- Jason Sobel, Senior Golf Writer
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The best player on the PGA Tour without a victory? You could argue it's a proven performer such as Justin Rose or an up-and-comer such as Anthony Kim, but Tim Clark's name is certainly part of the conversation.
Since joining the PGA Tour full-time in 2001, the 32-year-old from South Africa has finished in the top three at the Masters, U.S. Open and PGA Championship, yet still hasn't found that elusive victory in a regular tour event.
Clark sat down on the Hot Seat to discuss the injuries that have derailed his career, his penchant for playing well in majors and, yes, why he hasn't claimed that initial tour win.
Q: You've been playing full time on the PGA Tour for six years, with 28 top-10 finishes and five runners-up. Are you surprised that you haven't won yet?
A: Yeah, obviously every season I've come in and that's been my goal. Certainly my last few seasons have been very good, with quite a few opportunities to win. It just hasn't happened. I don't really know what you put it down to, but I do feel like my game has gotten better over the years and it just hasn't seemed to happen. Last year, three seconds and any one of those could have turned into a win. It's just a case of drawing from that experience and hopefully I can get into position again this year where I can win tournaments and finally close them out.
Q: Are you more proud that you have contended or dismayed that you haven't won yet?
A: I'm not all that disappointed that I haven't won yet, really. I really don't think about it that much. And I did win a few times on the European Tour, which kind of helps. That always builds your confidence, no matter where you're playing. I think the fact that I've contended in the majors, too, is what I draw on. My game gets good anytime we get to the majors, and obviously that's what we all focus on. Now I feel like my game is getting better and better at the regular tour events. I found that, in the past, I wasn't quite focusing as much on the regular events and thus my play wasn't as good. Now I'm just trying to take it whereby every tournament is as important as the next and treat it that way.
Q: You mentioned the majors. Third place at the PGA in '03, third place at the U.S. Open in '05 and second place at the Masters in '06. What is about the majors that makes you such a strong contender?
A: I think that, first of all, I get really excited to play in the majors. A lot of players get intimidated by the majors; I just get really excited to get there and I feel like it brings the best out of my game. When you get to majors, it comes down to hitting fairways and greens, and that's something I've always been able to do. Over the last few years, I've improved my putting and my short game. So if you're actually hitting fairways and making crucial par putts -- which is what it turns out to be at majors; you try to make a lot of par saves -- I'm able to do that and I enjoy playing par golf. I don't always like going to courses where 20-under wins the tournament. I enjoy the challenge of even-par golf, and that's what I find the majors being.
Q: So it's no coincidence that some of your best performances have come when the winning score is closer to par?
A: I've always felt like I wasn't a good enough putter, believe it or not, to shoot those low scores. Then last year I ended up ranked No. 1 in the putting ranks. I think the reason for that is my greens in regulation stat wasn't very good but my proximity to the hole was very good. I think I was No. 1 in proximity to the hole on tour. A lot of those shots were just on the fringes, where I would putt up and it would count as a one-putt green even though I was putting from a foot off the green. I've definitely improved my short game, and now I find that I go to courses where the tournament needs low scores and I'm able to do that. I just think the challenge of par golf gets me excited to play.
Q: Which of the four majors best suits your game?
A: Well, I always thought the U.S. Open would best suit my game, but over the years, the courses there have gotten really long, too. Now, funny enough, I enjoy going to Augusta. I feel like I have a good chance at Augusta. I finished second there in '06, then I led through two rounds last year and just had a bad Saturday, so the one that I thought would suit me the least has turned out to be the one that maybe I enjoy the most and is my best chance in winning.
Q: Between your runner-up finish at the Masters two years ago and Zach Johnson's win last year, do shorter hitters now know they can contend for a green jacket on the lengthened course?
A: Yeah, but we're only going to do that when the course plays firm and fast, which it did those two years. If the course is playing wet and long, it's going to be really hard for us because those fairways do run a lot. When it's wet, the longer hitters are going to have an advantage. But last year, the greens got really firm on Saturday and Sunday. It was almost impossible for me to keep the ball on some of the greens. It was amazing what Zach was able to do last year because there were definitely a few holes where I hit the perfect shot and couldn't hold the green. The shorter hitters still do have a chance, because I feel like the bunkers are in positions where we can't get to them and the longer hitters can, particularly No. 18, No. 1, No. 2. They've kind of put the bunkers in the spots that are going to catch the longer hitters if they're going to take the hole on. In a way, with all the length, they have actually designed it so that it helps all the players.
Q: You ranked 169th on tour with a driving distance average of 278.6 yards last year. Are there courses that, going into the week, you just know you don't have a good chance on because they're so long?
A: Yeah, for sure. And that's why I try not to play those weeks. I went to a few courses last year that I hadn't been to before and struggled to play them. I enjoy going to places like Colonial and Harbour Town, more shotmakers' golf courses. The long courses, sometimes they just don't suit my eye. I don't mind the course being long if there is trouble if you hit it off line. The problem comes when you go to a long course where there's no trouble out there, so the guys can really hit driver on every hole and it sort of takes a shorter hitter out of it.
Q: Should there be more shorter courses on tour?
