The 2020 Champions Tour began last month in Hawaii and includes a new early season event in Morocco before returning to the U.S. and a mostly familiar schedule beginning with a mid-February tournament in south Florida.
The tour is back in the Atlanta area for its annual stop at TPC Sugarloaf in Duluth, scheduled for April 17-19. With two off weeks before the Mitsubishi Electric Classic and one off week after, the event should again feature a strong field of the top senior players in professional golf.
The Georgia contingent on the Champions Tour remains the same, although 72-year-old Larry Nelson is moving closer to retirement. The Marietta resident made just six starts in 2019, the fifth straight year he has played fewer than 10 events. He withdrew after the first round of the Champions Tour major in Birmingham in May and played only once more last season, beating his age by several shots with an opening round 68 in Japan.
During his underappreciated career, Nelson scored 10 PGA Tour victories, three of them majors, and won 20 times on the Champions Tour between 1998 and 2004. He won four times in Japan during his PGA Tour days and also won the Father/Son Challenge three times with sons Josh and Drew.
Three of Nelson’s PGA Tour titles came in Georgia – two at Atlanta Country Club and the 1981 PGA Championship at Atlanta Athletic Club.
In the past few years, Augusta’s Scott Parel has emerged as the top player among Georgia’s contingent of Champions Tour players, and finished 2019 eighth on the Schwab Cup points list. He could not match his 2018 performance, when he won twice, one of them in the Playoffs, and was second four times, ending the year third in the Schwab Cup.
Parel had three runner-up finishes in ’19, losing in playoffs in Biloxi and Des Moines to Kevin Sutherland and finishing two shots behind Scott McCarron in Houston. This is Parel’s fifth season on the tour after having spent most of his pre-50 career on what is now the Korn Ferry Tour. Parel made just a handful of PGA Tour starts after turning pro at the age of 30, and enjoyed most of his success in his late 40s, when he scored his only Web.com Tour victory.
After opening 2020 with a tie for 12thin the Tournament of Champions in Hawaii, Parel tied for third last week in Morocco.
Billy Andrade, a long time Atlanta resident, enjoyed another solid season in 2019, finishing among the top 30 on the money list for a sixth straight time. Andrade joined the Champions Tour in 2014 and has placed as high as fourth in the final standings, that coming in 2015 when he scored all three of his senior victories.
Andrade came close to adding an elusive fourth Champions Tour title last year, finishing as a runner-up three times. He tied for second in the Regions Tradition in Birmingham and in Japan, and lost a playoff to Kirk Triplett at Pebble Beach. Andrade missed a playoff by one shot in Biloxi, placing third. He made his 2020 debut in Morocco, tying for 24th. During his PGA Tour career, Andrade won four times.
Savannah’s Gene Sauers finished outside the top 30 for the first time in his seven seasons on the Champions Tour, ending the year 37th. His best showings were a pair of ties for fifth and a T6, as he managed a total of four top 10s, well off the combined 19 he accumulated in 2017 and ’18. Sauers’ lone Champions Tour victory came in the 2016 U.S. Senior Open.
Sauers was one of the more consistently successful players on the PGA Tour in the late 1980s and early ‘90s, but suffered through a long stretch of disappointing results before capturing his third title in 2002. He left the PGA Tour after the 2005 season, and made his return to golf seven years later after surviving a battle with a skin disease that was initially misdiagnosed and almost cost him his life.
Duluth’s Scott Dunlaphopes to return to full-time action this season after missing most of the 2019 season following surgery on his left wrist that hampered him in 2018. He made only four starts last year, all in majors, and closed out his season by contending for 36 holes in the British Senior Open before finishing tied for 29th.
Dunlap has played on the Champions Tour for six seasons, placing in the top 15 the first three and 25 and 33 the two seasons after that. He scored his lone victory in Seattle in 2014, but has been a frequent challenger for a title with six runner-up finishes and five thirds. His most recent second place showing came in 2018.
Early in his pro career, Dunlap was an international player, with his first nine victories coming in Canada, South Africa and South America. He played on the PGA Tour from 1996-2002 before making a return in 2012 in his late 40s. He spent 13 seasons on what is now the Korn Ferry Tour, winning twice and enjoying one of his best seasons in 2013, the year he turned 50.
Long-time Columbus resident Larry Mize has been competing on the Champions Tour for more than a decade, playing his first full season in 2009. That was also his most successful season on the tour, as he scored 11 top-10 finishes to end the year sixth on the money list. He scored his lone Champions win in Montreal the next year, and was a top 50 player as recently as 2016, when he placed third in two tournaments and ended the year 44thin earnings.
Mize, an Augusta native, was 78thon the money list last year at the age of 60, and opened 2020 in positive fashion, tying for 20thin Morocco. While he remains competitive on the Champions Tour, the 1987 Masters champions is nearing the time when he will retire as an active participant in Augusta. He won four times during his PGA Tour career, the last two in 1993.
The most recent addition to Georgia’s contingent of Champions Tour competitors is former Georgia Bulldog TommyTolles, who joined the tour in 2017. Although he played on the PGA Tour for a decade, Tolles entered the Champions Tour as a non-exempt player, and spent most of the ‘17 season competing in Monday qualifiers. Tolles placed second in the finals of qualifying later that year to earn status for 2018, but after an early tie for second in southern California, did not have a top 10 the rest of the season and finished 50thin earnings.
Tolles was headed for a similar showing last season before he placed second in the Playoffs event in Richmond and third the next week in Los Angeles. He ended up 25thin the Schwab Cup standings, making him fully exempt for this season. He opened 2020 with a tie for 20thin Morocco.
Davis Love turned 50 in 2014, but has played only 20 Champions Tour events since, and with his new duties as a CBS broadcaster, is unlikely to play any more on the tour than he has since he joined it. Love played six tournaments last year, the most of any season, and his best finish was a tie for 32nd. He tied for 19thin the limited field Tournament of Champions to start the 2020 season, but it is doubtful if the long time St. Simons Island resident will make more than a handful of starts on either the Champions or PGA Tours.
There are a few changes to the schedule this season, with a new tournament in St. Louis joining the event in Morocco. Dropping off the schedule is the Legends of Golf in Missouri, the team event that replaced the tournament at Savannah Harbor, and the Playoffs event in Los Angeles. The tour’s long time stop in Boca Raton will move from its annual calendar date in early February to become the second of the three Playoffs events in late October.
The Champions Tour will get a major infusion of talent, with no fewer than six major champions turning 50 either in late 2019 or this year. Ernie Els and Angel Cabrera have already joined the tour, and will be followed in May by Jim Furyk and Mike Weir. Phil Mickelson hits 50 in June, but don’t expect to see him unless he continues to miss cut after cut on the PGA Tour. One player excited to turn 50 is Rich Beem, who reaches the number in late August.
Also turning 50 this year are Tim Herron (February) and K.J. Choi (May), who will follow a sizeable group of top international players who are already eligible for the tour, including Els, Cabrera, Shigeki Maruyama, Thongchai Jaidee and Robert Karlsson.
The long run of Bernhard Langer as the Champions Tour’s top player may finally be at an end. With Langer turning 63 this Summer. Els and fellow South African Retief Goosen, who joined the tour last year and finished third in the Schwab Cup, should be in the chase for top player honors, along with McCarron, Jerry Kelly and the ageless Langer. Steve Stricker would have been in the mix, but will be preoccupied with his duties as Ryder Cup captain this year.