Yo-yo man apt name for Cambo

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FIVE and a bit years ago, a dark-skinned young man clad head-to-foot in Nike gear was making for the first tee at La Costa in California and his opening match in the World Match Play Championship. Waiting for him there was Tiger Woods.

"I hear you want a piece of me," said Woods to Michael Campbell, as the pairing shook hands. That he did.

But back in 2000, no-one, not even a rising star like the cocky Campbell, had the game to take on the world No.1; only 14 holes later, the match was over, and the New Zealander was headed home.

The knock to his confidence was but temporary. Campbell, who last week became the first Kiwi to lift America's national championship, relegating Tiger to second place, has never been a great respecter of reputations, nor afraid to express himself on or off the golf course.

Eight years before he would have his growing ego dented by Woods, Campbell was in Vancouver representing his country in the World Amateur Team Championship, the Eisenhower Trophy. In the final round it came down to a straight fight between the New Zealanders and the Americans.

Paired with future Open champion David Duval, 'Cambo' arrived at a driveable par-4 midway through the back nine. After Duval drove his ball to maybe 25 feet from the hole, Campbell pushed his effort into a greenside bunker. The lie was not great and the shot was slightly thinned, the ball finishing as much as 40 feet past the cup.

Having scuffed the ball playing the bunker shot, Campbell asked to change it. But Duval was having none of that. After a lengthy exchange involving a rules official, Campbell was forced to putt with the original ball.

Improbably, he holed out for a birdie, whereupon a rattled Duval promptly took three putts. As the disappointed American picked his ball out of the hole, he looked up to see Campbell giving him a less-than-complimentary one-finger salute. Well, it was that, or he was indicating to his playing partner the position that the Kiwis would fill on the medal rostrum.

Three years on, that same self-confidence bordering on arrogance would allow Campbell to approach the likes of Greg Norman and Raymond Floyd before his first Open Championship at St Andrews.

"What I did was play with a lot of experienced guys in practice," he recalls in an exclusive interview with Scotland on Sunday. "I went out with Craig Parry, Greg and Ray. I was brave enough to go up and ask them if I could play. I wanted to learn from them. They had no idea who I was, but were nice enough to let me tag along.

"Some years later, I asked Greg what he had thought about me walking up and asking him if I could play with him in practice. He told me he thought I was a cocky little shit! But he liked that. You need to have a bit of that in you to make it in golf."

Now that he has made it to the very top with his memorable victory at Pinehurst seven days ago, Campbell can look back with a certain fondness on that Open in '95 where he, rather improbably, led with 18 holes to go.

"I was a bag of nerves," he says with a smile. "That still stands out. I had no idea what I was getting into. I remember playing the third round. I had no idea what I was doing; I was just playing golf. It was like I wasn't playing in the Open at all; it was just like any normal round of golf with two other mates.

"I missed from about ten feet at the last for a birdie, and shot 65 on a day when the average score was about 73. It was a really freaky round, one where everything just came together for me. I didn't try to shoot that score, it just happened, and everything unfolded in front of me.

"It hit me what I had done that evening. I was watching the television, and I was everywhere. In retrospect, it was maybe a mistake to watch it all. But it's easy to say that now, that I should have been off doing other things and shutting the outside world out. At the time I had no idea how I would react to anything - it was all new to me.

"Anyway, I found it hard to shut everything out and to quieten my mind. I ended up playing computer games for about five hours. I went to bed at about 2am, and was up again at 7.30. Which was a long time before I was due to tee off.

"My mind was running at 1,000 miles an hour. That's one thing I've learned to avoid over the years. Playing with a lead is much easier for me now. I don't always win, but when I don't, it isn't because I got ahead of myself mentally. That comes with experience.

"Looking back now, it just wasn't meant to be. I wasn't meant to win the Open. It would have come too early for me, I think."

Campbell is surely correct. Indeed, the next three years of his professional life were spent in an almost uninterrupted downward spiral. By the end of 1998, he was ranked as low as 277th in the world. Only into 1999 and 2000 did he show signs of renewed life.

David Leadbetter, for whom Jonathan Yarwood, Campbell's coach, used to work, takes a wry view of the up-and-down Kiwi.

"Michael is very, very talented," he contends. "He has a nice, simple approach, but he doesn't want to play 12 months a year. I sense he has some inner turmoil. He knows he should be practising, but he likes his time off. He lives his own life. And there is a price to be paid for that.

