Three of Georgia’s four full-time players on the Champions Tour enjoyed successful seasons in 2014, but all three had some extremely close calls that could have made their seasons significantly better.
The lone Georgia winner in 2014 was Champions Tour “rookie” Scott Dunlap of Duluth, who defeated Mark Brooks in a playoff in Seattle.
Dunlap also had a pair of runner-up finishes this season, with his three best showings of 2014 all coming with the span of one month.
Savannah’s Gene Sauers and Atlanta’s Billy Andrade combined for five top-3 finishes, with Sauers losing a playoff to Colin Montgomerie in the U.S. Senior Open and Andrade losing in a playoff to Fred Couples in Calgary. Andrade had an earlier runner-up finish in the Mississippi Gulf Resort Classic and Sauers added a pair of 3rd place showings, like Dunlap all three coming in a condensed time frame.
Until this year, Dunlap was a career journeyman who played for most of the previous two decades on either the PGA Tour or the various incarnations of what is now the Wen.com. He enjoyed much of his success on smaller tours in Canada, South Africa and South America, and spent almost all the last 10 years on the Web.com Tour.
Dunlap narrowly made it through Champions Tour qualifying, earning one of just five exempt spots for 2014. He contended early in the season in Newport Beach, Calif., before recording top-10 finishes in the Champions Tour’s two premier events – the Senior U.S, Open and Senior PGA Championship.
A second round 63 in Seattle gave him the lead heading to the final round, and he closed with a 68, playing his final 10 holes in 5-under to make it into a playoff against Brooks, who birdied six of his last seven holes. Dunlap birdied the par-5 18th – the first playoff hole – hitting a beautiful second shot into eagle range and two-putting for a winning birdie.
Two weeks later in Quebec, Dunlap made a great run at another title, shooting 64 the final day including a pair of eagles, the latter on the 18th hole. But fellow rookie Wes Short played his final 10 holes in 8-under, matching Dunlap’s eagle on 18 for a 64 that snatched victory from Dunlap by a slim one-stroke margin.
Undeterred, Dunlap was back at the top of the leader board in the next Champions Tour event in Hawaii. A final round 65 with eight birdies got Dunlap into the clubhouse at 18-under, but third round co-leader Paul Goydos birdied four straight holes coming down the stretch to withstand Dunlap’s surge. Dunlap was denied outright 2nd when Fred Funk scored a hole-in-one on the 16th.
Going into the season-ending Charles Schwab Championship, Dunlap was 10th on the money list and 12th in the Schwab points standings, with 2014 the best season in his professional career.
Sauers had five top-4 finishes in his Champions Tour rookie season in 2013, marking a successful return to golf after a long stretch in which he battled a mysterious skin condition that nearly cost him his life. He followed up his outstanding effort last year with a strong sophomore season, highlighted by his runner-up finish in the U.S. Senior Open.
After three rounds in the 60s at the demanding Oak Tree course in Oklahoma, Sauers led by three shots after 54 holes. But Montgomerie made an early run at the lead and stayed on Sauers’ heels all day, finally catching him when Sauers bogeyed the 16th hole.
Montgomerie, who had come close to winning both the U.S. Open and PGA Championship, losing the latter in a playoff, won the three-hole playoff for his first win on the Champions Tour while denying Sauers what would have been his first victory since a now-defunct PGA Tour event in Vancouver in 2002.
Three years later, Sauers dropped off the tour and did not appear again until 2011 after his medical situation was correctly diagnosed and treated.
Sauers accepted his disappointing loss in the U.S. Open and came right back with 3rd place finishes in two of his next three tournaments. He shot 20-under 196 (66-65-65) in Minneapolis but finished three shots behind Kenny Perry and two behind Bernhard Langer.
Another final round 65 in Seattle gave Sauers a shot at victory, but he could not catch Dunlap and Brooks, finishing two shots out of a playoff.
Going into the Schwab Cup, Sauers was 8th in the points standing and 14th on the money list, his second straight season in the top 20.
Like Dunlap, Andrade is in his first season on the Champions Tour, and has played well as a rookie after about five years of inaction near the end of his PGA Tour career.
Andrade, whose last PGA Tour victory came in Las Vegas in 2000, took his first shot at a Champions Tour victory early in 2014 in the Mississippi Gulf Resort Classic. He shared the 36-hole with Funk, but was overtaken in the final round by Jeff Maggert, who birdied three of the last four holes. Andrade carded five birdies the final day, but also had four bogeys in a 1-under 71, three on the final nine.
In one of the Champions Tour’s most explosive final round shootouts ever, Andrade and Couples took turns firing birdies and eagles at each other, winding up in a playoff at 15-under 195.
Andrade, who began the day three off the lead, shot 8-under 62 with four birdies and an eagle on the back nine. But he needed the eagle on the par-5 18th just to get into a playoff with Couples, who shot 61 with a 29 on the final nine including a pair of eagles, one on the 18th hole. Couples came back to birdie the hole to quickly end the playoff.
With three other top-10 finishes, Andrade was 21st on the money list and 26th in the points standings, giving Georgia three representatives in the Charles Schwab Championship.
Larry Mize, the fourth Georgian playing full time on the Champions Tour, had a tough season, finishing 61st on the money list, his poorest showing in his six years on the tour. Mize, an Augusta native and long time Columbus resident, did not have a top 10 finish in 2014, with a tie for 14th his best finish.