20 years later, Hal Sutton and caddie Freddie Burns reflect on showdown with Tiger Woods at the Players Championship
Before the famous “better than most” line came about from the lips of NBC commentator Gary Koch at the 2001 Players and before Tiger Woods even won a Players, there was another one-liner that reverberated through the ears of golf fans when they tuned into the Tour’s flagship stop:
“Be the right club today!”
Twenty years ago at the 2000 Players Championship, a 41-year-old Hal Sutton — a former Players champion — stared down Tiger Woods.
“At the time, we didn’t even know what Tiger’s ceiling was,” Sutton told The Caddie Network.
Woods was just beating seemingly all challengers, and by a lot.
Sutton and the rest of the golf world was about to find out Woods’ ceiling, and in mouth-dropping fashion. If The Players is indeed the fifth major, well Woods emphatically included it in his Tiger Slam from the 2000 U.S. Open to the 2001 Masters.
Could you imagine holding all five of those titles today?
So here we are 20 years after Sutton so famously shouted, “Be the right club today!” with his second shot in the air coming into the 72nd green.
Dan Hicks, who called the play-by-play that day on NBC as he has every year in their golf coverage starting that season through to now, told TCN that Sutton’s shot was one of the biggest moments in the history of golf, and for two reasons: Who Sutton beat — a dominant Tiger Woods at the time — and the audio that captured Sutton’s reaction so well that it ushered in a new era in golf broadcasting where (shotgun) microphones began to regularly pick up that kind of quality player sound.
Can the now 61-year-old Sutton believe it’s been 20 years since his signature win along with now 68-year-old caddie Freddie Burns?
“Wow, time has flown,” Sutton said.
For Burns, who looped for Sutton for 37 years and now has looped for Tom Pernice on the PGA Tour Champions the past four, being on the bag for Sutton’s win over Tiger was incredible.
“It was one of the greatest feelings that I’ve ever had,” Burns said. “Hal told me, he knew back then that we would have our chance to beat Tiger. He said these guys don’t know how to beat him. They’re all scared of him. But I’d been around Hal a long time, this guy wasn’t scared.”
There was some history that contributed to Sutton’s fearlessness that week. It came from playing two tournament rounds with Tiger at Riviera just a month before.
“I called Freddie into my office before the West Coast Swing and told him, ‘Freddie, somewhere on the west coast we’re going to get paired with Tiger, and I want to make sure that three people know that we can beat him when we have the task. I want you to know it, I want me to know it, and I want him to know it.’”
Sutton shot 69-67 those two days at Riviera, while Woods shot 68-70.
“I’d played enough golf in my life to know if someone plays really well with you on Tour — you remember that — so I just wanted Tiger to have it in his mind that I could do that,” Sutton said.
It also helped Sutton in his showdown paired with Tiger over those final 36 holes at Sawgrass that Tiger’s great distance wouldn’t be a usual factor.
“There were many holes he’d be hitting 3 woods anyway, 2 irons,” Burns said. “He wouldn’t have his driver in his hands much on that golf course, so the length didn’t mean too much.”
Sutton knew his strengths as well.
“The world was trying to make me afraid of him but I just bowed up against it and said, ‘no, I happen to know that this is a point A to point B to point C golf course and I can do that just as well as he can.’ Distance wasn’t the biggest thing at TPC. Being able to put it where you wanted to put it was the most important part and I knew I could do that.”
After playing 11 holes Sunday, thunderstorms and heavy rain caused the final round to finish on Monday.
Sutton’s resolve was written all over his face as he walked down golf’s most dramatic finishing stretch.
He led Woods by three entering the par-5 16th. Then Tiger dropped an eagle, and followed with one of his most athletic, signature fist pumps.
“The crowd was going crazy when he made that,” Burns recalled. “People were rolling down the hills, they were hooting and hollering. It was unbelievable, a circus environment. Hal knew all of this. He saw it. He didn’t let that bother him. He knew that it’s what they do.”
Then Sutton and Burns had one of golf’s most nerve-wracking walks ahead of them, but Sutton wasn’t worried even though Woods’ eagle cut his lead from three to one.
“Hal pulled me to the side as we were walking and he said, ‘we’re still going to win this golf tournament,’ and I said, ‘I hear you boss’,” Burns said.
Sutton had told Burns earlier that the game plan was to build a three-shot cushion coming into 16 tee anyway because of the high likelihood Woods would eagle.
Sutton’s thought was with a one-shot lead on 17, “he’s still got to play those last two holes just like I do. We can still beat him.”
But not all holes are created equal, and the island green 17th and par-4 18th at TPC Sawgrass are no bargain even for the wire-to-wire leader at that point. To add to the drama, Sutton was 4 over for the week on the iconic island-green 17th.
Tiger went first with the honors.
“Honestly, when Tiger hit the shot on 17, it was at the flag but it did not look like it was going to clear the water,” Sutton said. “He was looking at it anxiously, trust me, because it landed in the deep rough and stayed in it. And there wasn’t a foot of it there it was so narrow.”
Sutton hit his tee shot to the middle of the green.
Then players and caddies made the famous walk to the island green.
“I said to Freddie loud enough where Tiger could hear it, ‘Man, he’s the first guy that’s cleared the water in front of me, I really appreciate that Tiger,'” Sutton laughed. “Everybody hit it in the water in front of me all week long. And you know it’s kind of funny, it made Freddie and I loosen up and laugh.”
On that hole, with the title on the line, why not stay loose?
Both parred and Woods led the walk off the peninsula from 17 green to 18 tee. Burns meanwhile had a critical plan as he walked with his player to the 72nd hole.
