Atlanta resident takes part in Mitsubishi Classic media day
The Georgia contingent for the upcoming Champions Tour Mitsubishi Electric Classic will include a group that includes two major champions on the PGA Tour, the defending champion of the U.S. Senior Open, a successful member of the PGA and Champions Tours who spent a few years working as a broadcaster, a player who truly fits the description of journeyman and a career grinder who made one cut in five starts on the PGA Tour, that coming at TPC Sugarloaf more than a decade ago.
The tournament, which will be played April 14-16, held its media day press briefing on March 21, with long-time Atlanta resident Billy Andrade representing the state’s group of Champions Tour members. Andrade has been a regular at media day events for the tournament since it was first played in 2013, and was an annual participant in the PGA Tour stop in Atlanta, which included more than a decade at Sugarloaf in the late 1990s and 2000s.
Andrade had his best opportunity ever at winning a tour event in his adopted hometown, briefly leading last year’s event at Sugarloaf early on the back nine before ending up three shots behind a fast-finishing Woody Austin in eighth place.
“It would be really cool” to win a tour event here, said Andrade, a Rhode Island native and Wake Forest graduate who has lived in Atlanta for 30 years. “I had some opportunities on the regular tour, and last year I had a chance with nine holes to go, but Woody got hot on the back nine to win.”
Andrade scored four victories in 20-plus seasons on the PGA Tour from the late 1980s to the late 2000s, and has added three Champions Tour wins since turning 50 in 2014. All three came in 2015, with Andrade compiling four finishes of third place or better last year, including an early-season playoff loss in south Florida.
His best finish so far this year is a tie for fourth in the most recent Champions Tour event in Tucson.
While many of the Champions Tour’s top players remained competitive on the PGA Tour through their late 40s, Andrade’s last productive year came at the age of 42, and he made only a handful of starts in PGA Tour events after he turned 45.
“I needed that break,” he said. “It was good for me.”
Andrade spent most of his late 40s working for the Golf Channel before making a brief return to his playing career at the age of 49 to prepare for his “rookie” season on the Champions Tour. A tie for fifth in the annual PGA Tour stop in Mississippi gave Andrade hope that we would again be a competitive player when he joined the Champions Tour, and that has been the case in his three-plus seasons.
Andrade has finished 23rd, 4th and 11th in earnings in his three seasons on the Champions Tour, and is currently 9th this year.
“My goal when I turned 50 was to really enjoy this part of my life,” Andrade said. “It’s highly competitive on the Champions Tour but in a more relaxed way. You still have to play unbelievable golf to win.”
Andrade collected all three of his Champions Tour titles in 2015, teaming with Joe Durant to win the Legends of Golf team event and twice taking down the tour’s top gun for the last 10 years – Bernhard Langer. Andrade edged Langer by one shot in Seattle and won a playoff over the two-time Masters Champion in the season-ending Schwab Cup Championship.
At the age of 59, Langer remains the top player on the Champions Tour, and Andrade hopes to match the German’s longevity as an elite player.
“I’ve been pretty much injury free, and if I can just stay healthy, I can keep playing at this level,” Andrade observed. “They say 60 is the new 50.”
The two most senior members of the Champions Tour’s Georgia contingent are Marietta’s Larry Nelson and Augusta native and Columbus resident Larry Mize.
Nelson, who turns 70 later this year, captured three major championships among his nine PGA Tour titles, and added 20 Champions Tour wins in his first seven seasons on the tour. He plays infrequently at the age of 69, but managed to shoot his age in the season-opening event in Hawaii, also sponsored by Mitsubishi.
Mize is celebrating the 30th anniversary of his memorable 1987 Masters playoff victory, and will be competing at Sugarloaf one week after his appearance in the 2017 Masters. Mize enjoyed his best season since 2012 last year, highlighted by back-to-back third place finishes late in the season in California and North Carolina. He added a recent top-10 finish this year in south Florida.
The 58-year-old Mize has one victory on the Champions Tour, winning in Montreal in 2010, adding to four career victories on the PGA Tour.
