When Augusta’s Scott Parel tied for second in last week’s Champions Tour event at TPC Sugarloaf in Duluth, it marked the fourth straight tournament that a player with Georgia ties had finished as runner-up.
During that span, five different golfers with Georgia ties at least tied for second, with all five among the top 20 on the tour’s money list following the Mitsubishi Electric Classic.
Seven tournaments into the 2018 schedule, Savannah’s Gene Sauers tops the Georgia contingent on the Champions Tour with four top 10s, a pair of top 15s and no finish lower than 22nd.
Sauers, a lifelong Savannah resident, has been a consistent performer throughout his five-plus seasons as a Champions Tour member, much as he was during the early stages of his PGA Tour career in the late 1980s and early ‘90s. He has placed between 10th and 26th on the money list every year and is on pace to improve on that record, standing sixth in earnings.
Coming into last week’s tour stop at Sugarloaf, Sauers had placed second and third in two of his previous three starts and was in position to make another run at a top finish following an opening round 68.
Sauers was tied for fourth, but was unable to get anything going in the 36-hole final day of play last Saturday, closing with scores of 73-72 to tie for 14th at 3-under 213.
The Champions Tour was off the two weeks prior to the Mitsubishi Electric Classic, and despite the opening 68, Sauers said he was “a little rusty this week with the putter.”
The rust was not evident early in his round, as he ran off four straight birdies beginning at the fourth hole. As usual, he credited his ball striking, both for the season and his first round at Sugarloaf, for his success.
Sauers ranks fourth on the tour in greens in regulation and sixth in fairways hit, and the weeks he putts well, he is usually near the top of the leaderboard. That was not the case during the long final day at Sugarloaf, with Sauers unable to repeat his strong finishes earlier this season. He was averaging under 68 in the final round before suffering through a frustrating day during the 36-hole finale.
“If I can get the putter working, I’ll be up there,” he said after the opening round, but that did not turn out to be the case, as he managed just four birdies the next day, two on the final four holes of the afternoon round. During the morning round, he carded 16 pars alongside a double bogey at the par-4 fifth and a birdie at the 15th.
Sauers began the 2018 season with back-to-back finishes of ninth and seventh and tied for second in Tucson, two behind Steve Stricker. He tied for third in Biloxi in his most recent start, four in back of Stricker after a closing 66. That increased his Champions Tour career total to 12 second or third-place finishes in 125 starts against a lone win – the 2016 U.S. Senior Open.
“I’ve been so close so many times,” Sauers said, citing seven career playoff losses, including his time on the PGA Tour, where he collected three victories, just one after 1989.
For most players, that would be an especially vexing situation, but Sauers, who won the U.S. Senior Open in a playoff, has a different perspective on golf after a near-death experience prior to joining the Champions Tour.
Sauers contracted a mysterious skin condition that was initially miss-diagnosed before doctors made the correct prognosis and saved his life. While he was recuperating, Sauers decided to give golf another shot after leaving the game healthy but dispirited in his early 40s.
When Sauers emerged from a long hospital stay in his late 40s, the frustrations that had dogged him on the course were gone, and he points to the time he had to think while hospitalized.
“I took seven years off, and all I thought about in the hospital was picturing making a golf swing.”
With the exception of an out-of-nowhere win at the age of 40, Sauers spent his last decade as a barely competitive player after ranking as one of the more consistently successful golfers on the PGA Tour from 1986 to ’95.
But when he returned to golf shortly before turning 50, Sauers was pretty much the same player he was in his late 20s.
“I had big doubts,” he admitted. “You just don’t know.”
Sauers was relieved when he was welcomed back to the game by his fellow pros, and has been among the Champions Tour’s best since returning, even though his career victory total hasn’t increased significantly.
Unlike Sauers, who was a top player on the PGA Tour for a decade, both Scott Dunlap and Scott Parel had to wait until they turned 50 to finally find serious success as a tour player.
Dunlap played on the PGA Tour for six years from 1996-2002, but after strong seasons in 1999 and 2000, was back on what is now the Web.com Tour in 2003 and stayed there until he turned 50 with the exception of a brief PGA Tour return in his late 40s.
Since joining the Champions Tour in 2014, Dunlap placed among the top 15 on the money list three times before slipping a bit to 25th last year. Thanks largely to a tie for second in Tucson along with Sauers, Dunlap is 16th in earnings after again tying Sauers, this time for 14th at Sugarloaf.
Dunlap, a long-time Duluth resident, started slowly in 2017, but has three finishes between 10th and 14th this year along with his tie for second in Tucson and a playoff loss to Parel in the Champions Tour’s unofficial season opener – the Diamond Resorts Invitational.
