The last round Robert Damron played on the PGA Tour came at the Sanderson Farms Championship in July 2013, a 75 that led to a missed cut. A month later, he played his last competitive round anywhere. That was in the Kentucky Open, when his driver yips finally became too much to bear.
“The first drive I hit was a horrible yip out to the right. The second hole was a pull hook into the weeds,” Damron recalled. “After that round I called my wife and said, ‘I’m done. I’m never competing again. We’ll find something else to do.’ ”
That something else eventually led to television. After a 15-year Tour career—during which he won the 2001 Byron Nelson Classic, lost a playoff in the same event three years later to Sergio Garcia, and banked more than $6 million—Damron is now an analyst on Golf Channel’s Morning Drive and a course reporter for PGA Tour Live. This week, the 48-year-old plays his first tournament since quitting in Kentucky seven years ago when he competes at the TaylorMade Pebble Beach Invitational, which draws pros from the PGA, LPGA and senior tours.
And Damron admits he’s frightened about what might happen.
“Very scared, actually,” he confessed. “Half of me doesn’t care if I embarrass myself because I don’t get embarrassed very easily. The other half of me does. The other half of me says, what if I get on the first tee at Pebble—I see it in my mind—and pump three balls into the condos on the right and make a nine? What if I get out there and my driver is the worst it’s ever been? What if after years of apathy and Kentucky bourbon I can’t make a 4-footer any more?”
So why play? Damron says it’s not the lure of competition that is bringing him back to competitive golf. “My wife and I have never had a vacation away from the kids. I don’t want to use it just for a vacation, but I’m mostly using it for fun, to go to Pebble with my wife to relive our youth for a little bit.,” he said.
While Damron and his wife, Molly, head to California, his 18-year-old daughter and two sons, ages 16 and 14, will remain home at Bay Hill in Orlando.
In preparing to face that first tee shot at Pebble Beach, Damron called on another former PGA Tour pro, Grant Waite, now a respected swing coach. He asked for one key to work on and took a couple lessons. “If I go shoot 100, we’ll laugh about it. But I don’t want to,” he said. “I want to play as good as I can.”
Asked what he would consider a successful week, Damron said that hasn’t actually changed since his days playing for a living. “When I was on Tour, I never wanted to be the best in the world. If I went to a tournament and played my absolute best and Tiger played pretty good, I would have lost. He’s that much better. My goal was to leave the course content with what I did that day,” he said. “That’s what I want to do. Leave the course happy. Whatever I shoot, I shoot. I don’t even know if I can remember how to keep a scorecard.”
Damron is refreshingly honest about his battle with the yips, and painfully articulate in explaining what it feels like. “Before I hit a tee shot, l hold the club in my hand and it doesn’t fit. It doesn’t feel right. And I know before I even step in that I’m going to be uncomfortable. The inability to orient myself to the ball and then to the target makes me not be able to swing freely.”
A former three-time All-American at UCF, Damron’s decision to quit professional golf at age 41 wasn’t exclusively because of the yips. Just mostly. “That’s 99% of it. Also being on the road so much is not for everybody. But driver yips is why I quit.”
His results had been in a lengthy tailspin before he finally walked away. “If you’re making a million and a half or two million a year, you can put up with being on the road and the hotel life,” he said earnestly. “But if all the other kids are making what you’re supposed to make, and you’re missing cuts, and you’re hitting it 250 off the tee barely in the fairway, and they’re hitting it 330 and splitting every fairway, it’s a little old.”
Damron knows it’s difficult to explain how a man once good enough to win on the PGA Tour can feel like he might shoot a million at Pebble Beach. “The worst thing about playing golf on Tour is when you start to not like it, and you realize other people would kill for this job,” he said. “This is the most coveted job there ever was, a professional golfer on the PGA Tour. And you hate it. You don’t want to ever be in an event again. Who do you tell that to and not look like an asshole?”
“That’s where it gets weird. It’s hard to compare it to most people’s jobs because I don’t think you can develop the yips in most people’s jobs.”
Damron may have lost his swing, but not his sharply self-deprecating sense of humor. Asked why he doesn’t leave his driver in the bag, he quickly fires back, “I’m so much worse with my 3-wood it’s a joke.”
So what happens if he surprises himself and plays well?
“Nothing,” he says. “Absolutely nothing.”
It wouldn’t rekindle a competitive fire?
“Zero. It is not in my heart to compete the way I used to,” he says, before admitting that he spent more time in recent days working on an investment home his wife bought than working on his game. “I could have practiced harder going into this,” he said with a wry laugh. “Instead I’ve been demolishing a bathroom, playing gin and drinking bourdon!”