsement interest. Don’t get me wrong–winning a major was, by far, the one achievement that changed my career in terms of how other people perceive me, but I wouldn’t call it a life-changing experience. Having a child is a life-changing experience. Having a relative pass away, somebody getting ill–those things change your life more than winning a golf tournament.
During the Open a streaker visited you on the 11th green during the final round. Your lead was four strokes over playing partner Stephen Leaney. How much of a distraction was all that?
Not the least bit. I had a 25-footer for birdie and Leaney had a six-footer for par. I rolled my putt about eight inches past the hole and I heard somebody say, “You’ve got to be kidding.” I see she’s got two roses, and I’m thinking one of them is for Stephen. Meanwhile, he’s got six feet left for par, and it’s a very big putt. He had to stand around two or three minutes while everybody got settled down. He missed it and I tapped in, so for me, it wasn’t a nuisance at all.
Is that the weirdest thing that has happened to you on a golf course?
I would hope so.
How does [wife] Tabitha react when someone in the gallery, not realizing who she is, makes a critical remark about you?
I’ve heard some things people have said, and I’m sure there are incidents she never tells me about. A few have [ticked] her off to the point where she’s responded. When we’ve talked about it, I tell her she has to shake it off. There will always be critics; it’s another thing you have to deal with.
My favorite is when you hear someone say, “I can hit that shot.” I’ve pulled people out of the crowd. I remember a practice round at the British Open with [Steve] Stricker and [Lee] Janzen. Stricker’s ball and mine were in the same area off the green. Stricker went first and hit his chip shot to eight feet. I got over mine and somebody said, “I can hit one better than that.” So I told my caddie to throw me a ball. I handed the guy my wedge and said, “Let’s see what you’ve got.”
Let me guess: He holed it.
He laid the sod over it.
Couldn’t handle the pressure.
Another time I was practicing bunker shots to a tight pin. I left the first one short in the rough and somebody watching goes, “Chunk!” I did the same thing with my second, and he said it again. The third one had a bunch of spin and stopped about six or eight feet from the hole, which is about as good as I could do. “Not bad,” he said. So I asked him what he thought of the first two. He said I chunked them, so I handed him my club and gave him a try. He moved it about six inches, max.
How about when people joke about your swing? David Feherty once said it looks like an “octopus falling out of a tree.” How’d you feel about that?
I find it funny. I like David–he could almost do stand-up comedy if he wanted. If you can’t laugh at yourself, you can’t have much fun. My relatives are Ukrainian, Hungarian, Czech and Polish. I get a kick out of Polish jokes, too.
How tough was it for your dad to hear comments about your swing as you developed?
He brought it up after I’d had some success. He was always nervous and heard criticism. Along the way, he’d take me to some relatively well-known instructors. A guy here, a guy there, but always under his direction.
One year I was struggling at the U.S. Amateur in Philly, and there was a guy there who was known as a really good player. We went down to see him a couple of days later, and he basically taught me about drawing and cutting the ball. One lesson he started hitting about 10 shots himself. One draw, one cut, one draw, one cut, one draw, one cut–everything was coming down on the pin. He said, “Can I stop, or do you want me to keep doing this all day?” He wanted to get my attention.
Bruce Lietzke talked to my dad one time. He has a different swing and gave us some advice, which was reassuring.
What did your swing look when you were a kid?
I was way outside and upright and hit a big, big fade, a borderline slice.
Today it appears as if your right elbow is glued to your hip.
I can actually hit my right hand on my pocket coming through. If you put a golf ball in my right pocket, I can’t swing. You get the clubhead moving at about 110 miles per hour and your hands are moving pretty fast, you can hurt yourself.
Whose golf swing do you like the most on the tour?
That’s one thing that wouldn’t ever matter to me. Now, I would look at someone’s ball flight if I wish I could hit it like that.
OK, whose ball flight do you envy?
I think we all tend to look at things we’re not capable of doing. Nobody has everything, but the guy who comes the closest is Tiger. When he won the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, I was paired with him Thursday and Friday. I spent a lot of time those two days shaking my head because he had so much control over the ball.
