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Epic story of unlikely major champ Michael Campbell… and forgotten Tiger act he’ll always remember

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It has been 19 years since New Zealand’s Michael Campbell stunned the golfing world, beating Tiger Woods in one of the wildest final rounds in memory to win the US Open.

Campbell was a qualifier who had never won on the PGA Tour – and never would again. The world number 80 had missed the cut at the last four US Opens. “No one expected me to win,” he says.

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Yet on that special weekend in 2005, golf’s great underdog mastered a notorious Pinehurst course he described as ‘brutal’, beating arguably the greatest player of all time and sending New Zealand into raptures.

Back at the famed North Carolina course for the first time since his remarkable triumph, Campbell opened up to foxsports.com.au on the ‘crazy’ mindset behind his iconic victory, the Tiger Woods moment that meant the world, and his remarkable fall from grace in the years that followed.

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LIKE HE NEVER LEFT

On Tuesday, Campbell wandered the course, soaking in the memories. Yet he still knows every corner of Pinehurst No.2 that is playing host to the US Open again this week.

“I remember every single shot I played on that final round 19 years ago,” he says. “It was so nice, so wonderful to relive those memories … It just gives me goose bumps just thinking about it. It’s pretty cool.”

But Campbell also concedes there’s a bizarre feeling upon returning to the scene of his greatest triumph.

“It’s kind of strange. It’s been 19 years and I put that part of my memory aside a little bit in my mind,” he says. “I haven’t really thought about it, to be honest with you. It’s been put in my back of my memory.”

Which is funny, really, when you consider just how memorable it was. He became New Zealand’s second man to win a major, four decades after Bob Charles won the 1963 Open Championship. He was the first qualifier to win the US Open since Steve Jones in 1996.

But when Campbell entered the tournament, he wasn’t harbouring too much hope of winning the lot.

“My goal before it started was top 10. And I thought top 10 is going to be a good result,” he says.

To sweeten the deal if he achieved his goal, Campbell promised himself a £20,000 reward.

“I’ve always been a goal-setter, right? So I said to myself ‘(if I finish) top 10 I’m gonna buy myself a second-hand Porsche.’ So I wrote [Porsche car model] 911 on my golf balls!”

Campbell finished the first round one-over par, more than respectable on the extremely tricky Pinehurst No.2 course where going even around the 18 holes is a gruelling task. To put it in perspective, the US Open has been held at Pinehurst three times (1999, 2005, 2014). In that time, just four players out of 468 have managed to go under par for 72 holes.

Then Campbell went one-under in the second round to move to a tie for sixth place at the halfway mark. Another one-over 71 in the third round meant he was suddenly in fourth place – but four shots off his good friend Retief Goosen.

The South African, the two-time and defending US Open champion, looked certain to win. Campbell says he was “resigned to the fact”.

Everything changed in the space of just a few holes as the leaders capitulated in stunning fashion.

“All of a sudden, I think after six holes, he (Goosen) fell apart,” Campbell says. “His playing partner, Jason Gore, fell apart. My playing partner Olin Brown fell apart.”

The top three had dropped out of the picture in a matter of minutes.

After the sixth hole, he says, “I changed my mindset. It’s not going to be a top ten now, a top five, a top three. Let’s win this thing! Let’s win this US Open.”

“I went from (dreaming of) a second-hand Porsche to a brand new Porsche,” he laughs.

But as the field fell away, one challenge remained. One very big challenge.

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Michael Campbell‘s 2005 US Open win is one of the most remarkable in major history.Source: AFP

THE EVER PRESENT THREAT

“All of a sudden it was two left,” Campbell continues. “It was myself and Tiger left because the other guys in the field were like, I think third was like five shots behind us.”

Just a 36-year-old Kiwi with zero PGA Tour wins against perhaps the greatest to ever swing a club.

Woods was the world number one, had won the Masters at Augusta just a couple of months earlier, and was hunting a 10th major.

Campbell jokes: “There was 55,000 people there that day, the final day. 50,000 were following Tiger and 5,000 following me!

“So it was pretty obvious who they wanted to win.”

Not that it bothered him, he says. Tiger deserved the attention.

“But to me it was a great distraction because no one expected me to win. I mean I had low expectations until probably the last four to six holes when I thought I had a good chance to beat him … I just kept under the radar and just kept it pretty quiet to myself.”

Those 50,000 Tiger fans let out magnificent roars whenever Woods – who started the day two back of Campbell – would hit a fine shot or nail a birdie to cut the deficit.

