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Trying Harder at Number Two

Jim Furyk has climbed the world golf rankings to take control of the number two spot
Jeff Williams
From the Print Edition:
Cuba, May/June 2007

(continued from page 2)

In a golf world dominated by Tiger and commanded by Phil, Ernie, Vijay and Goose, let's not forget about Jim. That would be Jim Furyk. Sure, Tiger Woods is the best player in the world, likely the best player ever. Sure, Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els, Vijay Singh and Retief Goosen can be world-beaters on any given day. But just as surely, Jim Furyk has taken his place on the Mount Rushmore of golf, rising throughout the 2006 season, after 14 years on the PGA Tour, to become the No. 2 player in the world. "I can't say that it's any surprise to me," says Tom Lehman, a competitor of Furyk's on the PGA tour and his captain on the 2006 Ryder Cup team. "Jim is a solid, dogged competitor with a great short game. He's made himself into a great player and he's not going to go away. Whatever you think of his swing, it repeats itself well, time and time again, and time and time again under pressure. He deserves everything he's achieved."

The swing. It always comes back to the swing. David Feherty, the CBS golf commentator and resident wag, has variously described Furyk's swing as "a man trying to kill a snake in a phone booth" and "an octopus falling out of a tree." Now, whatever those images conjure for you, whatever little laugh they evoke, these descriptions are really compliments. In an era when nearly all the swings look the same, from Woods right down to the 200th player in the world, Jim Furyk's outside-in, rhythmical loop makes him different, distinguishable and decidedly accomplished.

That loop has won him 12 PGA Tour events, including the 2003 U.S. Open, more than $30 million in prize money, and places on the Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup teams, where he has regularly been paired with Woods.

And from the time Furyk started swinging in his own peculiar way as a teenager, his father, Mike, knew enough not to change it. You see, Mike Furyk is the only teacher that his son has ever had. He knows Jim's swing and psyche better than anyone does, or ever could. "You aren't going to understand what I understand, and I don't want you to take this in a derogatory manner," says the father. "But you haven't been around the golf business as long as I have, you haven't known the players I have, haven't been with Jim and I and don't have any understanding of our relationship. I'm going to know more about Jim than anybody except his mother and his wife."

It is Jim Furyk, a quarterback and point guard as a youth, who has gotten to know his own swing, his own short game, his own putting stroke better and better each year since 1994, when he qualified full-time for the Tour. And as he became more and more comfortable with how he played, the courses he played, the players he played against, Furyk began a rise to the top that left only the impenetrable Woods standing above him.

It's 10 in the morning on a Tuesday at the driving range of the Riviera Country Club in Los Angeles, and Furyk is pounding driver after driver as representatives of his club company, Srixon, follow every shot with a launch monitor. They have half a dozen different drivers and Furyk is looking for just the right one to replace one he used last year until he caved in the face late in the fall. He's on the range at noon. He's still on the range at 2. Furyk's looking for something and he's going to stay at it until he finds it—an approach that pretty much defines his career.

Jim Furyk has always been looking for something to improve himself, and if he has to hit 500 balls with a driver, then that's what he'll do. If he has to putt for four hours, he'll do that. If he has to hit sand shots, chip shots and pitch shots for hours on end, days on end, weeks on end, he'll do that. That's what a competitor does, and that's what Jim Furyk does, ever since he fell in love with the game.

"I've always been comfortable competing in golf," says Furyk, sitting in the locker room of the venerable Riviera Country Club, where he was preparing to play in the 2007 Nissan Open. "The first summer I really played golf. I went out with a friend every day for two months, played every day for 60 days, and at the end there was a golf tournament. I fell in love with competing right then and there. Ever since, it's been about preparing well to compete in a golf tournament. I really enjoy going out and testing myself on how well I prepared and how well I can compete. I never really saw the other side of golf as far as going out there and hanging out with three buddies and playing for four hours and having a couple of beers, that social side of golf."

And though he was skilled at other sports, played every one competitively, it was golf that grabbed ahold of him. Why?

"The simplest answer is I was always the best at golf," he says. "I wasn't going to be the second-best basketball player or the second-best baseball player in the world. That [No. 2] ranking is very unimportant to me, but I wasn't going to be at the top of my field in the other sports. I like team sports, the camaraderie of pulling together and achieving a goal and making bonds that last forever. But golf has this individuality to it. If I shoot 68 or 78, I don't have anyone else to play but myself. You are a goat or a hero every day you tee it up. I control myself. I never really had a boss, which is a pretty cool thing to say for a 36-year-old."

