Most of the top players on the Champions Tour remained competitive on the PGA Tour until they reached the age of 50 and could join their peers on golf’s over-50 circuit.
Most, but not all.
Long-time Atlanta resident Billy Andrade was a successful player on the PGA Tour for two decades, but his game began to slip as he advanced past his early 40s.
After an unproductive year on the PGA Tour in 2009 at the age of 45, Andrade decided to step away from his career as a player, joining the broadcast staff of Golf Channel for the next three years.
Andrade returned to his playing career at the age of 49 to prepare for the Champions Tour, and met with mixed results in a limited number of starts. But one successful week in a second-tier PGA Tour event in Mississippi gave Andrade some hope that he could still play at a high level, and he joined the Champions Tour after turning 50 early in 2014.
Two years later, Andrade has emerged as one of the tour’s top players, winning three times last year and finishing fifth on the 2015 money list. He came close to a fourth victory this year, losing in a playoff in the first full field event of the season in Boca Raton, Fla., and comes into this month’s Mitsubishi Electric Classic as TPC Sugarloaf as one of the favorites to take home a victory.
Andrade says his time away from golf in his late 40s was key to his success thus far on the Champions Tour.
“Taking those three years off was a blessing,” he said after returning home to Atlanta following a top-20 showing the previous week in Tucson. “I was re-energized.
“I learned a lot from my three years working in TV. I did some events on the Champions Tour and learned about what it takes to be successful on that tour. When I turned 50, I was excited and fresh.”
Andrade made only seven starts on the PGA and Web.com Tours after turning 49 in 2013, and did nothing to distinguish himself in six of the seven. But one outstanding week of golf in the PGA Tour’s opposite field tournament in Mississippi convinced him he still had some game left in his bag.
Scores of 66-67-65 the last three rounds of the Sanderson Farms Championship propelled Andrade into a tie for fifth. Even though he played only one more tournament the rest of the year after the July event in Mississippi, Andrade was convinced that he had a shot to succeed on the Champions Tour.
“That made me confident that I could still play at a high level. When I turned 50, my mindset was to have fun. I embraced the Champions Tour and the players accepted me. I had played with these guys for so long, but you don’t learn how things are going to be until you do it.”
Andrade tied for eighth in his second Champions Tour start in south Florida and placed second, again in Mississippi, one month later. He finished a successful “rookie” season 23rd on the money list including a playoff loss to Fred Couples in Canada, shooting 62 in the final round.
During his 20-plus years on the PGA Tour, Andrade was a 4-time winner, most recently in Las Vegas in 2000. He scored his first victory in almost 15 years last spring in the Legends of Golf, the event played in Savannah for a decade before moving to Branson, Mo., in 2014. He teamed with Joe Durant to win the team event, which plays two of its three rounds on a par-3 layout.
Apart from a final round 63 in the U.S. Senior Open that vaulted him to a tie for fifth, the next few months were mostly uneventful for Andrade until he scored his first individual victory of the year in Seattle.
Andrade held off a challenge from Bernhard Langer, the Champions Tour’s No.1 player since 2008, winning by one shot despite taking a triple bogey on the fifth hole. Andrade led Langer by three shots after 36 holes and was four in front until he almost gave up the lead on one hole.
After taking two penalty strokes following a pair of wayward shots from the tee, Andrade was facing a quadruple-bogey or worse on the par 4, but holed a pitch shot for a triple bogey, describing it as “the greatest seven I’ve ever made in my life.”
Andrade fell into a tie with playing partner Langer after a bogey at the seventh, but regained the lead for good when he birdied the par-5 eighth after his third shot barely cleared the water to set up a birdie putt. He protected his lead from that point with nine pars and a birdie over his final 10 holes, holding off a late rally by Langer.
The two players again battled for a victory in the season-ending Schwab Cup Championship, with Andrade shooting a final round 64 to rally from a 4-stroke deficit and force a playoff with Langer. Andrade again overcame adversity during the round, making bogey on a par 5 on the back nine after hitting his third shot into the water, earning a spot in the playoff with a birdie on the final hole.
Andrade again birdied the 18th to win the playoff on the first extra hole, making him two-for-two in duels with Langer.
“Bernhard is such a great role model for us,” Andrade said, and was touched by Langer’s congratulatory remarks following their battle in Seattle.
“He said, ‘To come back from adversity is the sign of a champion.’ That meant a lot to me.”
After the triple bogey, Andrade said “all of a sudden I was uncomfortable. But you have to learn how to play when you’re uncomfortable, and that’s what Seattle was like.”
Andrade finished the year fourth on the money list, and picked up right where he left off late in the 2016 season, shooting a final round 68 in Boca Raton in February to force a playoff with Esteban Toledo before losing on the second extra hole.
Coming into April, Andrade was eighth on the money list, and is looking forward to a rare home game at Sugarloaf.
“It’s always nice to play at home,” he said. “I haven’t had a whole lot of success at Sugarloaf on either the PGA or Champions Tour, but the course is fantastic and I look forward to playing better there.”
After playing in just 12 tournaments in four years prior to joining the Champions Tour, Andrade has responded well in his return to playing full time. But family considerations also figured in his decision to step away from his playing career.
“My oldest son was in high school, my daughter was in middle school and my wife was studying for her theological doctorate (she’s now a Presbyterian minister). It was the perfect time to take some time off. I was home a lot and I needed to be home.”
Andrade’s son Cameron is now in college and is a senior on the golf team at Wofford in Spartanburg, S.C.