Like Sauers, Dunlap had a chance to win going to the final hole in Tucson before a slightly off-target drive on one of the most difficult holes on the Champions Tour ended the hopes of both.
With one exception, Dunlap said his early 2017 results were “garbage,” and after a string of solid results and a final round 65 in Naples, Fla., he says he is “way ahead of the game.
Dunlap’s Champions Tour record is similar to that of Sauers, with a win in his rookie season of 2014 and 11 top-3 finishes in his four-plus seasons. He leads the tour in fairways hit and is fifth in greens in regulation, but has been held back by one club.
“My short putting has let me down. That’s the culprit,” he notes, with that shortcoming evident in his near miss in Tucson.
“That was disappointing,” he said of his runner-up finish. “But it was nice to play well. I try not to judge it. I just enjoy the good stuff and don’t think too much about the bad stuff.”
Dunlap didn’t have too much good stuff or bad stuff at Sugarloaf, hanging within two shots of par in each round before finishing at 3-under 213. With the exception of 2005, when he finished one shot out of a 5-way playoff in the BellSouth Classic after getting into the field as a Monday qualifier, Dunlap has never had a really strong showing in his hometown event, but his T14 last week was one of his better efforts.
The week Dunlap has circled on his calendar this year is July 26-29 when the British Senior Open will be played for the first time at St. Andrews. Dunlap played in the British Open at St. Andrews in 2000 and hopes to recapture some of the international success he enjoyed early in his career.
Between 1994 and 2000, Dunlap won twice in Canada, twice in South Africa and five times in South America, before winning twice on the Nationwide (now Web.com) Tour in 2004 and ’08.
Parel won on the Web.com Tour in 2013 at the age of 48, but never made it to the PGA Tour, playing in golf’s version of baseball’s Class AAA off and on from 2003-15. He spent much of that as a Monday qualifier, and returned to that status when he joined the Champions Tour in 2016. He made it into 15 events that year, eventually playing his way to a top-50 finish on the money list, but did not earn full status on the tour until he won the qualifying tournaments later that year.
A strong 2017 showing with six top 10s and a tie for second in the Tradition, one of five Champions Tour majors, propelled him to 21st in earnings, and he is up to 11th after his playoff loss last week at Sugarloaf.
Parel won earlier this year in the unofficial Diamond Resorts Invitational, but is still looking for his first official victory after coming close in Biloxi (T3) and Sugarloaf (T2).
“To win any tournament against the pros is big,” Parel said after a 68 on Friday at Sugarloaf put him in contention from the opening round. “Even though it was a smaller field, beating everyone in the field was a big confidence boost.”
Parel made a run at his first official win several weeks prior to the Mitsubishi Electric Classic in Biloxi, but his final round 67 was not enough to overtake Stricker.
Having never been a PGA Tour member and having just two season on the Champions Tour, Parel is playing on a year-to-year basis, needing to finish inside a pre-arranged number (36 this year) to retain his exempt status for the following season. Thanks to the $242,000 he earned in his two most recent starts, Parel is looking good for this year, but nothing is guaranteed for him.
“It’s the same every year for me,” he said. “I just try to stay inside the exempt number.”
Parel’s goals are to win an official tour event and retain his exempt status. “Usually, one takes care of the other. I’d like to win a full field event, but I’m just trying to stay exempt as long as I can. As long as I stay healthy and play the way I can play, I have no doubt I’ll be able to stay exempt.”
When he made the decision to give up his career as a computer programmer at the age of 30 for the life of a mini-tour golf pro, Parel needed the self-confidence that has enabled him to make a living in a sport that has denied the efforts of the vast majority of golfers who have followed a similar path. Parel is a UGA graduate, but did not attempt to make the college team, which featured a number of future tour players.
The other runner-up finishes were produced by Atlanta resident Billy Andrade, who was second behind Stricker in Biloxi, and former Georgia Bulldog Tommy Tolles, who was a close second in the previous event in Newport Beach, Calif.
Andrade, who has finished in the top 30 in each of his four seasons on the Champions Tour, is 13th in 2018 with two other top-10 finishes. Tolles joined the tour last year as a non-exempt player and competed in just five tournaments before finishing second at Q-school to earn his status for 2018. He led after 36 holes in Tucson before falling to ninth after a final round 75, but rebounded the next week in Newport Beach, closing with a 65 to finish one behind Vijay Singh in a tie for second.
Tolles, who last played on the PGA Tour in 2004 and left his career as a tour player after playing briefly on the Web.com Tour in ’09, is 20th on the money list. He did not play in the Mitsubishi Electric Classic in Duluth last week.