When he was playing well, David Duval was scary. We played together on the Nike Tour–they’d put us together in practice rounds because we were two young guys who liked to gamble. He was the best partner I ever had. I mean, a rock. When David was ranked No. 1 in the world, I used to watch his game and wonder, How can I beat this guy? He’s hitting it a mile, and he’s as straight as I am, 30 yards past me. And he chips and putts well. That’s why he was the best in the world.
You guys liked to gamble? What’s the most dough you ever played for?
I never gambled against David; we were paired together because we were a couple of young guys. One or two guys who liked to play for money approached me at a tournament David won. They asked me and I said, “Sure, I like to gamble.” Not many golf professionals don’t, because the lifestyle itself is kind of a risk.
One of them told me, “We’ve got a game every Tuesday.” We’d play matches for $50 or $100 a hole, although we didn’t have any money. We were in games where a guy could lose $600 or $800 in a round, and considering what we were making, those Tuesday games ended up being more important than Sunday.
Gambling is illegal now on Tuesdays. I mean, you can’t pull out a deck of cards in the locker room during a rain delay. But back then there were weeks when I won $200 [in prize money] and didn’t come close to covering my expenses. It was fun, playing against older and more experienced players. I also realize the position I’m in now and that this is going in a major magazine.
You’ve gotten to know David a little, though he’s a hard guy to get close to. What’s your take on his problems?
I haven’t seen Dave–maybe once or twice at the grocery store and a few times practicing at the TPC [in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.]. I really consider him a friend and would do anything for him, and I feel like if I needed something, he’d be there for me. He was one of the first people to call after I won the U.S. Open, and I really appreciated it. When he won the British, I might have been the first to call him.
That said, I don’t spend a lot of time with him. My take? I don’t know. I haven’t talked to him about it.
You seem to have gotten a little more outspoken on other issues over the past couple of years.
Absolutely. If someone asks me a question I don’t agree with, I’ll tell him. Fair commentary is stating fact. You hook one out-of-bounds or hit a terrible putt, and the guy says, “Obviously Jim won’t be happy with that one,” that’s the truth. But when you start attacking someone’s desire, that’s wrong. I’ve heard people say a player doesn’t look real interested out there, or that he’s too talented to be playing like this. That’s taking a shot at his heart.
You hear about a lot of this stuff from friends and family. If I was up there talking for 30 minutes, I’d probably say something stupid, too.
You’re not interested in editorial slant.
I remember reading an article once about match-play events, how nobody wants to see a Fred Funk-Jim Furyk final. They just happened to pick my name out, and it made me mad at the time. I got over it about five minutes later.
Any other situations come to mind that got you upset?
The first time I ever spoke up was at the 2000 Presidents Cup, where I had to hear again about how we weren’t a team. I stood up and said, “I’m tired of hearing this, tired of the media wearing us down. Let’s get one thing straight–we’re a team. We play as a team, win or lose as a team.” Everyone was silent. I remember people looking at me like, I can’t believe you said that. Kenny Venturi just about kissed me that night at the team dinner, he was so happy.
How happy were you about this past Presidents Cup ending in a tie in the dark? Was there any negative after-taste on the flight home from South Africa?
Not for me, and I didn’t hear anyone on the team disappointed about the finish. It’s difficult when you come home and see a picture of the second green [site of the third playoff hole], and there’s three times more light than there actually was. It was too dark for them [Tiger Woods and Ernie Els] to putt out on No. 2. It’s absolutely incredible that they both made it. No way could we have gotten back to the 18th tee and played that hole. By the time we got there, it would have been pitch-black.
The other option was to come back the next morning.
Sunday was too good a day of golf, and I’m not sure Monday was an option. It would’ve been very difficult to change everything, reorganize 50 or 60 flight plans, and I’m probably being shortsighted on that. There were probably 250 people on our charter, so I’m not sure that was an option. I thought it was great TV, and that it improved the status of the Presidents Cup, but I’m not sure that’s the way to end it, with an individual event. But I wasn’t left with a sour taste at all.
You said you’d vote for either Tiger or Vijay for player of the year. Do you care where you finish in the balloting?
