Hurricane Golf's Jason Hiland lands another great interview, this time with Robert Damron. Robert is a former PGA Tour Player and recorded one PGA Tour victory at the 2001 Byron Nelson Classic. He's now a contributor at the Golf Channel and destroyer of Golf Channel sets (we've got proof). They talked about Robert and his family's relationship with Arnold Palmer, life on the Tour, and his life now, after the Tour.
Jason: Your dad is said to have been on hell of a player is his prime and quite an amazing business man. What influence did he have on you growing up and what do you admire most about him?
Robert: My dad was in the coal business in Kentucky. I don't know how good of a business man he was, but he was in the right place at the right time and retired when he was 36. My dad loves to play golf and has done it almost every day since he retired. I suppose that's what I admire most about him....that at 77 he still strives to be the best golfer he can be. I practiced because I had to. He genuinely loves practicing.
Jason: I know you and your family were also very close with Mr. Palmer. What lessons did you learn from him and what did his friendship mean to you and your family?
Robert: Mr. Palmer was instrumental to me in becoming a Tour player. We played a lot of golf together over the years and he didn't give me a lot of golf advice per say, but he was always there to help me when I needed him. He got me an exemption to my first event as a PGA Tour player and also gave me a ride to that first event in his airplane. I just mentioned to a friend yesterday that I still expect to see him walking in to the locker room at Bay Hill. It's so strange to see his pictures everywhere around the club and know we'll never see him again. He is greatly missed.
Jason: At what age did you start to play golf and how old were you when you moved to Florida from Kentucky? As a follow up to that when did you think you had the game to be a professional and how did that journey begin for you.
Robert: Because of my father's friendship with Arnold Palmer, we moved to Bay Hill when I was 6. I picked up playing golf not long after that, but what really made me want to become a Tour Player was watching the Bay Hill Invitational every March. That was better than Christmas to me. To win at Bay Hill would have been bigger than a Major, but 4th was as close as I ever got. Still, it was a hell of a run. As for the second part, I'm not sure I ever felt like I had the game to be a truly great tour player, but once I did get on tour I wasn't intimidated or scared. I think fear of success kills more great talent than almost anything else.
Jason: What is the back story on how your dad became close enough friends with Mr. Palmer to make move to Bay Hill?
Robert: My Dad and Mr Palmer had a very good friend in common, former MLB player and long time White Sox announcer Ken 'Hawk' Harrelson. A couple guys from Pikeville Kentucky used to take trips down to Savannah Georgia to play some gambling matches and that's where Hawk and Dad became friends. During one of those trips, Hawk suggested Dad come with him to Bay Hill to play some matches against Mr Palmer, and that's when my Dad and Mr. Palmer became lifelong friendly rivals. (I'm proud to say Dad beat Mr. Palmer more than half the time. He is a tough gambler). Oddly enough, I still see Hawk almost every day and he's my personal mentor when it comes to broadcasting. In my unbiased opinion, Hawk Harrelson is my favorite sports broadcaster of all time. I've been very lucky to have such great influences in my life.
Jason: What are your best memories from growing up on Bay Hill in Orlando and are you still a current member? Also what equipment are you currently using?
Robert: I've been a member of Bay Hill for 38 years, so I have tons of great memories from there. It feels like my home, and most of my best friends are members there as well. The single best memory is my name being announced on the first tee of the '97 Arnold Palmer Invitational (my first one). My heart was beating so fast...it is still the most nervous I've ever been in my life. On the first fairway I remember thinking that I may have to WD because my chest hurt from the adrenaline! I somehow parred the first 3 holes and settled down a little after that. Equipment? Whatever I find. I still use the same Taylor Made irons I had 4 years ago, and my driver is maybe a little older. I don't want to bug Taylor Made to send me new stuff when I know I won't be using it.
Jason: You had a really run on the PGA Tour from 1997-2007. When you were at the top of your game what was your strengths compared to the other pro golfers in that era? Also what happened in 2008-2013 that caused your game not to be at that highest level?
Robert: Early in my career I was a really solid driver of the ball and a very good (but a little streaky) putter. My iron game was garbage compared to the best, and my chipping may have been worse. Lucky for me being a great driver is the most important tool to being a great golfer. I learned that the hard way when I got yippy with the driver around '05. No amount of great putting or anything else makes up for being short and crooked off the tee. Driver yips was the ultimate reason I walked away from competitive golf in '13. I'm very proud of what I accomplished, but I don't miss playing one bit.
Jason: Speaking of that good run, you had a victory at the 2001 Byron Nelson on the PGA Tour. Winning on that tour is really hard. No doubt about it. So when you finally put the trophy in your hands….what is the feeling like? Is it elation? Relief? As I golf fan I have always wondered what a moment like that would feel like? A lifetime of work and you reach the pinnacle! Amazing!
Robert: You know how everyone says "it hasn't soaked in yet" after being asked how it feels to win your first PGA Tour event? That's because it's true. You can't let yourself think ahead while you're playing, then all of a sudden when it's over, everything happens fast. You're whisked in front of a camera for a short Kostis interview. Then driven to the 18th green for trophy ceremony. After that comes press conference and meeting with the volunteers to thank them for all they did. Next thing you know you're back in your hotel room all alone wondering when the celebration is. I always wished I got another win so I could just stand there and soak it in for just a minute or two, but alas....Still, it's pretty awesome.
