Legends preview – 2011, page 14
Savannah event held opposite Heritage
Ever since the Liberty Mutual Legends of Golf landed in Savannah in 2003, golf fans along the southeast Georgia coast have become accustomed to back-to-back weeks of pro tour events in April.
First came the PGA Tour Heritage Classic on Hilton Head Island, which traditionally followed the Masters and has been a long-time favorite for players looking to decompress from the intense Augusta atmosphere.
Then came the Legends of Golf, the tournament that gave birth to the Senior (now Champions) Tour. The tournament has moved around the country since it was first played in 1978, going from Austin, Tex., to the southern California desert to northeast Florida before finding what appears to be a permanent home in Savannah.
While the Legends of Golf has thrived during its first eight years on Georgia’s southeast coast, the PGA Tour’s long-running event at nearby Hilton Head is in danger of going the way of the BellSouth Classic and Buick Challenge, Georgia PGA Tour stops that are no longer played.
The Heritage Classic was first played in 1969, and went almost two decades before MCI signed up as the tournament’s title sponsor. For more than two decades, a telecommunications company served as title sponsor, with the tournament renamed the Verizon Heritage in 2006.
Verizon dropped its sponsorship after 2009, and the PGA Tour and tournament officials have searched for a new title sponsor since, to no avail. The possibility exists that the tournament may drop off the PGA Tour schedule if no replacement for Verizon is secured, and the absence of a title sponsor has placed the tournament near the bottom of the tour’s pecking order.
When the sponsor of another PGA Tour event (Texas energy company Valero) decided it wanted the post-Masters date, the tour complied and bumped Hilton Head from its traditional spot on the schedule.
The Heritage Classic will be played April 21-24 in what could be its finale, the same week as the Liberty Mutual Legends of Golf. With Savannah and Hilton Head only about an hour’s drive apart, area golf fans are faced with the decision of which tournament they choose to attend.
Both tournaments will be televised on the weekend by CBS, providing area officials with five consecutive hours of network television time, while giving fans in attendance at one the opportunity to catch some of the action an hour away at the other.
The Legends is the lone team competition on the Champions Tour, returning to its roots in 2008 after a six-year run as a hybrid individual/team event.
The tournament was first played at Onion Creek CC in Austin in 1978, and made its first big splash on the national scene the next year, when the competing teams of Julius Boros/Roberto de Vicenzo and Tommy Bolt/Art Wall engaged in an epic playoff battle on national television.
Liberty Mutual signed on as title sponsor in 1980, and along with four other stroke play tournaments, was part of the very limited Senior Tour schedule that year, which included the first U.S. Senior Open.
The number of tournaments increased to 8 in 1981, 12 in 1982, 17 in 1983, 23 in 1984, 25 in 1985 and 29 in 1986, when the Senior Tour made its first stop in Georgia at Roswell’s Horseshoe Bend CC.
The Senior Tour schedule included as many as 40 events during the late 1990s, but the slowdown in the economy has gradually whittled that number down to 23. The Legends is one of four anchor events on the tour, the other three being majors – the Senior PGA Championship, U.S. Senior Open and Senior Players Championship, which was first played in 1983.
From 1978-2001, the Liberty Mutual Legends of Golf was considered an unofficial event because of its team format. That changed in 2002, when the tournament was played for the first team in a stroke play format. The tournament continued to incorporate team competition in its schedule, with a concurrent team event that involved mainly older or less competitive Champions Tour players.
In 2008, the tournament returned to its original format, with three separate team competitions spanning five days. Tournament week begins on Monday with the first of two days of competition in the Demaret Division for players at least 70 years old.
Gary Player and Bob Charles won for the second straight time in 2010, posting a 19-under 125 total that included an opening round 61. Three other teams shot 61 the next day, including Tom Shaw and Don Bies, who were second at 127. Also closing with a 61 were Al Geiberger-Jim Powell (129) and Butch Baird-Bobby Nichols (131).
A total of 19 teams competed last year, including former Masters champion Tommy Aaron of Gainesville, Cedartown native Doug Sanders, former Savannah club professional Jim Ferree, now a Hilton Head resident, and former Atlantan Larry Mowry.
The Demaret field also included former Masters champions Billy Casper, Charles Coody, Bob Goalby and Doug Ford; and the venerable team of Don January and Gene Littler.
After two days of pro-ams, tournament action resumes on Friday with the first round of both the Legends and Raphael Divisions, with the latter contested over 36 holes. John Bland and Graham Marsh won last year’s Raphael Division at 13-under 131, shooting a final round 63 to erase the 4-stroke lead of Bruce Lietzke and Bill Rogers, who were second at 132.
NBC announcers Gary Koch and Roger Maltbie, who won the previous two years, were third at 134. Also among the 22 players in the Raphael Division field was Augusta native Jim Dent, who still makes occasional Champions Tour appearances at the age of 71.
A total of 33 teams played in the Legends Division last year, with almost every player of any note on the Champions Tour in the field. The lone exception was Fred Funk, who played that week in the PGA Tour stop in New Orleans.
Mark O’Meara and Nick Price were last year’s winning team in a playoff, shooting 28-under 188 before going two extra holes to win over the team of John Cook and Joey Sindelar.
O’Meara and Price shot 62 in the first and third rounds, with Cook and Sindelar opening with a 62 and closing with a 61 to force the playoff. O’Meara and Price won with a par and the long par-4 18th, the demanding finishing hole at the outstanding Savannah Harbor layout, which was designed by Atlanta-based architect Bob Cupp. .
Price and O’Meara, who had not won on the Champions Tour until last year’s Legends, took home $230,000 each from a purse of $2.7 million. The two winning teams in the other divisions split $120,000 each.
Taking third at 189 was the unlikely duo of Andy Bean and Chien-soon Lu, who shot a tournament low 60 to take the lead by one over O’Meara and Price after 36 holes. Lu was a late fill-on for Jerry Pate, Bean’s regular Legends partner, who could not play because of an injury.
Tying for fourth at 193 were defending champions Bernhard Langer and Tom Lehman along with Jay Haas and Fred Couples, who was making his first appearance in the tournament. Haas won the tournament the last two times it was played as an individual stroke play event in 2006 and ’07.
Tom Watson and Andy North won the team title four straight years, including 2008, the year the Legends of Golf was again played in a strictly team format. They tied for 12th last year.
Marietta’s Larry Nelson teamed with Hale Irwin to tie for 8th at 196, with Larry Mize of Columbus and Allen Doyle the other Georgians in the field.
The tournament will be broadcast on the Golf Channel on Friday and on CBS Saturday and Sunday, with all three telecasts immediately preceding the PGA Tour broadcast from Hilton Head.
For information, visit the tournament’s web site on pgatour.com.
By Mike Blum