Not even his father has ever really been his boss. Theirs is a partnership, very much in the manner of Tiger Woods and his late father, Earl. With Mike and Jim, there has always been a calculated distance, and it's been there since Jim was in high school in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, a distant exurb of Philadelphia. Even when he was a teenager, Mike and Linda Furyk would drop Jim off at the airport, and he would travel by himself to American Junior Golf Association events. When Jim played in local tournaments, Mike would sometimes watch his son warm up, then leave. Jim made his own decision to attend the University of Arizona, where he lived straightaway in an apartment, making all his own decisions on life and golf.

"You can't walk over to the ropes and say, 'Dad, do you think it's a 6 or a 7 iron?' You got to make those decisions," says Mike Furyk. "If you start him out early making those decisions, then it's going to be a heckuva lot easier down the line."

The father is proud to point out the similarities between his son and Tiger Woods, even if they seem to have completely different games. "They have become very good friends," says Mike. "They are both on the quiet side and both very hard workers. For two people with different types of games, you would have a hard time finding people with more similarities as far as their work ethic, their approach to the short game. They have so much in their lives that are similar. Tiger was very close to his father, as Jim is to me. Jim has two young children. Tiger is younger but about to have his first child. Tiger and Jim are more feel players than mechanical. Jim and Tiger are very emotional and wear it on their sleeves once in a while, and they both use that emotion to propel themselves. Both Tiger and Jim can get mad and use it to make them better."

Furyk and Woods have become a comfortable and enthusiastic pairing in team events, and Furyk has taken something from his time spent playing with Woods. "When I was younger I was taught that when you are the best player in the foursome, you can't really learn," says Furyk. "But when you are the worst player in the foursome, you can get a lot of experience. So playing with Tiger, who works hard, who is physically fit, who knows how to get away from the game and come back relaxed and charged up, it sort of confirms all the things I have been doing and the way I go about playing the game.

"Playing with him in tournaments and seeing some of the shots he can hit, and knowing that I, or other players, can't hit, is awesome. His iron game is phenomenal, the way he works the ball with different trajectories. I pride myself as a player who can move the ball around. There are a lot less guys who move the ball around now than there were 40 years ago because of the style of courses we are playing. Obviously, he's a lot stronger than I am and he hits it 40 yards farther off the tee. But I still think there are a lot of similarities in the way we play and that I am capable of some pretty strong play."

At the Ryder Cup last September, emphatically won by the European side once again, it was Furyk and Woods who were the only Americans to be paired together for all the foursome and four-ball matches. At the end of the second match on Friday, Furyk hit a poor shot into the water on the 18th hole and he and Woods lost their match. Furyk, who had hit a couple of similar shots early in the round, called his father back at the family's winter home on Maui, 7,500 miles and 10 time zones away. "I didn't go because you just can get close enough," says Mike Furyk. "We've gotten to the point where we can work pretty good over the phone or by e-mail. I tape a lot of his rounds. He called me and I told him I had the shot on tape, I'll go play it a bunch of times. I left him an e-mail to tell him his setup was wrong. He called later [after Saturday's play] and said he had hit the ball good and that what I saw was right on. We have the ability to communicate that way."

That ability to communicate has meant a lot to Jim Furyk. Other teachers might be able to work with him, but none would be able to talk with him, get through to him, know him like his father does. "I don't think that my dad would say that 'I'm the only one that can teach him,'" says Furyk. "I think from a communications standpoint, it would be difficult for someone else. Going back to when I was 14 and he was teaching me in the kitchen at home. The amount of situations I can go back on, I could call him today and say I am hitting like I did at Shinnecock in 2004, hanging it to the right, and he'll say, Do you remember that we worked on this and this? His eyes, his experience, would be irreplaceable."

All that experience came together for the Furyks at Olympia Fields in June 2003. Starting the final round, Furyk had a three-stroke lead in the U.S. Open. Jim and his wife, Tabitha, were sharing a house with Mike and Linda. It was Father's Day, and Jim hadn't said anything to his father that morning before they left the house. When they arrived at Olympia Fields, Jim just had to get it out. "He said, 'Happy Father's Day,'" recalls Mike. "He said he had been trying to get it out all day and was having a tough time with the emotions. It was the whole thing about leading his first major with a chance to win it on Father's Day. The pressure had really built on him. I put my arm around him, said thanks, then said, 'Let's go win a golf tournament.'"

