By Rick Brown, Principal Charity Classic Senior Reporter
RB: Hale Irwin won 45 PGA TOUR Champions titles. You had dinner with him at last year’s Regions Tradition tournament (two weeks before the 2016 Principal Charity Classic) to pick his brain about why he was successful. You’ve won three times since. What advice did he give you?
SM: The main thing I took out of it was this: Find out what type of player you are and be that player. I was always trying to be the heroic guy, hit the heroic shot, go for broke. When I got in the hunt, if I was one up, I wanted to be seven up. I was always trying to do too much. I realized I’ve got to be more patient out there, kind of let the tournaments come to me, and see where I’m at the last couple of holes. Just be patient.
RB: Patience is a big reason why you won last year at Wakonda, right?
SM: I was very patient. I didn’t make a lot of birdies the last day, just kind of hanging in there. And then, lo and behold, I birdie 16, 17 and 18 to win. That showed me I’ve got to be a lot more patient because I was trying to force things a little too much. Especially just coming out to the PGA TOUR Champions. You want to win, you want to play well, you think you’ve got this five-year window and you want to get it done. If I stay in shape, I can have a 10-12-year window. No reason to rush it, let’s just be patient and hit the shots you know you can hit.
RB: You talk about not going for the heroic shot, but you win here by closing with three straight birdies, you win the 2016 Dominion Charity Classic in a playoff and you win the 2017 Allianz Championship with an eagle on the final hole.
SM: True, but I got in all those positions because I was patient. And then I was able to pull off a shot when I needed it. But even at the Dominion, I had about the same length putt I had here to win (10-footer on No. 18) and missed it. But I didn’t let it bother me. I lost in a playoff to Colin Montgomerie in Canada (Pacific Links Bear Mountain Championship). You’re not going to win them all.
RB: You won three times on the PGA TOUR, and you were one of the first to use a long putter. Would you say that putting kept you from winning even more?
SM: Putting did not hold me back one bit. I was an excellent putter. But I putted with a long putter. Nothing held me back on the regular tour, except it’s hard. I won three times, lost a couple of playoffs, had some Top 10s in majors. I had a nice career. But not like a guy who won 10 or 12 times. I really feel like I should have won five or six, seven events on the PGA TOUR. Which would have been a really good career for me. Unfortunately I only won three. But I still won.
RB: You hadn’t won a PGA TOUR-sanctioned event in 16 years (287 events since the 2001 BellSouth Classic) prior to last year’s Principal Charity Classic. Did that even enter your mind when you came down the stretch on Sunday at the Principal?
SM: Zero. I hadn’t won since 2001, but the feeling you have trying to win a golf tournament doesn’t go away. It doesn’t matter if you’re on the PGA TOUR Champions, the PGA TOUR or your club championship. We still have the same feelings anybody has going to win a tournament. It’s calming yourself, clearing your mind and hitting the shots you need to have.
RB: You played your final 47 holes without a bogey at Wakonda last year. That’s remarkable.
SM: I remember the only bogey I made was on No. 7 (in the first round). I ran a 35-footer about 5 feet by. And as I was putting some car went down the road and honked right in my backswing. I’m like, “Really?” That was the only bogey I made all week. The guy got me. A White Cutlass Supreme. I wish I would have gotten the license number.
RB: You won three times in a 17-month stretch, shortly after getting married in April of 2016. What role has your wife Jenny played in your success?
SM: She’s been amazing. We’ve been together for about 5 years now. She has been so supportive. Because there was a time, when we started dating, where I was injured. I had to have thumb surgery to have a bone spur removed. I wasn’t playing that well. I had a couple years to get ready for the PGA TOUR Champions, which I was really looking forward to. We were going out and playing the Web.com Tour, and she was caddying for me at some events. Staying in podunk hotels, trying to save some money. It was tough. And she was so supportive. And then I got the job with Fox to do announcing. And there was a little bit of me that said, “I don’t know if I’m going to be good enough on the PGA TOUR Champions to keep doing it.” And she kept pushing me. She said, “You know what? You are. This is what you love to do.” Her being a fitness instructor and triathlete, I was training a lot with her, getting in shape. And she was a huge motivational factor for me to practice and prepare for the PGA TOUR Champions.
RB: You’ve got some interesting hobbies, like flying, mountain biking, fly fishing and guitar. Do they help you get away from golf?
SM: Absolutely. We love to fly fish. I got my pilot’s license back in college, so I was flying and doing quite a bit of that. I’m not flying now. I’m a member of a race track. We go out there and race cars a little bit.
RB: It sounds like you enjoy living on the edge a bit.
SM: I like doing something that occupies my mind so that I’m not thinking about golf because golf can be very consuming. You’ve got to get away. And when I’m fly-fishing, it’s that next cast. I’m not thinking about anything in golf.
RB: When you come back to a place where you’ve won, is it a nice feeling?
SM: Just driving in the parking lot here (at Wakonda Club), I got a “whoa” feeling. Those emotions come flooding back. Because this was a very exciting time, to win your first event. I love this golf course. I love how well this event is supported by the city, the fans, the sponsors, the volunteers – everyone. The Principal Charity Classic is one of the best-run tournaments we play on the PGA TOUR Champions. It feels like a major. Having that many people come out and watch us play really is a thrill.