During the 1980s and ‘90s, European golfers found Georgia to be a very welcoming destination for one week in early April.
During that 20-year span, six of Europe’s best tour pros won a combined 11 Masters titles. But in the 15 years since, no European has won in Augusta.
After an absence of a dozen years, the Champions Tour returned to the Atlanta area in 2013, and the small European contingent who have continued their pro careers in the U.S. seem to have transferred their affinity for Augusta National in the 1980s and ‘90s to TPC Sugarloaf in Duluth in the current decade.
The Greater Gwinnett Championship has been part of the Champions Tour for just two years, and already has two European champions. Germany’s Bernhard Langer, who won the Masters in both the 1980s and ‘90s, won the inaugural event at Sugarloaf in 2013. Spain’s Miguel Angel Jimenez, an occasional contender in Augusta but never a winner, made a successful Champions Tour debut last year, winning the Gwinnett event a week after finishing fourth at the age of 50 in the Masters.
Langer and Jimenez will be among the players who will be in the field for this month’s Greater Gwinnett Championship, which will be played the week of April 13-19.
The tournament, which is presented by Atlanta-based Mitsubishi Electric Cooling and Heating, begins with the Matt Ryan Celebrity Pro-Am Classic on the Monday after the Masters, with free admission to the public. The State Bank Pro-Am is scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday of tournament week, with the 54-hole Greater Gwinnett Championship teeing off Friday and concluding Sunday.
Spectators can park for free at the Gwinnett Arena, with shuttle buses running continuously between there and the grounds at Sugarloaf. Ticket information is available through the tournament web site (www.GreaterGwinnettChampionship.com) or by calling the tournament office at 770-232-7872.
Golf Channel will have live coverage of all three rounds, with Friday’s broadcast from noon to 2:30 p.m. Broadcast times Saturday and Sunday are 3-6 p.m., with tee times all three days expected to be from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. off both the first and 10th tees.
Among the new offers this year is the Mellow Mushroom Chill Club, which will serve lunch in an open air tent behind the par-3 16th hole. The lunch consists of a giant pizza slice, salad, cookie and one alcoholic beverage or Coca-Cola product. Hummus and bruschetta will also be served throughout the day. Tickets to the club, which also includes admission to the tournament, can be purchased online, with packages that include transportation available through the tournament office.
The Greater Gwinnett Championship is the first full field tour event to be played in Atlanta since the PGA Tour last played at TPC Sugarloaf in 2008. East Lake Golf Club has been an annual host to the limited field PGA Tour Championship and Atlanta Athletic Club was the site of the 2011 PGA Championship, but the area lost its spring Champions Tour, LPGA and PGA Tour events in the 2000s, as well as the PGA Tour stop at Callaway Gardens.
With the recent move of the Champions Tour Legends of Golf from Savannah to Missouri and the end of Web.com Tour events in Athens and Valdosta, Georgia now has just three tournaments (not including the Masters) on the five PGA/LPGA affiliated tours — the Tour Championship and McGladrey Classic at Sea Island Golf Club on the PGA Tour and the Greater Gwinnett Championship.
Prior to the 2013 Greater Gwinnett Championship, the last Champions Tour event in metro Atlanta was the Nationwide Championship at Golf Club of Georgia in 2000.
Hale Irwin, who won the last Nationwide Championship 15 years ago, was the Champions Tour’s dominant player then, with Langer filling that role six of the last seven years.
Langer had never played TPC Sugarloaf before tournament week two years ago. He trailed by six shots after an opening 73, but shot the low scores Saturday (66) and Sunday (67) to win by three over Tom Lehman and Tom Pernice. Langer trailed second round leader Esteban Toledo by one shot heading to the final round, with Toledo closing with a 75 tie for seventh at 213, seven behind Langer’s winning total of 10-under 206.
Jimenez went wire-to-wire to win last year, opening with a 65 in rainy, cold conditions to lead by three shots. He led Langer by one after 36 holes after a second round 70. Langer shot 68 the final round to finish at 12-under 204, but Jimenez turned in a sparkling 67 for a 14-under 202 total to win by two.
The top 10 included such notables as Jay Haas (3rd, 206), Fred Couples (4th, 207) Kenny Perry and Colin Montgomerie (both T8, 210).
Jimenez, Langer, Haas and Montgomerie are all in the field and as one of the three most prominent Europeans on the Champions Tour, Montgomerie would appear to be next in line as likely champion if the pattern of the last two years continues.
Also committed to compete at Sugarloaf are Paul Goydos, Lee Janzen, Marco Dawson and David Frost, along with Jimenez the 2015 Champions Tour winners. Langer, Michael Allen, Kirk Triplett, Montgomerie, Pernice, Lehman, Fred Funk, Jeff Sluman, Duluth resident Scott Dunlap, Wes Short, Goydos and Haas are the 2014 winners who had committed to the tournament by the end of March, with Couples, Jeff Maggert, Perry and John Cook the lone tournament champions from last year who will not be playing at Sugarloaf
Maggert is playing the PGA Tour event in Hilton Head along with fellow seniors Tom Watson, Vijay Singh, Perry and Woody Austin.
Also in the field are Georgians Gene Sauers, Billy Andrade, Larry Mize and Larry Nelson, former major champions Mark Brooks, Mark Calcavecchia, Sandy Lyle, Mark O’Meara, Corey Pavin, Hal Sutton and Bob Tway, and fan favorite Rocco Mediate.
During its years as host of a PGA Tour event, Sugarloaf tended to favor big hitters, with champions including Phil Mickelson (three times), Scott McCarron (twice) and major champions Tiger Woods, David Duval and Retief Goosen. But fellow major champion and non-bomber Zach Johnson won twice, with Ben Crane and Ryuji Imada also Sugarloaf winners. Former Georgia Bulldog Imada took the final PGA Tour event there in a playoff in 2008 over Perry, who probably still hasn’t forgotten the ricochet off the tree near the 18th green that cost him the tournament.
Sugarloaf is among the longer and more difficult courses the Champions Tour visits, with the last year’s tournament yardage listed at 7,131 yards, less than 130 yards short of the yardage the last time the PGA Tour stopped in Duluth.
Four of Sugarloaf’s demanding group of par 4s (5, 9, 14 and 17) play 440 yards or longer, with the fifth among the toughest holes on the course with a creek fronting a narrow green guarded at the back by sand.
The par 5s are typically where the tour pros look for birdies and possible eagles, but the four at Sugarloaf average almost 560 yards and require two big hits for the longer Champions Tour players to reach them in two unless the tees are pushed up a bit or there are favorable wind conditions. The best birdie opportunity is likely the short, par-4 13th, potentially drivable at 310 yards.
The par 3s are not an especially demanding group, with the 11th the only one with water in play and the eighth the lone member of the quartet with significant yardage. At just 144 yards, it’s almost always surprising how few birdies the second hole yields.
Sugarloaf is not the easiest course to walk, but is not appreciably more difficult in that regard than the previous Atlanta area course to host the Champions Tour (Golf Club of Georgia). Just a few more roads to cross.