Jason: You mention that you struggled with your driver starting around 2005 and stated you were not as sharp as you once were yet in 2008 you had a victory at Athens Regional Foundation Classic on the Web.com Tour shooting 66 on Sunday beating Greg Owen (a really fine player) in a playoff. What did that victory validate for you and what was the feeling of satisfaction close to what it was like to win on the PGA Tour?
Robert: This is a strange but true story. That win validated my notion that my golf career was over. It should be impossible to lose confidence after a win, but I did just that. In all my years I can't remember seeing a professional golfer hit the golf ball as poorly as I did that week. I literally was full of fear over every full shot I hit that week, but due to a firm course, great breaks, and a stupidly hot putter I somehow won the event in a playoff. On my drive home to Orlando from Athens, I seriously considered never playing again. What a great way to end a career and what a great story that would have made, but I didn't have the balls to do it. I wish I had.
Jason: When you were playing the PGA Tour, who hit the best golf shot you ever personally saw up close and please describe the shot and circumstances? Also who had the most raw golf talent and the least amount of talent?...but got the most out of their game? (I mean this as a compliment to that player who was not gifted all the talent in the world but could just get the ball in the hole)
Robert: The best shot I think I ever saw was a 5 iron hit by Greg Norman in Memphis '97. We were tied with three to go and Dudley Hart was in the clubhouse two shots ahead. Greg birdied 16 to go one ahead of me and one behind Hart. Knowing he needed to birdie one of the last holes to force a playoff, he hit it as pure an iron shot as I've ever seen. High and straight to about 3 feet behind the hole. It was a thing of beauty. Oh, by the way, he went ahead and birdied 18 to win the tournament outright. Most talented player with limited success was Chris Smith. He had one win at Westchester but he should have won 10 times at least. I hate to say he was not talented, but Bob Estes bled more out of his game than anyone I've ever seen. But that is a talent in itself...
Jason: So as you’re playing career came to an end, how did the idea of being a golf analyst become a reality? How much are you enjoying it and what was the hardest thing and most satisfying thing about that transition? What have you learned from anchor desk about golf that may have slipped by you when you were playing the tour?
Robert: I was officially retired at 40, and as great as that sounds, after a while it gets damn boring. Everyone else retires in order to play more golf, so what does a golfer do when he retires? After some convincing from my wife, I reached out to Fox Sports when I learned they were going to televise all the USGA events. I owe them a lot for giving me a chance when I had zero experience. Doing Morning Drive on Golf Channel scared me at first because it isn't calling straight golf, but I loved it after the first day. It's a dream job for a guy that knows golf, loves to talk and has A.D.D. Several segments a day and they are all different. I hope I'm there for many years.
Jason: Your brother Patrick is also a world class player (who played the tour as well). Do you guys still go out and mix it up every now and then and when you do who still has the best game at this point? And as the older brother, can you still get at him from a mental side and throw him off? i.e.…mind games?
Robert: A couple questions ago you asked me who had the most raw talent. My brother Patrick was up there with the best of them. I never came close to his ability, but there was a desire that I had and he didn't. It all worked out for him though. He's got four awesome daughters and a beautiful wife. He seems happier now since hanging up the golf clubs (I can relate to that). Whatever mental edge I had on him back in the day is long gone. His talent is still there even though he rarely plays. I rarely play and I just flat suck at golf now.
Jason: So you are 6 years away from the Champions Tour….Will we see you out there?
Robert: Not a chance in hell
Jason: Since it’s a hot topic I have to ask you about Tiger. We went back and forth a few times on twitter when you said 12 months ago he was basically done. I thought he would come back and play well. You are looking to be correct on this back and forth so what did you see that made you think this current “comeback” was not going be all roses?
Robert: Everyone else blamed his problems on his back. I know his back is bad but I saw him battle the same things I did, and that's the yips, both with the driver and chipping. A Bad back can obviously cause problems with the driver, but not the chipping. That was purely mental, and mental scars heal much slower than physical ones. I believe that we may see a few more events out of Tiger, but his winning days are way gone. And how long will he tolerate mediocrity before he hangs his spikes up for good?? Only he can answer that.
Jason: So speaking of the driver yips and your feelings that Tiger may have some version of a yip in his game, what is your thoughts and analysis on a player like Henrik Stenson who really struggled with the driver yips after early success on tour and to come all the way back to win a major at 40 and to be as solid as he is now?
Robert: I'd love to know how Steve Stricker and Henrik Stenson overcame their yips. I could sell the cure for a billion dollars. I do know many players get them because their swing changes due to injury, and those guys can overcome once they heal, but I also know that's not the only reason. Injury can't explain why a catcher can't throw back to the pitcher, or why a singer gets stage fright. In Tiger's case I believe it began changing his swing in a search for perfection, and got worse when he became a tabloid star during his divorce. Of course, his injuries play a big role, but I just don't believe it's the only reason. But, if he comes back and wins again like Stenson, can we really be that surprised? He is Tiger Woods after all.