The PGA Tour Champions return to TPC Sugarloaf in Duluth for a fourth time this month, with a strong field expected to battle for a title on one of the tour’s strongest courses
The Mitsubishi Electric Classic is scheduled for April 15-17, with tournament week beginning April 11 with the Matt Ryan Celebrity-Am Classic. The State Bank Pro-Am will be played Wednesday and Thursday of tournament week, with the 54-hole Champions Tour event teeing off on Friday.
The tournament has a purse of $1.8 million, with the winner taking home $270,000.
After serving as presenting sponsor the past three years, Mitsubishi Electric has assumed title sponsorship for 2016, ensuring that the tournament will remain in metro Atlanta for the immediate future.
Leading the field for this month’s tournament is Bernhard Langer, the top player on the Champions Tour since 2008 and the winner of the first Champions Tour event at Sugarloaf in 2013.
Langer has finished as the tour’s leading money winner seven of the last eight years, with an injury in 2011 keeping him from possibly going 8-for-8. He was the leading money winner at an early stage of the 2016 season, collecting his 27th career Champions victory in Naples, Fla.
Prior to playing in the inaugural Champions Tour event at Sugarloaf in 2013, Langer had never played the course during his years on the PGA Tour, but quickly acclimated to the Greg Norman design a few days after making a run at a third Masters title at the age of 55.
After a 73 in the rain-delayed opening round, Langer followed with a tournament best 66 to move within one of the lead after 36 holes. He closed with 67 for a 10-under 206 total, three shots ahead of Tom Lehman and Tom Pernice, who tied for second.
Langer bettered his 54-hole mark by two shots in 2014, but had to settle for second place at Sugarloaf, as Miguel Angel Jimenez won his Champions Tour debut, one week after finishing fourth in the Masters thanks to a final round 66. Jimenez shot a 65 at Sugarloaf in cold, rainy conditions to take a 3-stroke lead after the opening round, and was one in front of Langer after a 70 the next day.
The final pairing in the final round matched Jimenez, Langer and Fred Couples, who was two shots behind Jimenez. The colorful Spaniard fired a 67 to finish two ahead of Langer and five in front of Couples, who finished fourth.
For the third straight year, the tournament was hampered by inclement weather in 2015, with the first round halted by afternoon showers. Conditions improved enough for the first and second rounds to be completed the next day, which was fortunate because heavy overnight rain made the course unplayable for Sunday’s scheduled final round.
Olin Browne, who had not won on the Champions Tour since the 2011 U.S. Senior Open, wound up with a victory after a second-round 64 gave him a 36-total of 12-under 132, one ahead of Langer, who also shot 64 in the second round under lift, clean and place conditions.
The one break tournament officials got was the second round pairings, as almost all the contenders teed off on the first hole Saturday, making things convenient for both the fans in attendance and the Golf Channel broadcast.
Rocco Mediate moved into the lead with four straight birdies on the opening nine and another on the par-5 10th. But he made double bogey on the par-3 11th after his tee shot came up short in the water. Browne moved to the front with birdies at 12 and the drivable par-4 13th, and expanded his lead with three birdies on the final four holes, rolling in a 20-footer on the 17th followed by his eighth birdie of the day on the par-5 18th.
Browne needed all eight birdies, as Langer finished birdie-eagle to take second at 133, with Mediate the only other player within five shots of the winner at 135 after a second round 69.
The second round was played with the knowledge that it would likely be the final round, as the weather forecast of rain later Saturday night proved accurate.
Tournament officials are hopeful of better weather this month after three straight years of having rain impact the tournament. They are more hopeful of fielding a strong field, with almost all of the Champions Tour’s elite players expected to compete at Sugarloaf..
Other than the three tournament champions, players to record top-5 finishes in the Mitsubishi Electric Classic include Lehman, Pernice, Mark Calcavecchia, Jay Haas, Couples, Mediate, Mark O’ Meara and Jesper Parnevik. Fred Funk, Kenny Perry, Colin Montgomerie and Bart Bryant all have top 10s at Sugarloaf at least once in the past three years.
With the exception of Couples, who is sidelined with a bad back, all those players are expected to be in the field, along with occasional Champions Tour participant Tom Watson.
Georgia’s Champions Tour members have yet to place in the top 10 in the tournament, although Savannah’s Gene Sauers was a contender for 36 holes in 2013 before falling back the final day. Atlanta’s Billy Andrade and Duluth resident Scott Dunlap both tied for 12th in 2014, and all three played respectably last year, with low Georgian honors going to Larry Mize, who tied for 25th. Mize, an Augusta native and Columbus resident, will be one of several players who will be playing at Sugarloaf after competing in the Masters the previous week.
Champions Tour veteran Larry Nelson will also be in the field and is closing in on 20 years on the tour. Among Nelson’s many career titles are a PGA Championship at Atlanta Athletic Club and two victories in Atlanta’s PGA Tour stop in the 1980s at Atlanta Country Club.
The big story on the Champions Tour last year was the emergence of Jeff Maggert, who challenged Langer and Montgomerie for Player of the Year honors with four wins, two of them majors including the U.S. Senior Open after joining the tour in 2014. Maggert will be playing in the PGA Tour event at Hilton Head the week of the Mitsubishi Electric Classic, as will St. Simons resident Davis Love.
The most prominent Champions Tour addition for 2015 is two-time major champion John Daly, who turns 50 in late April, too late to compete at Sugarloaf.
Winners already this season along with Langer include Duffy Waldorf and Esteban Toledo, who have both played well at Sugarloaf the past few years. Andrade lost in a playoff to Toledo in Boca Raton, Fla., and Dunlap tied for third the next week in Naples.
The big change in the Champions Tour 2016 schedule is the addition of two Playoffs events the two weeks prior to the Schwab Cup Championship, with the top 72 players on the money list qualifying for the opening event. The tour will play at Sherwood CC in Los Angeles Oct. 28-30 and in Richmond, Va., Nov. 4-6, with the Schwab Cup set for Nov. 10-13 in Scottsdale.
A new tournament in Wisconsin in late June was also added to the schedule, and the tour is slated to return to China after last year’s event was cancelled. Tournaments in Chicago and San Antonio have dropped off the schedule, with the tour having 26 events as opposed to 24 last year, when the tournament in China and one in Calgary were late dropouts.
Major championship sites for 2016 include the Jack Nicklaus-designed Harbor Shores in Michigan (Senior PGA, May 26-29), its second time as host in three years; the historic Philadelphia Cricket Club (Senior Players, June 9-12), the site of last year’s PGA Professional National Championship; Carnoustie (Senior British, July 21-24); and Scioto in Columbus, O. (U.S. Senior Open, August 11-14), which will go head-to-head with men’s golf in the Olympics.