Sportsperson of the year: Michael Campbell

By David Leggat

Close your eyes and picture the scene: a Maori boy is swatting balls around the golf course at Titahi Bay, just north of Wellington, all hours of the day.

And all the while he's got a dream burning away, seeing himself marching up the fairways of the sport's great venues. And winning.

Especially at Augusta, home of the Masters. That hasn't happened yet for Michael Campbell, but he'll settle for Pinehurst No 2 in North Carolina, where in June he became the first New Zealander to win the US Open, and just the second Kiwi to win a golf major.

It's been 42 years since Sir Bob Charles triumphed at the British Open, but Campbell is determined the wait won't be as long for a third New Zealand success.

But back to Titahi Bay, and the early mornings at home glued to the television.

"It was in the late 1970s that I started watching a lot of golf with dad. I got up at 6am before school, and watched for two or three hours. It was one of the highlights of my youth," Campbell said.

He remembers the stark contrast.

"Titahi Bay which then was basically a sheep farm with sheep shit everywhere, then looking on TV where everything was perfect, beautiful rolling mounds, the water crystal blue. It was like, 'Wow, does that really exist'?

"It was like a different world to me. I thought it'd be nice to play that one day."

Campbell's career has fluctuated from days of splendour when his rich shotmaking ability has been gob-smackingly good to others when we, and he, wondered whether he would ever fulfil his dream and do justice to his gifts.

Last year had not been a good one. But - to paraphrase the old song - what a difference a year makes. How did he do it? That comes later.

First Pinehurst. A tough layout, and the US Open is notorious for presenting the most daunting assignments to the game's finest. They don't like golfers jazzing round their courses at several shots under par.

Fast-forward to that final day, June 19. Campbell began the last round four shots behind leader Retief Goosen. But the outstanding South African imploded with an 81.

Campbell birdied the first, then ran a string of five pars, which put him on top of the leaderboard. After nine holes, Campbell was a shot ahead of Goosen. Tiger Woods and unknown Jason Gore were two back.

Woods hung on like a dog sensing a bone about to drop its way. Each time the great American made a run, Campbell had an answer.

Campbell finished with a one-under 69 at even par 280, two clear of Woods and five up on Spain's Sergio Garcia, South African Tim Clark and Australian Mark Hensby.

Looking back, Campbell remembers feeling good from the moment he woke up that morning. Not good as in "I'm going to win this," but good in that he knew he would give himself the best possible chance. He wouldn't blow up.

"I felt really calm, really in control of my emotions. I felt 'this is my day', I actually felt I could do this. I had that feeling only once before, when I won the European Open in Ireland three years ago.

"It's very hard to explain to a non-competitive person. You get a certain vibe. I wasn't expecting to win, but wasn't expecting to fall by the wayside either."

Among the changes in Campbell's life as a result of those few hours in North Carolina, one of the most intriguing is the attitude of his fellow professionals.

Ask any top professional sportsman or woman and they'll likely say the same thing: how their peers view them is paramount.

Campbell uses one word to describe the change: respect. Before he was known as a fine player. A report card might have read: Has all the gifts. Hot and cold. Must work harder.

A run of sizzling form post-Pinehurst has confirmed what everyone has known: he has the ability to become a regular title contender.

After the Open, Campbell followed up with a share of fifth at the British Open at St Andrews, ending seven shots behind Woods; he was equal sixth at the US PGA Championship at Baltusrol, New Jersey, ending three behind Phil Mickelson; and rounded off the year by winning the world matchplay title at Wentworth in England in September, then finishing third in the invitation field of 16 at the Target Challenge in California this month.

"The players now respect me as a player. Once you've been labelled a major winner it's a different level.

"At first, they labelled me another Ben Curtis, or Todd Hamilton or Rich Beem, the guys who won a major then faded away. Then I came back and won quickly after that. That really shut them up," he laughed.

Campbell insists it was nothing to do with trying to prove a point.

"Basically I was just playing golf, and playing well.

"But the thing I've noticed is when I walk on the practice range. It's not the green-eyed monster, just admiration or respect for me as a player, and that's one of the highest compliments you can get from your peers."

Advice

He's now viewed as a threat and is sought out for advice, which amuses him.

"Ernie Els asked me a few things about what I was thinking during the last round at Pinehurst. Here's a guy who's won three majors and he's asking me."

He loved getting the congratulatory letters from legends such as Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Arnold Palmer, but life was getting hectic.

Campbell reckons on the course is the easy part; adapting to the mountain of demands on his time is a new challenge.

So how did Campbell do it? He's emphatic it was more mental than physical advancements that opened the door. He remembered sitting down in Sydney late last year and jotting his thoughts on what had been a dismal year. His world ranking had slumped into the 80s. He was like a man searching for the right key to unlock the door.

