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Hal Sutton trying to find new direction

Hal Sutton played only one PGA Tour event during the final three months of the season, allowing him a taste of what life was like before he devoted two years to being the U.S. Ryder Cup captain.

The biggest change might have been his appetite.

Sutton missed the cut at the Chrysler Championship in late October, no surprise given the rust. He talked that day about wanting to put the Ryder Cup behind him and get back "to what I should be doing -- playing golf."

But with only days left before 2005, he still isn't sure what he wants to do.

"It's tough to get back," Sutton said. "I'll be honest with you, I lost a little desire."

Sutton still has plenty on his plate.

Two weeks ago, he realized a two-year dream when Christus Schumpert Health System announced plans for a children's hospital in Shreveport, Louisiana, a five-story wing with 80 beds. Sutton came up with the idea after his agent's 7-year-old daughter died of spinal meningitis, and he has been hosting charity events with David Toms to raise money.

A week later, county officials in Fredricksburg, Texas, approved another construction phase in the golf course Sutton is building called Boot Ranch. It is scheduled to open in September, and Sutton sounds more enthusiastic about the course than his Tiger Woods-Phil Mickelson pairing at Oakland Hills during the Ryder Cup.

"Those are the two biggest things I have going on right now," Sutton said. "I'll play some golf, but I don't know how much. I've always made my schedule as the first priority. Now I'm making my schedule with those other two things as the first priority."

Life rarely returns to normal for a Ryder Cup captain.

Of the five U.S. captains who preceded Sutton, only Tom Watson finished in the top 150 on the PGA Tour money list the year after his captaincy -- 43rd in 1994.

Lanny Wadkins had never finished lower than 88th on the money list in his 22 years on Tour before being named Ryder Cup captain. With the Ryder Cup behind him, he played 21 times in 1996 and finished 189th.

And then there's Tom Kite. A model of consistency his entire career, Kite nearly qualified for the '97 team. Some thought he should have made himself a captain's pick. But the year after his U.S. team lost at Valderrama, Kite played 22 times and finished 159th on the money list, his lowest position ever at the time.

Some of that is by design. The PGA of America usually selects captains whose best golf is behind them.

"You're appointed Ryder Cup captain because you're on the downside of your career," Curtis Strange said. "When I was doing TV, I still had a job, so things got back to normal for me."

Sutton thought he might have a TV job waiting for him, working alongside Strange last year. But then Strange resigned, and the U.S. network went with Nick Faldo and Paul Azinger as its top analysts.

There have been other things holding Sutton back.

The palm area of his left hand was nagging him all year, and he took a steady dose of cortisone to get by. He had surgery this month and is waiting for the stitches to come out. And the natural letdown from his two years of being in the spotlight has allowed him to reassess how much he wants to go through the grind of a PGA Tour schedule.

Next year will be his 24th on Tour.

"One thing I learned by not playing as much this year as I normally do is that I can live with that," Sutton said. "It's not something where I'm just hanging on every limb to get to the next tournament. I've done a lot of playing golf in my life, and I'm sure I'll do more. But right now, I'm content with the things I'm working on. I'm watching my kids grow up, and I've enjoyed spending time with them."

Sutton, 46, is one of the few players who earned his fame before the kids came along. Samantha turned 8 last month. His twins, Sara and Sadie, will be 6 in January. He and his wife last year adopted a son, Holt, who turns 2 in April.

"Life is good right now," Sutton said.

He has one more year of exempt status on the PGA Tour, courtesy of his victory five years ago in The Players Championship. Sutton probably has made enough money -- $15.2 million which puts him 19th on the career money list -- to play in 2006 with an exemption for being top 25 in career money.

Sutton already has resurrected his career once.

He was regarded as the next Jack Nicklaus when he won the PGA Championship, beating Nicklaus in a dramatic final round at Riviera in 1983 at age 25. But his game fell apart in his prime, and Sutton went eight years without winning. He had to use a one-time exemption from top 50 in career money just to keep his card.

Then came an amazing renaissance. He won six times in his 40s, beating Vijay Singh in a playoff at East Lake in the '98 Tour Championship, and staring down Woods in 2000 at The Players Championship. In between, he led the Americans to a rare victory in the Ryder Cup.

Whether he can compete again depends largely on his health and how much age has diminished his skills.

But it all starts with desire.

And the year after a Ryder Cup can take a lot of that away.

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