“I knew Tiger had been hitting this running 2-iron off the 18th tee and we’d been hitting 3-wood (and were outdriven by Woods in the third round),” Burns said. “But we needed to see Tiger hit the ball first into the green so we would know what kind of shot we needed to hit. So I had to put that in Hal’s head, so I said, ‘who’s the best driver in the world?’ and he said, ‘I am,’ and I said, ‘damn right you are,’ and he was.”
Sutton, still clinging to a one-shot lead, outdrove Woods’s 2 iron and hit second as he and Freddie had hoped after Woods missed the green with his approach.
“Be the right club today!”
“There really wasn’t much conversation before I hit the shot,” Sutton said of the most memorable shot he’s ever hit to golf fans, that approach on 18. “I reached in the bag and put my hand on the 6-iron and we had an understanding: if I put my hand on two clubs then he knew I was looking for his opinion, but if I put my hand on one club then he knew I had my mind made up.”
Freddie agreed on the club choice.
“Once he pulled it I told him, ‘that’s the right club boss,’” Burns said. “Those were my last words to him, that he’s got the right one. We just didn’t want to hit it over that green. The yardage we had was 184 yards to the hole. Normally that’s 5-iron for us. But 5-iron could have put us over the green too if we hit on top of that ridge in the green. Tiger’s ball had landed and gone over the green just minutes before. It hit on the green and rolled to the back part where it just slopes off.”
Yet again, it was crucial that Team Sutton could see Tiger hit first with a one-shot lead at the last.
Sutton stood over the ball and then delivered one of the sport’s all-time one-liners after executing his shot to 12 feet: “Be the right club today! Yes!” he shouted.
Sutton says now that the raw emotion caused him to say something he’d never really articulated before.
“I’d never said anything like that before in my life, but I knew I hit it on the exact spot on the club that it was supposed to be hit, and I knew it was headed right at the flag, and the only thing that was going to take that away from me at that point was a surprise,” Sutton said. “Basically that’s what I meant when I said, ‘Be the right club today!’ I meant don’t hit a puff of wind, don’t let the wind get behind you or anything else, just be what you are. A lot of people didn’t understand that until they saw what Tom Watson did at the 2009 British Open and he hit a really good shot that didn’t turn out very good. We’re splitting hairs out there at times.”
Once the ball landed in the right spot, the player/caddie high fives were understandably fierce. Had Freddie ever gotten that hard a celebratory high five in his life?
“Are you kidding me?” Burns laughed. “It was crazy. But after we all shook hands on 18, he squeezed my hand so hard he darn well almost broke my hand. He was still hot. This guy was still pumped. Man, it was a great moment.”
When Sutton was told this he broke out with a huge laugh.
“We were both pumped, it was a lot for us that week,” Sutton said. “The world kept looking for us to fail.”
When the win was complete and the scorecards were signed, Woods emerged from the scoring tent and shared a moment with Burns.
“When Tiger came out of the tent he told me, ‘man, you guys were the best this week’,” Burns said. “He shook my hand and told me that personally. And I told him ‘thank you, I appreciate it.’”
Sutton also got some kind words from Woods.
“Tiger was very complimentary and he couldn’t have been nicer,” Sutton said. “He gave me a thumbs up in the fairway when I hit the shot on 18. When we were in the scoring tent he said, ‘Hal you played great,’ and I did.”
Sutton also remembers talking with Woods about the surprising crowd presence as they got to the course Monday.
“We got into the van to go out on Monday morning and Tiger said, ‘I can’t believe how many people are out here, I think they’re all pulling for you too’,” Sutton said.
Today, Sutton is the Director of Golf at The Clubs of Houston Oaks. He doesn’t really think much about the dramatic win or the approach on 18, that is until he’s reminded by amateur playing partners when he’s out playing recreational golf.
What made Sutton’s win extra special is that he’s the only player in golf history who both Jack Nicklaus (1983 PGA Championship) and Tiger Woods (2000 Players) finished second to in their careers.
How does that sound to Sutton?
“That feels good. I idolized Nicklaus growing up and thinking about the opportunity to one day have the chance to beat him somewhere and to realize that dream and see it come true was pretty special,” he said. “There was also a difference between the two wins. Jack wasn’t playing with me, he was playing a group or two in front of me in that valley at Riviera. And Nicklaus birdieing everything on the back nine, I knew what was going on. At the time Nicklaus was 42 years old, so he was towards the tail end of his career, he was still playing great, but nearing the end, while Tiger was climbing at the time. We didn’t know what his ceiling was, because at the time he was winning everything and handily too. Beating Tiger at the time, I felt the weight of the world on me because I felt that every golfer needed to know that he could be beat.”
Though Sutton admitted he didn’t have much energy to celebrate, Burns did so the next day with 15 of his closest Tour caddies at the next Tour stop in Duluth, Georgia.
“I celebrated big time,” Burns said. “I gave a caddie party that Monday at (the BellSouth Classic). I had everybody in the bar and I just took the tab.”
And what did that tab run?
“It was $3,000 or $4,000. But I had just made $150,000 so it wasn’t no big deal,” Burns laughed.
Looking at the big picture, Sutton’s signature 2000 Players win came during his impressive resurgence from 1998 to 2001.
“It was really something to see,” Burns said. “He got it together after a tough stretch. Then we won in San Antonio (1998 Westin Texas Open) and beat Vijay at the (1998) Tour Championship, then Tiger (2000 Players).”
When asked why the Shreveport, Louisiana player and caddie worked so well together, Sutton didn’t mince words.
“He was my friend as well as my caddie,” Sutton said. “He was more than just a team member, he was a family member.”
Both family members delivered against possibly the greatest force this game has ever seen 20 years ago on that unforgettable Monday finish at TPC Sawgrass.