More than once, that happened when Campbell was lining up a shot. Yet rather than be intimidated, Campbell says he embraced the crowd even if they weren’t in his favour.

“One thing I must say that I want to share with you,” he starts. “And no one taught me this. I kind of reversed it. So every time I heard a cheer and the roars – it’s a Tiger roar, it’s different than a normal roar – in the crowd, I diverted the energy towards me.

“And so every time he had a good tee shot or hit it close or holed a putt for birdie, I was thanking them for their applause.

“I mean, that’s kind of crazy, right? Because normally you’ll be intimidated, but I used it to my advantage during those last nine holes and it worked!”

Besides thanking the crowd for applauding his rival, he spent most of the final round talking with caddie Michael Waite about his dream Porsche and the special ‘seal grey’ interior he wanted.

“I’ll recall during the during the last round I was visualizing the brake calipers, the colour of the brake calipers, the size of the tyres, the colour of the Porsche, the different shape of the exhaust pipes, you know – all these sort of things!

“I was playing a game within a game and it was a wonderful distraction for me to actually think about something else besides one of the biggest tournaments in the world. I was thinking about my Porsche!”

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“No one taught me that,” he adds. “It came from the golfing gods.

“I was just focussed on my perfect Porsche.”

Ahead of him, those Tiger roars kept coming. But Campbell holed clutch par putts again and again. And finally, Woods slipped up.

He dropped a shot on 16 then three-putted from 25 feet on the par-three 17th – the very same hole that had ruined his hopes of a US Open win six years earlier at the same course.

Campbell had birdied that tricky hole twice in the first three rounds. In the final round, he hit his tee shot as sweetly as it comes.

“I think that swing on 17, the 71st hole, the final round was the best swing I’ve ever done. It came out perfectly, it landed perfectly. Absolutely the best swing in my whole career at the right time.”

The birdie putt fell. Ahead of him, he says, “I knew that Tiger birdied the last hole. So I had a three-shot cushion and it was pretty much game over.”

Little wonder Campbell says the 17th at Pinehurst is now “absolutely” his favourite hole in the world.

19/06/2005. Michael Campbell of New Zealand, right, reacts after wining the US Open at the Pinehurst Resort and Country Club’s No. 2 course in Pinehurst, N.C. At left is his caddy Michael Waite. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)Source: AP

Then it was off to the 18th.

“When I hit my third shot to about five feet or six feet, I had five putts to win so it was pretty much under control! … That’s when it got emotional, it got really really emotional. What I thought about was my family back home in New Zealand, my boys who were in England at the time, my wife at the time.

“I was thinking about people around me who helped me to achieve what I thought was possible. Don’t forget, being born in New Zealand it’s hard and me being a Maori, it’s hard to kind of have dreams of being a golfer, because we’re obviously known to play rugby or rugby league.

“So I wanted to break the mould and go okay, let’s send a message to these young kids that you can play golf as well. And if Michael Campbell can do it, so can you.”

He adds: “People talk about ‘what’s your why?’ Why do you do what you do in life?’

“And for me it was to prove to people around the world that Maoris can play golf. So that’s a pretty powerful why.”

Campbell made bogey on the last to win by two shots, raised his hands in the air, then covered his face in his cap and cried. After hugging his caddie, he shared a special moment with fellow New Zealander, Tiger’s legendary caddie Steve Williams.

“I remember the conversation very well,” Campbell says. “He hugged me and said, ‘Well done Michael. You’re going to New Zealand very proud.’

“That’s what he said to me. And I nodded and that’s when I started crying again because obviously I was very emotional anyway. And so that triggered me to cry more.”

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THE TIGER GESTURE CAMPBELL WILL NEVER FORGET

Woods had missed out on a 10th major. He had lost out at the death at Pinehurst for a second time. But just minutes later as Campbell was handed the trophy, Woods was standing beside him on the 18th green.

Campbell says: “The thing that I really admire about Tiger was that he came (to) the prize presentation. At all the different majors, Augusta, The Open, the USPGA, they only have the winner on the 18th green (for the trophy presentation). You don’t see second or third place there, do you?

“But he turned up. He turned up. He was there next to me. And I thought that’s a wonderful gesture.”

He continues: “And then about two months later, I asked (him) a question. I said: ‘Why? Why did you turn up for?’

“… And he said to me ‘to show my respect’. And I thought that’s really, really cool to have one of the greatest players in the world turn up.

“Because it must have killed him to be there, honestly! Maybe not, but that’s my opinion. Must have killed him. Because he was obviously pretty pissed off.