No, it means a lot less to us as players than it does to certain members of the media and to the fans. I’m very proud of what I accomplished. Whether that ranks me third or fifth doesn’t matter. In my mind, I’m not first or second. Davis won four very nice events. Mike Weir also won a major. Kenny Perry is probably the odd man out, but six guys had very good years. I’m one of those, and that’s good enough for me.
Much was written about the adventures of your former caddie, Steve Duplantis, in the book Bud, Sweat and Tees. How did he last so long on your bag?
It almost became a routine that he wasn’t there. He grew increasingly worse, got into more and more trouble. How does a guy like that last? I was playing well. I was winning golf tournaments, but then it became a distraction to my life and my job. I should have cut it off a lot earlier. He wasn’t doing his prep work, wasn’t ever prepared. From the first tee to the 18th green, he was a good caddie. Otherwise, he was awful.
Did he ever not show up for a competitive round?
You mean, did he whiff a tee time? I went off once at Bay Hill, and he showed up on the eighth green. One of Jeff Sluman’s buddies had to caddie for me. That probably would have been 1998. Number of times late? He probably averaged more than once a week over the course of a 25-week schedule, about 100 times in four years. Now “late” could be two minutes, five minutes, 10 minutes, 30 seconds, whatever. He usually showed up when I was walking to the range. I carried my bag to the practice range a lot.
What was the last straw?
He was late a couple of times at the  Players. It had gotten to the point where some in my family were saying, “He’s hurting you.” My father and wife were probably the most vocal ones, saying, “You need to wake up. It’s time. You’ve given him more chances than anyone on tour. He has to go.” They were right, and I was ignorant for a while. It went on way too long, and finally, in the spring of 1999, that was it.
So you hired Fluff after he was let go by Tiger. Has Fluff’s popularity ever rubbed you the wrong way?
You’re totally cool with it?
I’ve had a person or two in the gallery say, “Geez, he’s more famous than you.” I don’t think that’s true, but maybe it is, and if so, it wouldn’t bother me. Whatever he wants to do on the side, he’s got to make a living, too.
Are caddies worth the six-figure incomes some of them are getting?
If I didn’t think Mike was worth what I was paying him, I just wouldn’t. You name the 10 best caddies on tour, and most of them are working for the 15 or 20 best players on tour. There’s a reason for that.
Would that explain why some of the good young players don’t win more often or succeed as quickly as the media might expect?
Sometimes, but not always. When I talk about a club with Mike and we’re both thinking 7-iron, then I knock it over the green, I don’t blame my caddie. I ultimately agreed with him, pulled the club and struck the shot. I hit the damn thing over the green. A lot of people in that situation–players, media–blame the caddie. If I hear one more time about the third tee at Augusta this year [where caddie Steve Williams supposedly talked Woods into hitting driver, and Tiger blew it into the trees], I’m going to puke.
Caddies are there for advice. Sometimes it’s good advice, sometimes bad, but ultimately we’re responsible–unless you’re one of those guys who can’t make a decision or needs a wet nurse to take you around the course. There are a few of those.
You were a quarterback in junior high, a catcher on the high school baseball team and a point guard in basketball. Do you still shoot hoops or play?
At the house we moved out of, the people who lived there before us had an unbelievably nice hoop in the driveway, so I would go out there and shoot every once in a while. As for football, I haven’t played since junior high and don’t miss it. Quite frankly, I have no desire to get my head beat in.
So how did you manage to get hurt after an NFL game a few years back?
Tabitha and I had flown into Baltimore–I had my clubs and everything ready for the  Tour Championship in Atlanta. One of my good friends has season tickets to the Ravens, and he invited me to a game against the Steelers. After the game, some guys were tossing around a football in the parking lot, and I moved about 10 yards to try to knock a pass down. Maybe I wasn’t athletic enough to do it, but I slipped and fell and hurt my wrist. It ended up sounding like we were playing tackle football in a gravel lot, but I wasn’t even throwing the football. We were hanging out, and I ran over to knock the pass down as kind of a joke. It turned out not to be so funny.
When did you know you were injured?
We went to dinner that night, and that’s when it started getting a little sore. Now I’m getting nervous, because I know something’s wrong–I kept getting up and going to the restroom, just to calm down. Once we got into Atlanta, it started really hurting. In the morning I went to the hospital to get it checked out, had some X-rays done, and they turned out negative. They sent me to another doctor for an MRI, and he said it looked like I had a small tear.
