The Champions Tour gets a bolt of energy with new blood

The Champions Tour gets a bolt of energy with new blood

Fred Couples, the second-round leader, sagged on the weekend until back-to-back eagles on the back nine.
Darren Carroll/SI

The great Champions tour revival rolled on last week with the
Senior PGA Championship being just another wildly successful week
in a season that keeps coming up aces. While the PGA Tour’s
Colonial Invitational was dominated for three days by the likes
of Bryce Molder, Jason Bohn and Brian Davis, the Senior PGA
leader board was dotted with Hall of Famers (Tom Kite, Bernhard
Langer, Nick Price), major champions (Mark O’Meara, Tom Lehman, Larry Mize) and the sport’s most popular player over the last quarter century, Fred Couples, to say nothing of a handful of
likable underdogs such as third-round co-leader Jay Don Blake,
who has been reduced to Monday qualifying this year and who got
teary on Saturday night recounting how much it meant to him to be in contention. Champions tour events often boast an excess of
star power, but the show was all the more compelling because the
Senior PGA was the Champions’ first major of the season and it
felt like a very big deal. “Majors are majors,” said Lehman, the
1996 British Open champ. “I don’t think that the Champions tour
is any ­different. The courses are set up differently. The
infrastructure is all there. NBC is here doing its thing. So it
feels like a major.”

Added ambience came by way of the boisterous gallery at Colorado Golf Club, which was reveling in the state’s
first big-time tournament since the International went kaput in
2006. The host venue also generated plenty of buzz. Set in the
high plains of Parker, 20 miles southeast of Denver, the
7,490-yard, par-72 risk-reward course offered twisty fairways and
wild green complexes that required imaginative play, especially
as the course was buffeted off and on by strong gales. The
layout, which included a pair of delightful, drivable par-4s, was
designed by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, the latter of whom was
in the field, leading to plenty of high-minded discussions on the
driving range and in the pressroom about the course architecture.
(On the PGA Tour the players don’t discuss a course’s subtleties,
they simply bitch about not being able to birdie every hole.)

For all that there was to like about this Senior PGA the most
compelling aspect was watching these crafty old warriors maneuver
their way around a demanding course. The biggest knock on the
Champions tour is that the toothless setups can lead to
hit-and-giggle birdiefests, but the Senior PGA was proof that
old-fashioned shotmaking is alive and well, at least among the
over‑50 set. Said Kite, “When you get on a golf course that’s
difficult like this and under conditions that are tough like
this, you’re going to see a lot of the name players come up [the leader board]. They get to be the name players because they’re a little bit better than everybody else and they win more tournaments than everybody else and then get under tough
conditions and they perform better.”

Kite is a gritty Texan not known for his effusiveness, but he was
almost giddy talking about the state of the Champions tour,
noting that at age 60 he suddenly feels rejuvenated. “I think
that the Champions tour is a great place to be right now,” he
said. “I’m very excited about what’s going on. There’s a lot of
enthusiasm because we’ve got a lot of players who have popped out who are Hall of Famers or will be Hall of Famers. And you’ve got a lot of young guys on the PGA Tour that you can’t put a face to a name a lot of times, and the same situation on the LPGA.
Obviously when you have the top players who bring so much to the game like this, it makes you want to step up. You have to do
something with your game, you’re going to have to perform,
because you know all those guys are really bringing it.”

Couples has raised the bar for every other player while also being primarily responsible for spikes in TV ratings and tournament attendance. Having turned 50 last October, Couples made his Champions debut at this year’s season opener in ­Hawaii; it turned into a thrilling duel with Tom Watson, who at 60 remains
one of the game’s most compelling figures. Couples lost at the
wire to Watson and then tore off three consecutive victories,
along the way shooting some truly outrageous scores. freddie
fever! was the headline of a recent cover story in one of the
golf magazines, and even Couples’s peers have caught the bug.
“Certainly Freddie’s always been loved in the game of golf,” says
O’Meara. “At first he was probably thinking, Oh, you know, do I
really want to play? But he’s played some phenomenal golf.
Probably as good as he’s played in his career.”

Couples was in the thick of things at the Senior PGA, opening with rounds of 69 and 68 to take a one-stroke lead. On Saturday he played in a glittering final group alongside Lehman and Kite, the three of them having accounted for 39 PGA Tour victories, three fourths of the career Grand Slam and the captaincy of two Ryder Cup teams and a Presidents Cup squad. For decades we’ve watched them compete, and most golf fans can recite their long list of triumphs and heartbreaks.

Each player brought his familiar style to the round. Couples, the insouciant natural talent, was la-di-daing his way around the course until being waylaid by a four-putt on the 10th hole, reminding everyone of the career­long bugaboo that has cost him so many tournaments. Kite, the consummate technician, never stopped grinding even as he labored to a homely 79. Lehman is an ultimate overachiever, but his career has in many ways been defined by all those U.S. Opens that got away in the 1990s. It looked like these old demons had resurfaced when he coughed up a two-stroke lead on the 17th hole with an exceedingly messy triple bogey. But at 18 Lehman ran in a
big-breaking 40-footer for birdie and then almost tore his
rotator cuff while celebrating. Asked to compare the intensity of
the day to how he felt during all of those big-time tournaments
he won and lost in the ’90s, Lehman said, “It’s no different
now.” He added, “This Champions tour is really, really
interesting because there’s a lot of camaraderie out here. But
when you get down to the nitty-gritty, these guys are still
competitive and they want to win. As a professional, having a
chance to win is significant. That’s what you play for. So
whether it’s this tour or the PGA Tour, that chance to win means
a lot. And the intensity level is way up there. The focus is way
up there. You’re giving it all you got.”

While Lehman fulfilled his media obligations, his longtime caddie, Andy Martinez,
lingered behind the final hole, still buzzing from the events of
the third round. “Wow, was that fun,” Martinez said. “That was
three decades of golf history walking down the fairway together.
Those guys have done so many great things in golf, you watch them
play and it all comes back.” Then Martinez asked a rhetorical
question that could double as the slogan for the Champions tour’s
renaissance: “How can you not love this?”