Tom Watson is confident, ready to get the season started and feeling right at home.
Watson spent the last three weeks at his home at Hualalai preparing for the Champions Tour season, which opens Friday with the Mitsubishi Electric Championship.
“At the beginning of each year, there is a certain amount of anxiety. There’s always that pressure I put on myself,” he said. “You always want to start your year off with a good showing. It’s just like the first drive on the first hole. You always want to start off with a good first drive.”
Watson got off to a strong start and finish last year, leading wire-to-wire for his 13th Champions Tour win. He birdied the final two holes last year to beat senior newcomer Fred Couples in a classic showdown.
“This is what I live for in my career – to do what I did today,” Watson said after the victory.
He closed with a 7-under 65 to finish at 22-under 194 for his first victory in 34 career starts in Hawaii on the two tours.
“I’ve always loved to play in Hawaii, but I’ve never really played well in Hawaii,” he said. “It’s nice to finally say I’ve won here in Hawaii. The menehunes (mythical Hawaiian trolls or small people) were definitely kept at bay last year.”
The 61-year-old Watson is one of seven members of the World Golf Hall of Fame in the record field of 42. He is also just one of four players in their 60s.
Two-time Hualalai champion Hale Irwin is the oldest at 65 and making his 16th straight appearance. Irwin’s 2007 victory was the last of his 45 career titles on the Champions Tour.
While Irwin, Watson and the others in the 60-and-over club come plenty of trophies and accolades, the younger players are quickly making their mark.
“People know the names and the faces. It’s like a reverse pecking order,” said Watson, who will play about a dozen events on the Champions Tour and three on the regular tour. “Every year there are young, new faces and you wonder who’s going to run the table this year. Bernhard Langer has challenged for it the last three years.”
Langer, the 2009 champion, is seeking an unprecedented fourth player of the year honor. He won five events last year, including consecutive major championships and became the first to win three straight player of the year awards.
Couples, who made his Champions Tour debut here a year ago, won four events last year. After his runner-up finish at the Mitsubishi, Couples won three straight starts and set the career Champions Tour scoring record last year, averaging 67.56.
Six players are making their first Mitsubishi appearance, including Russ Cochran, David Frost, Gary Hallberg, Larry Mize, Ted Schulz and Rod Spittle, who all won events last year to earn an invite to Hualalai.
“Everybody said it was something special and they weren’t wrong,” Mize said about Hualalai.
The par-72 oceanside Hualalai has been the easiest layout on the Champions Tour for seven of the last eight years, with an average score of less than 70 since 2003. The course features wide fairways, few trees and immaculate greens. But one poor shot into the surrounding black lava rock fields will quickly take a golfer out of contention.
Besides the course, the players are more relaxed than on the regular tour.
“It’s a much more laid back and relaxed atmosphere,” said Mize, who earned an invite by winning the Montreal Championship last year. “The PGA Tour is like a family, but this is much more so. We’re still very competitive, but it’s really kind of in fun now.”
The 54-hole Mitsubishi has no cut and is the first of 25 official events on the 50-and-over tour.