A: Boy, I certainly would like to see it, but hopefully that's going to happen again when they change to square grooves. That will cause the ball to change; I don't think you'll be able to play the ball we play now without square grooves. Hopefully, when that happens, they'll shorten the courses up a little bit and tighten them up because I think that's kind of what golf needs. It will bring some of the skill back into it.
Q: Changing the grooves, and rolling back the ball, seems like an inevitable change. Is that something that should happen?
A: Well, they're definitely going to change the grooves. They're going to do away with square grooves in a couple of years. When I first heard that, I thought, "Gee, this isn't going to be good for the shorter hitters because you're not hitting it hard enough to spin it without the square grooves." Then someone explained to me that if the grooves change, then the manufacturers are going to have to change the ball, so in changing the grooves, it will bring the ball back without them telling them to bring the ball back. You know, I think it would be a good change. When I first heard it, I thought this is going to really put the shorter hitters out of the game, but if they have to change the ball, then I think it will be a pretty fair thing to do.
Q: Last year, you made only 19 starts because of a neck injury. How is that feeling now?
A: It's feeling much better. At the end of last year, after the Tour Championship, I ended up having a nerve in my neck ablated, where they just kind of deaden it with a laser-type thing. Since then, the neck's been great. It turned out to be a pinched nerve in the neck, which I struggled with for well over a year. That was tough. I really only got that sorted out at the end of last year. Obviously, I had been playing with anti-inflammatories and painkillers to get me through, but I haven't taken anything for about three or four months and the neck still feels good.
Q: Injuries have played a big part in your career. A wrist injury in 2001 basically wiped away what was supposed to be your rookie season, and then the neck problems last year. Do you feel like you're snakebitten a bit?
A: Well, the wrist one was probably the worst because I was actually hitting a shot when I did it [at the 2001 AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am], kind of dug in and tore cartilage in my wrist. That one really put me out. I couldn't pick up a club, had to have a couple of surgeries. With the neck, though, it was a strange one because I didn't do anything, I just sort of woke up one day and it was sore. I was actually still able to play through it last year and nearly had my best season ever. But obviously, that's all behind me now. Going into this year is probably as good as I've felt since coming on tour.
Q: Talk to me about the Presidents Cup. Last year, Gary Player chose Mike Weir and Nick O'Hern as his captain's picks. Do you feel like you should have made the team?
A: I'll put it this way: I knew all along that Mike was going to be picked. Gary even asked me at Augusta; we were just chatting, and we all said Mike should be picked. Obviously, it was the right decision. He played great, and it being in Canada and everything, it was just the right thing to do. I knew I had the injury all year and it was going to be tough for me to get in. In the few weeks prior to the selection, I started to play really well, had a couple of seconds and a sixth at Bridgestone, but I felt like maybe it was a little too late. I wasn't all that surprised when I didn't get picked. I don't question who he picked, but if I could have somehow made my way onto that team, I would have been able to help. Our goal every year the Presidents Cup comes around is to be on the team, and that was my major goal for the year. But at the end of the day, with the way my neck was, I probably needed that time off anyway. So it kind of gave me the rest I needed to get fixed. I was definitely disappointed, but I certainly wasn't expecting a pick at that stage.
Q: People in the U.S. and Europe make a much bigger deal out of the Ryder Cup than the Presidents Cup, but for international players, is the Presidents Cup just as prestigious?
A: Well, I think anyone who has a chance to make the team, that's certainly a goal of theirs at the start of the year. It's an exciting tournament for us and one I look forward to. I can't speak for the other guys, but the team camaraderie is really good and the guys all get along. Two of my best experiences in golf are the two years that I played on the Presidents Cup team.
Q: Let's get to some fun things. Among your special interests, you list darts, pool and pingpong. Which is your best game?
A: I guess you could say I'm a jack of all trades and a master of none. Can hold my own in all of them, but I'm not brilliant in any one of them. I just enjoy the competition and, like in golf, you're always improving. I enjoy it for those reasons and the fact that they're not too strenuous. I'm not much of a workout junkie. I think tennis would be a game that I'd enjoy, but it's not worth risking an ankle injury or anything. Having had two pretty bad injuries, I'm pretty cautious about what I do. You'll never see me on a ski slope or anything like that. You realize you have to be careful and look after yourself.
Q: You made your first hole-in-one at age 8. Tell me about it.
A: It was my home course, and it was a junior tournament. The hole probably measures about 135 yards or so, and I had a 2-wood, about five irons and a putter, so I got up there and hit the 2-wood, ran it up between the two bunkers that guard the pin. That was the only way I could get it up there, by running it up this little pathway that was only 5 or 6 feet wide. Sure enough, it ran up there and went into the hole.
Q: Don't get mad at me for this one. Who's taller -- you or Fred Funk?
A: I don't know. I mean, I'm 5-foot-7, and that's as tall as I'm going to be.
Q: He's listed at the same height. You mean you two haven't gone back-to-back yet?
A: No, not yet. I'll have to do that. [Laughs]
Q: Tim Clark, you are off the ESPN.com Hot Seat.
A: Thank you.
Jason Sobel is ESPN.com's golf editor. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn3.com.
17hMicah Adams, ESPN Stats & Information