"If only he'd hit balls now and then just to stay in touch with the game. If he did, he wouldn't be so clueless when he gets back. One week he looks like he could win a major, then the next you wonder how he will make a cut over the next six months. He is amazing."

While Campbell does not deny the veracity of Leadbetter's contention, he feels there is more to his tendency towards inconsistency than too much time off. Quite the opposite, in fact.

"After the Open I spent too much time chasing around the world playing in events I was being paid to play in. I chased the buck really, which isn't always the right thing to do, but I was young and I'd never heard such numbers as the ones being proposed to me.

"I was all over the place - Japan, Europe, Australia, home, the US - and it ended up being too much.

"Maybe I was too greedy. In the autumn of '95 I played eight weeks in a row in seven different countries. It was madness. I know that others have done similar things - Bill Rogers comes to mind - and have never been heard of again. So I'm lucky in that I'm still around."

Perhaps, but what is certainly true is that no-one of his undoubted class has had quite as mercurial a career as the 36-year-old from just outside Wellington on the southern tip of his homeland's North Island. Even this year he has been down and up; he missed the cut in his first five events of 2005, but arrived in Pinehurst with as many as five top-15 finishes in his previous seven tournaments. Call him yo-yo man.

"Cambo makes me laugh, he really does," says his compatriot, former European Tour professional Greg Turner. "At the end of last year he was blaming all of his troubles on too big an entourage. Now I hear he's attributing his return to form on getting his coach out with him full-time along with his mind man [Belgian Jos Vanstiphout]!

"But he's always been a confidence player, and I guess it's that ability to effectively forget about yesterday that sets him apart. If I were to pontificate on the reasons for his dramatic form swings, I would suggest it was a lack of self-sufficiency that was at the heart of it. Blind obedience can just as quickly lead down the garden path as on the road to nirvana."

All of which provokes little disagreement from Campbell. "I have no explanation for why my form comes and goes the way it does," he admits. "I've been searching for reasons for years! And so has everyone around me. But there is no logical answer. It's the way I am, and the way I have always been. I suppose I'm like a tap: on or off. It's bizarre.

"There is more to it than just technique. I think the up-and-down nature of my form is an emotional thing more than physical. I am very much a feel player. I can get the ball round while swinging quite poorly. But I can't do that when my mind is elsewhere and my attitude is off. I can get a little bit lazy, a little bit too relaxed.

"I think that is a cultural thing. I know a lot of Maori sportspeople who have done well in various fields, but who blow hot and cold just like me. Look at rugby player Carlos Spencer, he's a prime example. He's either absolutely brilliant, or you don't know he's on the pitch.

"I don't know what it is exactly, though. It's a strange thing, but it is definitely a part of the Maori people and our culture."

Not that the easygoing Campbell conforms to every stereotype in his people's often violent history. Had he been maturing in the 1960s, you get the feeling that he would have been more of a hippie than a strident anti-war protester.

"I come from a tribe known as the peacemakers," he reveals. "New Zealand was very tribal, and some were more aggressive than others. My tribe preferred not to fight. They were peace-loving.

"What that part of my character has given me is flair for golf. I have good intuition, I think. I go on instinct when I read a putt. My first look, my gut feeling, is always the one I go with. I know where to aim even when I am marking the ball. You can't learn that. The Spaniards are like that, too."

Now that he has a first major championship to his name, Campbell will next month return to St Andrews much more ready for the pressures of golf's most important event. "I've always been a low ball hitter, so I've always liked links golf. The week before St Andrews I finished well up in the Scottish Open at Carnoustie.

"I love St Andrews. The wind can change, and you have a completely different course to play. I like that. It fits the feel aspect of my character. I can adapt.

"The yardage book doesn't matter on the Old Course. You can have 140 yards to go and be hitting a 3-iron. I love all that. I was brought up in a very windy place, Wellington. It's the second-windiest city in the world after Chicago. So I'm used to hitting 7-irons from 100 yards out, all that sort of thing. I enjoy the shot-making side of golf, and St Andrews gives you a chance to try most things. It asks so many questions and gives you choices.

"So I fancy my chances back there. Besides, the old girl owes me one."

Don't put winning past him. Or missing the cut. With this guy, anything is possible.