In the latest Player Blog presented by Enterprise Rent-A-Car, Major winner Michael Campbell talks about his early days in the game, passing on his knowledge to the next generation, and looking ahead to the next chapter as an official ambassador for the Legends Tour.
I’ve been a European Tour member since I was 23. I’ve been around for a long time now and experienced some wonderful things over the years on Tour. Coming from a small country like New Zealand, which is so far away from the rest of the world, I always had a passion for and interest in different cultures and countries. I’ve been blessed that the European Tour has taken me around the world, playing in so many different countries. This is a new one for us in Cyprus.
When I landed at Heathrow for the first time it was pretty emotional. It was the first time I had left New Zealand to come over to Europe. I was like a fish out of water, but also really excited. I remember paying for my ticket. It was pretty expensive back in those days, and I couldn’t really afford it, but I knew I had to grab the bull by the horns and give it a go. I was fortunate to have two other Kiwis playing in Europe at the same time – Frank Nobilo and Greg Turner. I landed at Heathrow and had a friendly face to greet me in Greg. He picked me up from the airport and it really helped with my transition into being on Tour, having him and Frank supporting me as the young up-and-coming player. They were very established over here at the time and knew all the ins and outs of the Tour. It’s one thing you need as a rookie, to have some sort of support team around you.
Obviously, I missed my country and my culture, but when you turn professional in any sport you make a lot of sacrifices. The sacrifices you make are very personal – you’re away from your family, and while you are used to playing an individual sport, it’s tough. When you’re younger, you think you’re more resilient. You’ re so excited to be out there and playing. So, jetlag and being away from your family maybe doesn’t count as much because you are so passionate about your sport and your career. You’re just thinking about performing well against the world’s best players. If you want to be the best player you can possibly be, you need to do things like that. I wasn’t hesitant about it. In the early days I couldn’t fly back and forth all the time - I couldn’t afford it - so in 1995 I decided to move over to Europe. I had to because I had a full card at that time. Greg and Frank were very good to me. I overstayed my time on Greg’s couch. It was something I had to do, and it paid off.
I guess I still pinch myself when I say I beat Tiger Woods in a Major Championship. I always wanted to win a Major, it was always a goal of mine as a player. People talk of having a strong ‘Why?’ ‘Why are you doing this?’ Mine was to prove to the world that Maoris can play golf as well as they can play rugby and rugby league – and I did that. Hopefully, it paved the way for other New Zealanders to come and play this wonderful game and do well. The legacy I might leave behind is that if I can do it so can they. I said that in my speech after the 2005 U.S. Open - if you have that self-belief, determination and work ethic, anything is possible.
I’ve had many conversations with Kiwis like Lydia Ko, Ryan Fox and Danny Lee. They do mention how my success as a player inspired them. Maybe indirectly I’ve had an impact - even if it’s just one per cent - that’s fine by me. I’ve played 11 events this year and I’ve been asked questions a lot by younger players about particular things, psychology, short game stuff, course management, strategy because I’ve been out there and done it for a long time. I don’t see it as much now with this generation but it’s the thing I did in the 1990s and 2000s. I used to ask Seve Ballesteros ‘How do you play that bunker shot?’ I would ask José María Olazábal, Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Luke Donald, Lee Westwood, the list goes on. I was fortunate enough to play with a lot of great players – Seve, Greg Norman, Ian Woosnam, Bernhard Langer and the next generation of Tiger, Phil, Ernie Els and Vijay Singh. Now with Rory McIlroy, Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka, Rickie Fowler, Justin Thomas. I’ve been through three generations of wonderful players, great players in their own right.
I’m always searching to help others with psychology, technical stuff or putting. It’s been fun. I played with Aaron Rai at the ISPS Handa Wales Open and was very impressed. Ball-striking wise, the way he shaped the ball and his putting were fantastic. Fast forward to the Irish Open, we played a few holes together and he was chipping from the fringe. I said ‘Aaron, you have to do something about that.’ I told him he’s a great player – I was praising him, and rightly so - but I told him if he wanted to be a really great player he had to improve on his chipping. I spent an hour with him, gave him my thoughts and my opinion. Then he finished second to John Catlin and won the week after at the Scottish Open. When I was watching him in the play-off against Tommy Fleetwood in Scotland, I was paying attention to his chipping action. It was a great chip under the pressure. Whether I helped, I don’t know. But he kindly came up to me at Wentworth and said that I had. It’s nice to have those moments where you see an improvement, and the same with Matt Southgate, for example. I spent a lot of time with him and working on his wedge play. He’s seen an improvement with his short game now. I can see him doing well – that was the missing element for him.
It’s not an obligation to help guys out. It’s a responsibility – only if they ask me. Some guys are shy about it, but once I break through the barrier they often open up to me a bit more. This all goes back to a conversation with Jack Nicklaus. I’ll never forget the moment. I had won the U.S. Open and World Match Play, so I was flavour of the month when we flew to Washington D.C. for the President’s Cup. My captain was Gary Player and the U.S. captain was Nicklaus. I was at the Tuesday night function, standing there minding my business and I see Jack walk over to me. He told me well done and that he’d watched every shot. He was wonderful.
Then his eyes and his mannerisms changed. He gave me a steady look and said that now I was a Major winner, it was my responsibility to grow the game and to give back – and he walked off! It was an amazing five minutes with the greatest golfer who has ever lived, and that planted the seed for me. When I started my own golf academy in Spain in Marbella, that was a great platform for me to give back to the game. He said that to me in 2005 and I set up my golf academy in 2013. I didn’t play for five years and then came back in 2019 to play a few events to get ready for the Legends Tour. When these opportunities come along, I feel a responsibility to pass on my knowledge to these young kids.
It’s a great time to be turning 50 right now with a new era starting for the Legends Tour. We have a wonderful person in Staysure CEO Ryan Howsam, who loves the sport and has come along with his passion and his business acumen. For me to be involved as an ambassador is a great honour. I’ve been on European Tour for a long time, it’s given me a wonderful life and I want to make sure I can make some sort of contribution either on this Tour with the younger generation or the next chapter of my life in the Legends Tour.
One of the things I love about this game is the relationships that you build, they last forever. I’m not sure how it works in other sports around the world, but in golf we are like one big family in a lot of ways, because we spend so much time together. Things are a little different at the moment with the pandemic, but usually you would hang out for dinner or drinks all the time. The guys on the Legends Tour are like family. I know their families, their kids, their parents, it’s like one big happy family. To have the opportunity to come and play again in a competitive environment, it’s a new chapter. It’s so different. I got to play a few events last year and it was so much fun to see them and reminisce about the old days when we played together. And they are still very competitive.
I’m still enjoying the grind, being out there and competing with my son on the bag. I’m enjoying the father and son bonding because, as a touring professional golfer, I was an absent father through most of his younger years. I had a really nice run from 2000 to 2005. My son is 22 now, so he was seven when I won the U.S. Open and the Match Play. Yes, he can remember me coming home after the U.S. Open, but those aren’t vivid memories. So, playing with him on the bag, he loves it. When you do it for other people it means more. He was very proud of what I did and having him on the bag is more motivation for me to play well. He was with me last year at the Staysure PGA Seniors Championship, where I finished third, and he loved that. It’s nice to relive those memories, on a different scale, but those will stay with me and with him for a long time. To share it with him, good and bad – especially the last couple of months – I’m still enjoying it.