Michael Campbell never tires of telling his underdog story. There have been many in golf, but the New Zealander’s is surely one of the best.
This is a man who worked as a telephone repairman for five years after leaving school at 16; who topped his first-ever tee shot as a pro; and two years later squandered a two-shot lead at The Open having stayed up until 2am playing Minesweeper on his computer.
There are other moments that confound belief, like the time he missed 12 cuts in a row and won the 2003 Irish Open on his next start. Of course, most people remember ‘Cambo’ for what he did as a 150-1 long shot in the 2005 US Open at Pinehurst, when he beat Tiger Woods in his prime and ignited a day of celebration in his homeland.
The fact he ended up with a £5,000 bill to repair the trophy is just one of many ridiculous tales that resulted from him becoming a national hero overnight.
The welcome home party in Wellington was big, second only to The Beatles, he says, and the celebrations continued for several weeks after. He bought a Porsche Carrera 4S with his winnings and even had a bus route named after him in Brighton, where he was living at the time.
His capacity to surprise forms the basis of a hilarious 40-minute conversation, which begins with a startling revelation about his upbringing and the makeshift golf tees that used to drive his mother crazy. We can understand why!
I started playing golf on a sheep farm. There were fences around the greens to keep the sheep out. They couldn’t afford mowers to mow the grass down. When I was younger, I had one club. It was a 6-iron, cut down.
I couldn’t afford tees so I used to collect dried-up sheep shit to tee the ball up. I used to put it in my pocket and my mum used to get really, really mad because I used to come home with pockets full of sheep shit. I went from doing that to becoming a Major champion!
When I won the US Open, it was the first time there had been any US Open Qualifying outside America. I had no motivation to go to Walton Heath because I was tired after playing four weeks in a row on the European Tour. But my then-wife convinced me to go as it was only a short drive from my home in Brighton and I was first off with Steve Webster at 7.30 am. When I holed out for birdie from 9ft at the last, it meant I was the last player to qualify.
On the Monday of every tournament, I write down little goals for myself. It could be breaking 30 putts per round or hitting 15 greens per round. That week of the US Open, I wrote down that I would buy a second-hand Porsche if I was in the top 10. So, I ended up writing 997 on my golf ball as a marker for the whole week. It was very particular, but I wanted this 997 Porsche. It was two years old, 3,000 miles, for £25,000.
As Sunday came along, it went from that to a brand-new Porsche. A Carrera 4S. I was thinking about the color of the car, the interior, the sports exhausts. I was thinking about every single detail during the last round. I bought it and it cost me £100,000- something. I had to wait three months to get it, unfortunately, because it was all spec’d up.
When I signed my card at the US Open, I remember standing at the basin in the locker room thinking, ‘What the hell just happened?’ I was crying with laughter. I remember hearing a flush of the toilet and then looking up to see Tiger walking towards me. He was washing his hands and face next to me and even though we’re pretty good mates, he didn’t say a thing, which I thought was strange.
He walked away, then came back again, tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Well done, Cambo”. Obviously, he was still pissed off, but what he actually did, which was quite unusual for Tiger, was he came to the prize-giving ceremony. For a guy to come second and stand next to me, that was a lovely gesture. If you look at all the other prize-giving ceremonies, there’s no second-place person standing next to the winner.
After four hours of media commitments, I went back to my hotel where they put on a party for me. There were like 100 people and we stayed up partying until 3am. It was amazing how much I drank and still managed to stay sober. I was on such an adrenaline rush. I woke up four hours later with no hangover.
The worst thing was that there were a few scratches and dents on the trophy after the big party. I had to take it back to be repaired before I returned it a year later, because it was just too scratched up. It cost me, like, £5,000 to repair it. It was worth it though.
I went back home to New Zealand for two weeks to share my success with my people. I went around to all the low decile (most deprived) areas of schools to give motivational speeches to kids, telling them that dreams do come true if you believe it. That was my main focus, to give the kids some hope, but I also had a ticker-tape parade. Something like 120,000 people turned up. The organizer said it was the second biggest one they’ve had, after The Beatles! That was the magnitude really of my success and how it spread through New Zealand. It proved to the world that Maori people can play golf as well as rugby.
At the time I lived in Brighton and I actually got given the keys to the city by the Mayor. I was like, “What does that mean?” He goes, “Well, they’ve named a bus route after you”, which I thought was a bit strange. He then said, “You can have free parking in Brighton and you can graze your sheep in any of the parks in the city”. I don’t even own sheep, but that was still quite cool.
At a practice round at the World Match Play, my coach turned up with an article that had written me off. It said there had only ever been three players who had won the US Open and World Match Play in the same year (Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, and Ernie Els) and that Michael Campbell isn’t in the same class… I stuck that article on the back of my yardage book so I saw it every time I opened it up. That was my motivation to become the fourth player to do it. To be mentioned in the same sentence as those three players is pretty special.
My prime time was between 1999 and 2005, six good years. It was the same time Tiger was winning virtually everything! I feel privileged to have played in the same era as him, to have played against him so many times and, on occasions, to have beaten him!
There’s no doubt I lost my hunger and motivation for the game. I struggled after winning the US Open. I was changing things and diving into different ways of swinging a club. It was a complete mess. Eventually, I thought, “You know what, get away from it and if I walk away now, it’s fine – I’ve had a really good career.”