Said Furyk to his father: "Let's go get 'em." And that's just what he—they—did.

Though Jim has won at least one PGA tourney every year from 1995 to 2006, except 1997 and 2004, the 2003 Open was the pinnacle. But you sometimes fall from high places. Late in 2003, Furyk's left wrist became painful, and then the pain became debilitating. It wasn't a sudden injury, but rather the effect of a million swings over the years. In early 2004 he had arthroscopic surgery to repair torn cartilage in his left wrist, was out for five months and probably returned too early in an attempt to defend his Open title, at Shinnecock in 2004.

"I was climbing the mountain and fell straight to the bottom," says Furyk, who had injured his right wrist in 2000, horsing around after a Steelers-Ravens NFL football game, and had also suffered a bout of vertigo. "My left wrist broke down after years of golf, a real acute injury. I was out of golf for about five months. Then I tried to do everything in four months that I normally would try to do in 10. When I came out in 2005 I was a lot healthier, both physically and mentally, went about my business the way I should have and had some pretty good results."

He also hasn't done too badly off the course. Like Woods, who has done commercials for cars and watches and credit cards and golf equipment, Furyk has earned millions a year in endorsement money. While Woods's promotional work has already netted him tens of millions of dollars and spread his name around the globe, would it surprise you that Furyk's endorsement money from club and ball maker Srixon will bring him tens of millions of dollars over the course of his contract?

"He's a dream client," says Andrew Witlieb, his agent at Goal Marketing in New York. "He's extremely marketable, extremely creditable. He has terrific relationships with all of the companies he's involved in: Exelon, Johnnie Walker Collection, Chiliwear, Marquis Jet. Jim was Marquis Jet's first customer when it started in 2001. It's grown to where Jim is Marquis Jet's worldwide spokesperson. He does the most outings for Exelon [an energy company]. They bring in their best customers and Jim plays a few holes with each of them, then there will be a cocktail party or dinner where Jim will talk with them."

Right now, life is pretty sweet for Furyk. He travels by private jet with Tabitha and their children, daughter Caleigh and son Tanner. When he is home in Ponte Vedra, Florida, he practices hard at the TPC at Sawgrass, then spends time with the children at home. His favorite thing to do is watching an NFL doubleheader on Sunday. "Sitting in the media room at home watching football games is great, and hopefully my kids would like to do that with me one day. But right now it's hard to keep them still. I get a series or two out of them, that's about it. I spend so much time outdoors I don't mind spending time indoors. Most people, when they see a bright sunny day, want to be outside. But business is outside, so I am not opposed to being inside."

Some of his outdoor work now includes golf course design. He has courses in various stages of development in Wilmington, Delaware, Palm Coast, Florida, and Ocean City, Maryland. He has offers to design courses in Dubai, South Korea and China. Each fall, he, his father and his agent consider up to 200 proposals for endorsement and business opportunities. Some of those opportunities Furyk shares with his father, who has his own deal with the cigar company Davidoff and its Zino brand. You don't have to be Tiger Woods to have the world at your doorstep. You just have to be darn good.

Furyk has built a life and a career out of a loopy swing and a cross-handed putting stroke that he only makes after an exasperatingly lengthy pre-shot routine. He will take a couple of practice strokes, address the ball, then back off and look at the line again. It can drive you batty, but only if you are watching it. The cross-handed putting stroke came from suggestions made to his father by Arnold Palmer and Gary Player, when he met them at a charity pro-am. The two legends said they wished they had learned to putt cross-handed early on, because they felt it was a more consistent stroke. Mike Furyk imparted this wisdom to his son, and a new, more consistent putting stroke was born.

Jim and Mike aren't about to change his swing or his putting stroke anytime soon. "You could go back not that many years, you could go down a practice tee, and the best players in the world all had their own swing," says Mike. "Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Lee Trevino, Ray Floyd. If they all had been wearing white shirts and khaki slacks, it wouldn't have been hard to pick out who's who. Now we have all these robots coming out of golf academies who can swing perfectly, but none of them can play golf. I don't mean the guys on Tour. I'm talking about all these kids at golf academies who hit balls five times a week, hit a perfect 2 iron and can't get the ball in the hole. That's what Jim has always been able to do, get the ball in the hole."

So, when you are talking about the Big Four, or the Big Five, don't forget to talk about Jim. His loop has no downside. He's ridden it all the way to the top.

Jeff Williams is a Cigar Aficionado contributing editor.

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