How worried were you?
It definitely crossed my mind that I might have done something stupid that wasn’t going to heal, or could bother me throughout my career. To run just 10 steps and get hurt–I was disappointed I’d done something to jeopardize my career, but I was lucky it happened at the end of 2000. I got married that winter, took two months off and came back at the Mercedes Championships at the start of ’01.
I’m injury-prone and afraid of getting hurt now, and when you’re afraid of getting hurt, you’re going to get hurt. Might as well just stay away from it.
You also endured a bout with vertigo in 2002. What was that like?
It’s a very awkward thing. I woke up in the middle of the night, rolled onto my right side to look at the clock and couldn’t see it–two feet away, and I couldn’t read it. So I rolled back over and tried again, and it was still blurred. When I woke up that morning, I sat up in bed and immediately fell back down. My body didn’t know how to stay upright. My wife says, “What are you doing?” I said, “I don’t know how to explain this, but I can’t sit up.” I didn’t have any control over it.
That must’ve been a bit disconcerting.
Correct. I rolled onto my stomach and laid there for a while and felt fine. Got out of bed from that position, stood up and felt fine. After a couple of days, you figure out what bothers you and what doesn’t. For me, going from an upright position to my back made me nauseous. Then, as soon as I stood up again, I’d become disoriented. I had positional vertigo, which depends on the positioning of my head. Duval had it [in 2003] and might say the same. The worst part was getting comfortable with the fact that it’s not abnormal. A lot of people have the same symptoms. Tons of people on tour tell me they’ve had something very similar. Over a dozen people have come up to me and said, “Oh, yeah, I had it back in ’98. Don’t worry about it. It goes away.”
And how long did it last for you?
I spent one week at home, and my situation didn’t really improve. So I went to see a specialist. I started doing better. Still, it took two months. Not until Memorial of 2002 did I feel 100 percent. Usually it’s a four- or five-day thing.
So you’ve had some scares. If you weren’t a tour pro, what would you be doing today?
I have no idea. I got my degree in general business, was an average student. If there were no more golf tournaments to play, and I knew I’d never play in another event competitively, I wouldn’t practice. I enjoy the game and enjoy playing recreationally, though most of my good friends can’t break 80. I have one friend who’s a club champ, although I’m not sure any of the good players showed up that week. Put that in the article.
How many casual rounds do you play?
What do you consider casual?
Golf with friends, or something in a noncompetitive environment.
I might go out to the Stadium Course [TPC at Sawgrass] and play nine holes with some of the guys there, maybe gamble a little, but I don’t consider that a casual round of golf. If I’m just going out to hang with friends, six to 12 rounds a year, at the most. Where I’m not thinking about my swing or getting ready for the next event, the total probably doesn’t reach six.
What was the biggest revelation from your rookie season of 1994, something you carry with you to this day?
The only way to ever get better, whether you’re a tour pro or a 20-handicap, is to play with people who are better. I’m not a very talkative person, but I’m a good listener and a very good watcher. I watched Nick Faldo hit balls at my first Masters in 1996. He was practicing these little wedge shots. I looked at my dad and said, “He does that better than I do.” Now that shot from about 50 yards is my bread and butter.
That story about you putting cross-handed from the start because that’s what Arnold Palmer and Gary Player told your dad–is that accurate?
How did your dad manage to seek out Palmer and Player for advice?
He was a club pro in the Pittsburgh area, and there was a pro-am played with some pretty big names. My dad was invited to come watch, so he had access to those guys. Both said that if they could go back and change anything, they’d putt cross-handed. They felt like it was a more solid stroke, and if they’d started putting that way when they were young, they would’ve acquired that feel.
More on your golf approach: Chi Chi Rodriguez recently told Golf Digest that your preshot routine drives him crazy. Can you explain what you’re doing?
My preshot routine? I don’t know why that would bother anyone. It’s not much different from anyone else’s. He’s probably talking about my routine before putting. I take a couple of practice strokes, stand over the ball like I’m going to hit it, then back off. I read putts very well over the ball, then go back and look at the putt from behind to confirm what I saw.