“It’s pretty powerful, isn’t it? He was obviously pissed off he lost. But he was there for me.

“So that’s an unforgettable memory that he stood there next to me. It was nice.”

JUNE 19, 2005: US Open winner Michael Campbell (R) of New Zealand, poses with Tiger Woods after the 105th US Open Championship at the Pinehurst Resort and Country Club’s No 2 course in Pinehurst, North Carolina, 19/06/05. GolfSource: AP

Campbell spokes to foxsports.com.au from Pine Needles Lodge & Golf Club, a quiet little resort a few minutes away from the “madness” of Pinehurst. It’s the same place that the Kiwi stayed at 19 years ago – only it wasn’t so quiet that Sunday night.

“After about five hours of interviews, about midnight I got back here and they had a big party for me. It was like 200 people in the bar! And obviously we had a good time, we were drinking out of the cup. It was mad. It was fantastic.

“And then the owner, bless her, she said: ‘Here, Michael, here’s the keys to the bar. You guys carry on. Drink what you want. I’m going to bed.’

“She was probably about 80 years old, you know, but she was there and celebrating with me. It was a wonderful gesture from her.”

“And here I am back at Pine Needles, where it all happened for me. So it’s nice to retrace those memories and go down memory lane, and just rekindle those moments where things changed. My life changed, really.”

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HEAVY IS THE HEAD THAT WEARS THE CROWN

The rest of Campbell’s 2005 campaign was stellar. He won the World Match Play Championship – at the time the richest tournament in golf – and was selected for the International team for the Presidents Cup. Then-US Captain and golfing legend Jack Nicklaus said that Campbell was “right now … the best player in the world”.

But Campbell would soon fall from those lofty heights. Fame never rested easily on his shoulders. Asked if he struggled with the expectations and the attention, he replies: “Big time.

“No-one prepares you for that. What happens after you win a major?

“I’m quite shy. I don’t like attention. I don’t like media. For me, it was a complete: ‘Oh my God, what’s going on here?’

“But I’ve always had a self-sabotage kind of thing in my head. And it’s going to sound crazy, but even before the US Open and winning that, I would get on a nice round of winning tournaments around the world and getting attention from a lot of people with interviews or TV, everything, magazines, newspapers.

“I think I’d flick a switch in my head and play poorly so these people would go away.

“But then I’d kind of miss it,” he chuckles. “So I’d turn the switch back on again and then start playing well again.

“If you ask all my friends who grew up watching me play as a kid growing up in New Zealand, playing events around the world as an amateur or a professional, I always had that switch to turn off or on.

“It’s kind of crazy, but that’s who I am.”

It is a remarkable insight into one of the most intriguing figures in Australasian sports history.

Ten years earlier, Campbell had come close to winning The Open Championship. Leading by a shot heading into the final round, he collapsed to a 76 – and even then, only missed out on a championship play-off by just one shot.

The switch was on that weekend. Ten years later, in 2005, the switch was back on at Pinehurst – and New Zealand’s parliament even paused to watch his win on televisions hurriedly brought inside the chamber.

In the years after, the switch was off more often than not. He missed the cut at seven of the next eight US Opens and mostly slipped away from the limelight.

19/06/2005. Michael Campbell of New Zealand celebrates winning the US Open Championship at the Pinehurst Country Club in Pinehurst, North Carolina. Campbell held off a charging Tiger Woods to win the 105th US Open. The 36-year-old Kiwi finished level par 70 for the day and level par 280 for the championship to beat Woods by two strokes. AFP PHOTO/Jim WATSONSource: AFP

Any regrets?

“None. None. I mean, if you think about my career, I think I won 15, 16 times around the world. I think seven times in Australia, maybe. I can’t remember actually! Eight times in Europe, a major.

“That’s pretty good. That’s a pretty good career. So I’m happy with that.

“I mean, any regrets? Absolutely not. None.”

A major winner. A qualifier who stared down Tiger Woods at his best and came out trumps.

A man who inspired a generation of New Zealand golfers.

“I hope so,” he says.

Now he’s back at Pinehurst, which he calls “golfer’s heaven”, where Adam Scott, Rory McIlroy, and even the world’s best golfer Scottie Scheffler are all asking for tips to get around the brutal course.

“I said, ‘I think you’re okay, mate. You’re doing okay right now Scottie. You don’t need any tips!’”

So did he ever get that Porsche?

“Of course when I won I went straight to the Porsche dealership in England where we were staying and bought a Porsche. So it was very satisfying,” he laughs.

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