Perhaps the most popular win on the Champions Tour last year was Gene Sauers’ hard-fought victory in the U.S. Senior Open. Sauers, a Savannah native and resident, has been a consistently successful performer on the Champions Tour since turning 50 in the summer of 2012, with that success an unexpected bonus for someone who almost lost his life in his late 40s.
Sauers suffered from a rare skin disorder that resulted in his skin burning from the inside out. After an initial misdiagnosis, doctors eventually treated his condition, and he was able to resume a playing career he had abandoned at the age of 43.
While in his 20s, Sauers was one of the PGA Tour’s most consistent performers, winning twice and annually finishing in or near the top 30 on the money list. But by his mid-30s, he had lost his exempt status, spending the latter half of his 30s on the Web.com Tour. Sauers briefly revived his career with a surprise PGA Tour win in Canada in 2002, but left his life as a tour pro three years later before encountering his serious health issues.
Sauers showed no ill effects from his near-death experience or long layoff from golf from the moment he joined the Champions Tour, placing 19th, 14th and 29th in earnings in his first three full seasons. Sauers finished second or third four times each during those seasons before finally breaking through in the 2016 U.S. Senior Open at Scioto CC in Columbus, Ohio and finished 2016 9th on the money list. He trailed Miguel Angel Jimenez by one shot in the final round with two holes to play, but overtook the Spaniard down the stretch to score his first tournament victory in 14 years.
“That was fabulous,” Andrade said of Sauers’ victory, which earned him the Ben Hogan Award from the Golf Writers Association of America. “What a class act he is. I’ve seen the pictures on his phone” of his skin when he was near death.
“For him to come back was impressive. It was a very popular win.”
Andrade, Nelson, Mize and Sauers all enjoyed success at the highest levels of the game, but Georgia’s other two Champions Tour members have spent most or all of their careers playing somewhere other than the PGA Tour.
Duluth resident Scott Dunlap spent six seasons on the PGA Tour from 1996-2002 and made a one-year return in his late 40s in 2012. But other than a profitable three-year stretch from 1999-2001, he struggled to retain his exempt status, and spent most of his career on the Web.com Tour, winning twice in 13 seasons but never finishing better than 37th in earnings.
Dunlap spent his early years as a tour pro playing all over the world, winning tournaments in Canada, South Africa and South America, with one of his Web.com victories coming in Panama.
But after several decades of grinding to maintain a career, Dunlap has enjoyed considerable success on the Champions Tour, placing 10th, 10th and 12th in earnings in his three seasons, eclipsing $1 each year. He recorded five runner-up finishes and four third-place showings in three-plus seasons on the Champions Tour, ranking as one of the finest ball-strikers among the game’s over-50 players.
The newest addition to the state’s Champions Tour contingent is long-time Augusta resident Scott Parel, who earned his exempt status for 2017 by tying for first in the finals of qualifying late last year.
Parel spent almost all his rookie season on the Champions Tour last year competing in Monday or Tuesday qualifiers, and repeatedly played his way into tournaments, ending the season with 15 starts that included three majors and the first two Playoffs events. His best showings came in the tour’s biggest tournaments, as he tied for seventh in the Senior PGA and was 10th and sixth in his two Playoffs appearances.
For the season, Parel placed 50th in earnings, and is off to a solid start in 2017 with a top-10 finish in south Florida.
Parel did not turn pro until he was in his early 30s, and played at the mini-tour level before joining the Web.com Tour in 2003 at the age of 38. His best years came when he was 47 and 48, placing 35th in earnings in 2012 and 31st in ’13, posting a second place finish in 2012 and his lone Web.com win the next year in Wichita.
During his career, Parel has made just five starts in PGA Tour events, two each in the U.S. Open and at Sugarloaf. He made his only cut in the 2006 BellSouth Classic, but missed the cut two years later, the last time the PGA Tour played at Sugarloaf.
Andrade said it is “fantastic” that career grinders like Parel have a chance to compete on the Champions Tour alongside players who spent their careers on the PGA Tour.
“The Champions Tour is not just for guys who played well on the PGA Tour. It’s part of our system that guys like that have a chance. With just five spots available in qualifying, it’s unbelievable how hard it is to get out here, but that’s part of our tour.”