"The first one I wrote down was that I had no goals in 2004, which is terrible. I wrote about 20 statements down. The last thought I had was I'd had enough of golf. So I ripped that piece of paper up and from that point on I just thought positive thoughts.

"And it's amazing when you do that, you hold your head higher, pull your shoulders back. It's how you feel as a person."

In practical terms, Campbell got out his axe. In the course of a couple of months round the end of last year and the early weeks of this year, he employed his coach Jonathan Yarwood on a fulltime basis for five years ("a huge plus"); switched to IMG as his management company; changed psychologist, fitness trainer and physiotherapist. He acknowledged he'd got into a situation where there were "too many chiefs and not enough Indians".

"Cambo Inc is a business. When you run a business and it's not doing well you've got to change the infrastructure or management to make it work. Now I'm taking control of my own destiny."

He's also going about resetting his goals, as a result of this year. When Colin Meads became an All Black, he told of being determined not just to be another run-of-the-mill All Black but to be a special one. There is loosely an analogy with golf.

It's a sport of journeyman pros, good pros, outstanding players and major champions, and top of the tree are the multi-major champions - the great ones, the group of players who prove there is more to their life than one great week of golf.

Campbell is on the second top rung, alongside the likes of Curtis, Hamilton, Beem and Shaun Micheel. Not for long, if he has his way.

Campbell wants to be known as New Zealand's best golfer, and that means winning at least one more major to move ahead of Charles.

"At a certain level in your career you've got to reset your goals, otherwise you just stagnate. I want to ride this rocket as long as I can. The last thing I want to do is sit back on the US Open victory and go, 'That's Michael Campbell done for the rest of my life'."

His estimation is he's got another six years in which to achieve his goal of winning all four majors.

It's a big call, given the only players to have accomplished that are Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Player, Nicklaus and Woods.

"I'll be 42 or 43 then, and that's when the body takes over."

Role models

Campbell likes the idea that he can influence people for the better, and he's determined to "give back" what he's received down the years. He's strong on the importance of having role models, and is puzzled at the notion that it's wrong to have heroes to aspire to emulate. The trick is to weed out a sportsperson's human failings, and focus on the positives.

"I had a wonderful upbringing, with all my male mentors at Titahi Bay and role models like the All Blacks who played through the late 1970s, and the 1980s. It's important for kids to have people to look up to. I wouldn't be here without my role models. It's a part of my success, probably the biggest factor in the whole equation.

"If I can help anyone to aspire to their goals, to follow their dreams, that's fine by me."

A week ago, Campbell played a round in Australia with emerging talent Brad Iles. He admitted he had been worried at the shortage of quality players coming out of New Zealand. Iles changed his mind.

"All I can say is, 'Wow'. He's the best talent I've seen come out of New Zealand in a long time.

"He's still young and he's got all the tools to become a great player ... it's up to him whether he wants to do it or not".

Which is probably what was said to him 13 years ago as he and his mates, Phil Tataurangi, Grant Moorhead and Stephen Scahill, won the world amateur teams' title, the Eisenhower Trophy.

It's taken a while, but Campbell made it. "I knew there was more to my life than fixing telephones. I just knew there was something out there for me."

Campbell will be in for a another treat next June when the Open tees off at Winged Foot, north of New York city, and the the starter announces to the crowd, "Ladies and gentlemen ... on the first tee, defending champion Michael Campbell of New Zealand."

THE CAMBO FILE

Michael Campbell's amazing year:
Won the US Open at Pinehurst, North Carolina, in June, pocketing $1,698,000.Tied for 5th at the British Open at St Andrews in July.
Tied for 6th at US PGA Championship at Baltusrol, New Jersey, in August.
Won the world matchplay championship at Wentworth, England, in September, beating Irishman Paul McGinley 2 and 1 in the final and picking up $2.56 million.
Tied for 3rd in the Tiger Woods-hosted Target World Challenge in California this month.
Lifted his world ranking to No 15 (it had been in the 80s at the start of the year).
Finished 2nd on the European Tour Order of Merit, behind Colin Montgomerie, collecting $4.3 million.

What winning the US Open means for him:
US Open entry for 10 years.
US PGA Tour exemptions for five years.
US Masters entry for five years.
US PGA Championship entry for five years.
Entry to the The Players' Championship (the unofficial fifth major) for five years.

US Open facts:
Campbell was the 23rd non-American to win the title.
It was his first top-10 finish in seven US Open starts.
It was his 29th major, his previous best finish being a tie for third at the 1995 British Open.
Campbell became the first New Zealander to win on the US Tour since Craig Perks in the 2002 Players' Championship.
Only five players have ever come from further back (four strokes going into the final round) to win the Open. The last was Lee Janzen in 1998.
Campbell was the first qualifier to win the title since Steve Jones in 1996.

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