As one who is so systematic in your approach, what’s your take as to why Phil Mickelson won’t alter his playing style in major championships?
If I hadn’t won a major championship and somebody came up and said, “I think you should change your swing because it isn’t working–you haven’t won a major,” I’m going to tell you that’s my style. I’ve got to stick with it, because it got me here.
The guy’s going to be in the Hall of Fame. He’ll win a major, no question about that. But am I surprised he hasn’t changed his style? I’m not.
I’ll also add that I don’t really care. I like Phil. As a friend, I love talking to him. But as far as how he plays, I’ve got enough to worry about. I’d much rather talk to him about the Chargers and the Steelers.
What were your impressions of Phil when he was at Arizona State and you were at Arizona?
He definitely was head and shoulders above everybody else. When we were playing junior golf, he was getting ready for college. When we were in college, he was getting ready to play professional golf.
Were you there when he had the squabble with your teammate, Manny Zerman? [Mickelson wanted to take a drop because he said his ball was embedded. Zerman said no, and Mickelson holed the shot.]
That really wasn’t a squabble. Phil had a big chunk of mud on his ball. He was trying to get relief from casual water, whatever it was. Manny thought he was protecting the field and said no. So Phil played a big hook into the green because the mud was on the other side of the ball, and it went in the cup. My philosophy would have been to give him the drop, don’t tick him off.
On the topic of motivation: At the ’99
Ryder Cup, Ben Crenshaw put together a motivational videotape. The man assigned to fire you up was Steelers coach Bill Cowher. What did he say?
I’m sure he spit a few times–when he gets excited, he spits. His primary message was about how you can accomplish so much more as a group than as an individual.
Tabitha was among the last ones standing at the Brookline victory party. How much do you remember about that evening?
My wife has a lot of go in her. She’s definitely going to be one of the last ones at a party like that. I actually remember a lot. Some of the more reserved players, like Tom Lehman, really let loose. I remember Payne Stewart standing on a piano bench, rocking back and forth on two legs, and everybody worried he was going to fall.
Do you remember the last time you saw Payne?
I don’t. Instead of remembering the last time I saw him, I remember the good times and funny moments. My last memory is of him rocking on that bench.
Let’s finish with a change-up: If you were named tour commissioner for a day, what would be your first order of business?
I served on our Player Advisory Council for a few years. I’ve been asked to serve, to get more involved. I want to play golf.
One of my favorite quotes of all time came from Paul Azinger. I was a young player, and I asked him if he’d ever been on the PAC. He said, “Son, I’m out here trying to make history, not policy.” Great line.
I’m just interested in playing the best golf I can, and when that’s over, going home to my family. The better you play, the less you have to worry about.
THE FURYK FILE
Born: May 12, 1970;West Chester, Pa.
Residence: Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.
Weight: 185 pounds.
Family: Wife Tabitha; Caleigh Lynn (1).
College: University of Arizona.
Turned professional: 1992.
PGA TOUR VICTORIES (9):
1995: Las Vegas Inv.
1996: United Airlines Hawaiian Open.
1998: Las Vegas Inv.
1999: Las Vegas Inv.
2000: Doral-Ryder Open.
2001: Mercedes Ch.
2002: Memorial Tourn.
2003: U.S. Open, Buick Open.
INTERNATIONAL VICTORIES (1):
1997: Argentine Open.
Ryder Cup: 1997: 1-2-0; 1999: 1-2-0; 2002: 1-2-2. Totals: 3-6-2.
Presidents Cup: 1998: 1-3-0; 2000: 3-1-0; 2003: 3-2-0. Totals: 7-6-0.
Did you know Jim Furyk . . .
PLAYED THE FIRST 79 HOLES OF THE 2002 Invensys Classic without a bogey. . . . Pittsburgh Steelers coach Bill Cowher taped a message to Furyk as part of an inspirational video played to the U.S. team the night before before the Americans’ comeback in the 1999 Ryder Cup at Brookline, Mass. . . . Friends with Pro Football Hall of Fame wide receiver Lynn Swann. . . . Has won a PGA Tour event eight of the past nine years.
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