Coming into last week’s Champions Tour Playoffs opener in Richmond, Va., former Georgia Bulldog Tommy Tolles needed a top-10 finish to advance to the second of three Schwab Cup events.
Tolles did a little better than that, finishing second behind Miguel Angel Jimenez. Thanks to his runner-up finish, Tolles improved from 59 to 37 in the Schwab Cup standings, putting himself in position to move into the top 36 after next week’s tournament in Los Angeles and qualify for the Tour Championship in Phoenix Nov. 7-10.
Since joining the Champions Tour midway through the 2017 season, Tolles has had just three serious opportunities to win a tournament, the first two coming in consecutive weeks in Arizona and California early in 2018.
With the exception of a handful of weeks this Summer, Tolles had not done much in 2019, and seemed headed back to Q-school for a third straight year, a situation he was familiar with from his time on the PGA Tour and its feeder tour in the 1990s and 2000s.
Tolles fired a bogey-free, 7-under 65 to take the opening day lead, and shared the 36-hole at 132 with Augusta’s Scott Parel, whose four years at Georgia overlapped with Tolles, but did not play on the golf team.
Playing in the final group of Monday’s rain-delayed finish, Tolles and Parel plodded along through 12 holes at even par, while Jimenez was 6-under at that point to turn a 3-stroke deficit into a 3-shot lead over the two ex-Bulldogs.
Tolles played his final six holes Monday in 4-under, closing with an eagle on the par-5 18th, but it was too late to catch Jimenez, who birdied three of his last five holes for a 63 and a 2-stroke margin of victory over Tolles.
“I didn’t putt so good today, especially early in the round, and usually that’s a strength of my game, so I’m a little bit disappointed,” Tolles said after the round. “It’s been a long time since I’ve been in this position, and I’m happy with the way it turned out. Maybe not the whole result, but most of it anyway.
“This is definitely a step in the right direction.”
After playing the first 12 holes Monday in even par, Tolles and Parel were passed by both Jimenez and playing partner Colin Montgomerie, but Tolles made a strong late run to secure second place outright. After a birdie at the short par-4 13th, Tolles hit both remaining par 5s in two (16 and 18) and rolled in his eagle putt at the 18thto break a tie for second with Montgomerie.
Tolles earned $180,000 for his runner-up finish, with his eagle putt of some 15 feet on 18 the only putt of length he made all day.
“I hadn’t made anything all day, so I didn’t expect it to go in. It was one of the few that I actually got on line with the speed right.”
Tolles joined the Champions Tour in 2017 after leaving the Nationwide Tour in 2009. He spent eight full seasons on the tour, beginning with a 4-year stint from 1991-94. He gradually improved each season, collecting his first win in ’93, and won again the next year, placing 16thon the money list to move up to the PGA Tour in ’95.
In just his third start as a PGA Tour member, Tolles tied for third in the Bob Hope Classic and went on to retain his exempt status for the 1996 season. Throughout ’96 and ’97, Tolles was a familiar name on PGA Tour leader boards, amassing 15 top-10 finishes, among them a number of unsuccessful opportunities to collect his first victory.
In 1996, Tolles enjoyed a 3-week run in which he played in the final group Sunday in New Orleans, the Players Championship and Atlanta, ending up in the top 5 in all three. Later that Summer, he tied third in the PGA Championship at Valhalla, just one shot out of a playoff.
Tolles went from six top 10s that year to nine in ’97, including a third place finish in the Masters and a fifth in the U.S. Open at Congressional, closing out the year with his second straight appearance in the Tour Championship.
But after finishing 16thand 27thon the money list those two years, Tolles was rarely heard from his last six years on the PGA Tour. He contended three times the next two years, but twice played poorly in the final round and his last four seasons produced just one top 10 in 96 starts.
Tolles played well enough on the 2003 Nationwide Tour to return to the PGA Tour for his final season in ’04, and spent his last three seasons there from 2006-08, finishing between 75 and 90 on the money list before putting his clubs away in ’09.
After a long time away from tour life, Tolles returned to the Champions Tour after turning 50 in 2017. He tied for second in the finals of Q-school to earn his playing privileges, and like he did as a twenty-something PGA Tour rookie, made an immediate splash as a senior.
In his third start of his first full season, he led after 36 holes in Tucson, but shot 75 the final day to drop to a tie for ninth. He contended again the next week in Newport Beach, Calif., and this time shot 65 in the final round, but settled for a tie for second, one behind Vijay Singh, who shot 66.
But he did not do much the rest of the season and ended up 50thin earnings, enough to get him a second season on the tour. Until a brief Summer surge highlighted by a tie for fifth in Seattle, Tolles had no results of note this year before his close call in Richmond.
During Tolles’ four seasons on the Georgia golf team, the Bulldogs won the SEC Championship when he was a senior and qualified for the NCAA Championship three times, placing in the top 10 during Tolles’ freshman and senior seasons.
Tolles never won a tournament as a Bulldog, and his lone post-season honor was second team all-SEC after his junior year. During his time in Athens, Tolles was teammates with fellow future tour players Peter Persons, Matt Peterson and Paul Claxton, each of whom earned All-America honors but did not have as much success on the PGA Tour as Tolles did.
Following his showing last week in Richmond, Tolles has reasonable hopes of doing something on the Champions Tour he never did in his nine seasons on the PGA Tour – win. With a decent showing next week, Tolles will have at least two more chances this year.
The next Schwab Cup event is next week in Los Angeles, followed by the Tour Championship in Phoenix.
Parel is the defending champion of the LA event, scoring the second of his two 2018 wins at Sherwood CC. Parel has been a frequent contender on the tour the past two seasons with seven runner-up finishes and a combined 20 top 10s over that span.
Two of his second place showings this year came in playoff losses to Kevin Sutherland in Biloxi and Des Moines. He also lost in a playoff last year in the tour’s Atlanta stop at TPC Sugarloaf.
Parel comes into the Schwab Cup event in Los Angeles next week in the eighth spot in the standings, posting nine top 10s on the season. He wound up tied for fourth in Richmond after an unproductive final round, opening with back-to-back scores of 66 to share the lead with Tolles.
While Jimenez was in the process of shooting a 63 and Tolles made a late move to shoot 68, Parel slogged through a final round 71 that included only two birdies, neither of them on a par 5. Parel had birdied all four par 5s the previous round, but both of his birdies Monday came on par 3s, including a hole-out from a bunker on the 17th, spoiling what could have been a string of 14 straight pars to end his round.
After struggling off the tee on the first three par 5s Monday, Parel finally hit the fairway on the 18thand reached the green in two, but 3-potted to end a forgettable day.
Joining Parel and Tolles in the field for the second Schwab Cup event are Atlanta’s Billy Andrade and Savannah’s Gene Sauers. Andradeis 11thin points with two runner-up finishes and a third this season, while Sauers is 41stafter finishing among the top 30 in each of the previous six seasons.