KAUPULEHU-KONA, Hawaii (AP) — Russ Cochran has won on both the PGA and Champions tours, but he knows the other side well.
“I played almost 600 events on the regular tour, maybe 598, I certainly know what not winning is all about,” said Cochran, who shot a 7-under 65 on Saturday to maintain a two-stroke lead over defending champion Tom Watson in the Champions Tour’s season-opening Mitsubishi Electric Championship.
The 52-year-old Cochran, coming off a two-win season that broke a nearly 20-year drought, was in control for a second day, turning in another bogey-free round. The left-hander had seven birdies for a 17-under 127 total that matched Don Pooley’s 36-hole record set in 2006.
“I started off hitting it pretty good and missing some shorter putts and then it seemed like everything bounced my way,” Cochran said.
Watson shot a 65, birdieing the last hole to reach 15 under – the same two-round total he had last year when he led by two strokes.
“If I can hit the ball like I did today and putt like I did yesterday, I might have a chance to catch Russ,” Watson said. “He’s in a sprint right now. He’s going to be tough to catch.”
John Cook birdied half the holes and was alone in third place at 14 under after carding the lowest score in the round with a 64. He was stroke ahead of Jeff Sluman (66), while Tom Lehman (66) and Mark McNulty (67) followed at 12 under.
“Everybody’s shooting the grass off the golf course and that’s what’s fun,” Cook said. “This is the Champions Tour, not a bunch of schmos trying to play golf. These guys are really, really good.”
Hualalai was just slightly windier and noticeably warmer than in the opening round when the field cruised through the Jack Nicklaus-designed resort course that’s surrounded by black lava rock.
Cochran was steady and cool in the Hawaiian heat, using his sharp short game that seemed in midseason form. The Kentucky native began the round with a two-stroke lead over Watson and Ben Crenshaw after opening with a career-best 62 that included two eagles on the back nine.
With Cook scorching the front nine and Watson making a charge at the turn, Cochran birdied five holes during a seven-hole stretch in the middle of the round to preserve his lead.
With son Ryan as his caddie, Cochran birdied the par-3 12th to reach 15 under, giving him a one-stroke lead over Cook. Cochran hit a pitching wedge from 167 yards to 4 feet.
On the next hole, he opened up a three stroke-lead by dropping a 20-foot birdie putt. Watson holed an 8-foot birdie putt on 18 to pull within two.
Cochran’s victories at the Posco E&C Songdo Championship and SAS Championship in consecutive starts in September were among his 11 top-10 finishes. He ended up fourth on the money list with nearly $1.8 million.
He won the 1991 Western Open for his lone PGA Tour victory.
Cochran remembers coming home from his first victory, and seeing his golfing cards all over. The cards were similar to baseball cards with photos on the front and bios on the back.
“When I won the Western Open, I came home and they had all the cards out and they were flipping them over striking the ‘none’ out and putting ‘one,'” Cochran said.
His kids may have to break out the marker again if dad can pull through and hold off a hungry Hall of Famer in Watson and others.
“I know he’s an aggressive player and I better come out ready to play,” Cochran said.
The 61-year-old Watson stumbled early with a bogey on No. 2 when he hit into the rough, went into the back bunker and missed a 10-footer for par. But he recovered and birdied Nos. 11, 12, 13 and 14 to pull up the crowded leaderboard.
“I’m very grateful for the round. A 65 is a good round any time,” said Watson, seeking his 14th title on the 50-and-over circuit. He also has 39 wins on the PGA Tour.
Watson owns a home at Hualalai, purchased before his win last year. The ultra-exclusive resort is home to the world’s wealthy like Charles Schwab. Cher recently sold her home here.
Asked if owning a home in the resort helped him with the win, Watson said it did.
“I had to pay for the house,” he said.
Last year, Watson birdied the final two holes last year to beat senior newcomer Fred Couples in a classic duel.
Couples was tied for 16th at 7 under, and has struggled with his putting with his bad back visibly bothering him.
The winner Sunday will earn $305,000, while the last-place finisher will take home $10,000. A record 42 players, including seven Hall of Famer golfers, are entered in the event featuring major champions from the last five years, other tournament winners in the last two seasons and eight sponsor invitees.