During my time out I started my own golf academy in Marbella, where I’m based. And it’s down to Jack Nicklaus. After I’d won the 2005 World Match Play at Wentworth, we flew to Washington to play the Presidents Cup. At the black tie function for all the guests and sponsors, I was minding my own business when Jack came over. He was very complimentary about me fending off Tiger to win at Pinehurst. Then, all of a sudden, his face changed. He gave me this steely look and said, “Michael, now you’re a Major winner, you have a responsibility to grow the game”. And then he walked off. I was stood there thinking, What does he mean? But he’d planted a seed, so when the opportunity came up to start a golf academy, I realized this is what Jack had been talking about.
I retired in 2013, so for six years I didn’t play. I actually didn’t touch a golf club for two years. Can you imagine that? I loved it. I was going through a divorce and I had to look after the kids. I enjoyed being a dad. I had always been away, playing on tour for most of their lives.
That first time hitting a golf club again was horrible (laughs). My body couldn’t remember what to do. But it’s a bit like riding a bike. A week or so later it was back to normal. It probably took me a couple of months, maybe a month, to shoot under par again.
I always wanted to come back and start playing again on the Seniors Tour once I turned 50. Covid happened so the first couple of years were a write-off, but hey, that’s life. I’m glad where I’m at now, playing a few events. I’m still competitive on the Legends Tour over here in Europe.
After seeing Bernhard Langer winning the US Senior Open at 65, I’m thinking I’m going to play until I’m 65. I mean, come on. Forty-six wins on the Senior Tour, 12 Majors is it? That’s just ridiculous. He’s very inspiring. I was going to play until I was 60, but now I’m thinking if I can keep myself healthy, I’ve got a chance to hang around even longer. I guess that’s the beauty of this game. The ball doesn’t know your age.
I do have a lifetime membership on the DP World Tour, but the game’s changed. When I was in my prime, you didn’t have to hit it far. The most important thing was accuracy and distance control with your irons. Now it’s a power game.
When I was away for those two years, I lost a lot of power and distance because I wasn’t in the gym as much, and I wasn’t practicing as often. It’s sad because I know I can’t compete. I’ve decided to let them play and I’ll do my own thing on the Legends Tour.
I’m not in favor of rolling the ball back. People like to see players hitting bombs 360 yards off the tee. The only issue with that is it’s making a lot of golf courses I used to play in the 2000s obsolete. There’s not enough land to extend these courses.
Pace of play in today’s game annoys the hell out of me. It shouldn’t take this long to play golf. I mean, it takes five hours for three professionals to play golf. That’s ridiculous, totally ridiculous. There’s just too much information that the guys need to digest before hitting a ball.
I agree with Padraig Harrington that rangefinders should be allowed in all competitions. That’s the easiest way to cure slow play, especially if you’ve hit a shot 30 or 40 yards offline. Think how much time a caddie spends walking backward and forwards, trying to find a marker on the fairway, and then trying to plot the distance from where the ball is. A rangefinder saves so much time.
I was approached a long time ago about captaining at the Presidents Cup and I said no because I wasn’t ready. Funnily enough, I’ve been talking to Mike Weir to see if I could be a vice-captain for next year. He’s got a few guys that he wants to think about as well, so I’ll put my name forward and see what happens.
I have just one regret from my career. Winning the US Open gave me a five-year exemption on the PGA Tour and I said no to it. I just felt comfortable being in Europe. My kids were thriving at their private school in Brighton and I was happy. Selfishly, for my career it could have been good for me, but it was a pure sacrifice for the family because I couldn’t imagine raising my kids in America.
Now, I look at the DP World Tour and they’ve become a feeder tour. They will deny that, but to me it’s a fact, they’re losing all the talent. The top 10 in the Order of Merit get a PGA Tour card. The Hojgaard brothers, for example, they’ll probably be gone next. Ryan Fox, he’s over in America now. There’s not a lot of top players left.
CAMPBELL’S COACHING TIP
I’ve got a perfect tip for you guys. Stop going on YouTube and bouncing ideas around in your head. There have been many times when a student or client has come to me with this ideal swing for them. But what’s dangerous is how you interpret those videos. It’s your perspective and what you feel is not real. My advice would be to see a coach on a regular basis who you trust.
There’s a lot of videos out there and unfortunately, a lot of them are full of sh*t to be honest. The most important thing you can do is to start using scientific evidence and how you do that is through Trackman, and through Force Plates, and through all these gadgets which are wonderful. The depth on the PGA Tour and European Tour is greater than it’s ever been because the information is out there. It’s not guesswork anymore for the coach.
About the author
Today’s Golfer Features Editor
Michael Catling is Today’s Golfer‘s Features Editor and an award-winning journalist who specializes in golf’s Majors and Tours, including DP World, PGA, LPGA, and LIV.
Michael joined Today’s Golfer in 2016 and has traveled the world to attend the game’s biggest events and secure exclusive interviews with dozens of Major champions, including Jack Nicklaus, Jordan Spieth, Tom Watson, Greg Norman, Gary Player, and Justin Thomas.
A former member of Ufford Park and Burghley Park, Michael has been playing golf since he was 11 and currently plays off a handicap of 10.
Away from golf he’s a keen amateur chef and has his own healthy recipes website. He also loves playing squash, going to the gym, and following Chelsea FC.