The Champions Tour returns to TPC Sugarloaf in Duluth next month for the seventh Mitsubishi Electric Classic, and there’s little question who has been the tournament’s leading man in its relatively brief history.
Germany’s Bernhard Langer won the first Champions Tour event at Sugarloaf in 2013, and has finished second in four of the five tournaments since, placing 11th in 2016.
Prior to winning at Sugarloaf in the inaugural event in 2013, Langer had never played the course during the years it hosted a PGA Tour stop from 1997 to 2008. After a strong showing in the Masters the week before the first Champions Tour event in Duluth, Langer got in one practice round and a pro-am appearance before opening the tournament with a 1-over 73.
That placed him six shots off the lead, but he came back with scores of 66 and 67 to win the tournament by three strokes. That victory is one of 39 Langer has scored on the Champions Tour since he joined it late in the 2007 season. He hasn’t added to his career victory total in the succeeding five years at Sugarloaf, but he has come close.
Langer battled fellow European Tour veteran Miguel Angel Jimenez down the stretch the next year, but came up two shots short. He finished one behind Olin Browne in 2015, missing out on the chance for another come-from-behind win when the scheduled final round was washed out. Langer was again second in 2017 to Stephen Ames, and scored his fourth runner-up finish in the tournament last year, losing in a three-way playoff won by Steve Flesch.
During his dozen years on the Champions Tour, Langer has put together an amazingly consistent career. After placing third and fourth on the money list in his first two full seasons, Langer has finished either first or second every year since with the exception of 2011, when he missed a sizeable portion of the season with an injury.
Langer has won at least one tournament every year since 2007, when he made just five starts after turning 50. Other than his injury-marred 2011 season, he has won at least two tournaments every year since 2008, winning five times in 2010 and ‘14 and seven times in 2017, the year he turned 60. He finished first in earnings for the fourth time in the last five years in 2018, collecting two wins along with six runner-up finishes.
Although he had to withdraw from last week’s tournament in Tucson with a rib injury and was unable to play this week in southern California, Langer is in his accustomed spot atop the Champions Tour money list. He tied for third in the season-opening Mitsubishi Tournament of Champions in Hawaii, won the next event in south Florida by five shots and lost in a playoff the following week to Jimenez, also in south Florida.
With only one Champions event scheduled before the tour visits the Atlanta area, Langer has some time for his injury to heal. He is looking to return to action either March 29-31 in Biloxi or April 11-14 in the Masters, where he is a two-time champion and remains competitive into his early 60s.
Last year, Langer tied for 38th in Augusta and followed with a tie for 24th in the British Open at Carnoustie. He has three top-25 finishes in the Masters since he reached his mid-50s in 2013, tying for eighth in 2014.
Langer won the Masters in 1985 and ’93, and scored his lone non-major victory on the PGA Tour at Hilton Head in ’85 the week after his first triumph in Augusta. He also has 61 official international victories, the vast majority of them in Europe, where he spent most of his professional career until joining the Champions Tour. He has hopes of catching Hale Irwin, who holds the Champions Tour record of career victories with 45.
Along with Langer, the other five former champions of the Mitsubishi Electric Classic have already entered the field for this year’s event, which will be played April 19-21. Jimenez, Browne, 2016 winner Woody Austin, Ames and Flesch are in the field, which includes 42 of last year’s top 50 money winners with more than a month left before the tournament tees off.
Other players who have already signed up include all the Georgians on the 2019 Champions Tour – Billy Andrade, Scott Dunlap, Larry Mize, Larry Nelson, Scott Parel and Gene Sauers.
At the age of 71, Nelson is nearing the end of his distinguished Champions Tour career. The Marietta resident has been an annual participant at Sugarloaf, and will be looking to shoot his age in this year’s tournament, a feat he achieved on the tour last year.
Mize has played in all six Champions Tour events at Sugarloaf, with his best finish a tie for 15th in 2014. Savannah’s Sauers, the 2016 U.S. Senior Open champion, has also competed in all six, with a tie for 14th last year his best showing.
Andrade, an Atlanta resident, and Dunlap, who lives in Duluth, have played in the tournament each of the last five years. They have three top-20 finishes each, with Andrade placing eighth in 2016 and Dunlap 12th in his first appearance in 2014 and T14 last year. Dunlap missed the first five tournaments on the 2019 schedule after undergoing off-season wrist surgery.
Augusta’s Parel emerged as a surprise star on the Champions Tour last year after never playing on the PGA Tour other than a handful of starts as a Monday qualifier. He started his Champions Tour career as a Monday qualifier in 2016, and was the winner at tour Q-school late that year to earn full-time status. He won three times last year, the first in an unofficial event, and finished the year fifth in earnings. He also had four runner-up finishes, including a playoff loss at Sugarloaf after shooting 64 in the final round.
Other top players already entered include Vijay Singh, Scott McCarron, David Toms, Colin Montgomerie and Jerry Kelly, along with long-time Champions Tour standouts like Jay Haas, Tom Watson, Tom Kite and Mark O’Meara, who was a recent tournament winner at the age of 62.
The Mitsubishi Electric Classic is played the week after the Masters and the same week as the PGA Tour stop at Hilton Head, which causes a potential conflict for a handful of Champions Tour players.
Fred Couples was fourth in his only appearance in the event in 2014, as his bad back makes it difficult for him to walk the hilly terrain in Augusta and Duluth in consecutive weeks. However, Couples is healthier than he has been in some time and played in four of the first five tournaments on this year’s schedule.
St. Simons resident Davis Love is unlikely to play at Sugarloaf as long as the event is played the same week as the PGA Tour visits Hilton Head, and is one of several Champions Tour players who continue to compete on the PGA Tour. Singh and Kelly both played at Sugarloaf last year, and tournament officials would like to add Steve Stricker to the field, as well as Champions Tour rookie Retief Goosen along with Darren Clarke, who joined the tour last year.
Other veterans not yet entered include Kenny Perry, Tom Lehman and Rocco Mediate, as well as fan favorite John Daly.
Perhaps the tournament’s biggest draw will be former Atlanta Braves pitcher and Fox Sports baseball broadcaster John Smoltz, who was issued a sponsor invitation. Smoltz qualified for last year’s U.S. Senior Open and played in the recent Champions Tour event in Tucson, also on a sponsor invite. He played very respectably, finishing just outside the top 50 with a 1-over total for 54 holes. Earlier this year, Smoltz won a celebrity event played concurrently with the LPGA Tour’s season opener in Florida.
Tournament week for the Mitsubishi Electric Class begins on Monday, April 15 a pro-am hosted by Sugarloaf resident Stewart Cink. Full pro-ams will be played Wednesday and Thursday, with the tournament beginning on Friday. All three rounds will be broadcast on the Golf Channel.
A tournament pre-qualifier will be held on April 11 at Chateau Elan’s Chateau course, with the final qualifier set for April 15 at Berkeley Hills CC. The top four finishers earn spots in the tournament field.
Daily tickets are $20 if purchased in advance, with weekly badges going for $55 and good for Wednesday through Sunday. For more information, visit the tournament’s web site at www.mitsubishielectricclassic.com