For the past 25 years, Miguel Angel Jimenez has been a mainstay on the European PGA Tour. He’s won 20 tour events since 1992 and has been a word class player for two decades, regularly competing in majors and World Golf Championship events during that span.
Jimenez has won just about every tournament of consequence on the European Tour, contended in almost all the majors and WGC events and played on four European Ryder Cup teams.
But for most of his career, he was largely viewed on this side of the Atlantic as a fairly anonymous European Tour player who made a few mostly unsuccessful attempts at competing regularly on the PGA Tour.
That has changed the past few years, primarily due to video of his unique pre-tournament warm-up routine and the ubiquitous nature of the “Most interesting man in the world” commercials with the comparisons of Jimenez to the lead actor in those beer spots.
His pony tail and affinity for cigars and red wine have made Jimenez more of a cultural curiosity than a player. But lost in the attention he has received for his appearance and atypical approach to golf and life, has been the quality of his play in recent years, even as he approached golf’s magic age of 50.
One week after a career best fourth place finish in the Masters, highlighted by a tournament best 66 in the third round, Jimenez made his Champions Tour debut in the Greater Gwinnett Championship at TPC Sugarloaf in Duluth.
Jimenez made a handful of appearances at Sugarloaf, mostly during his brief stint as a PGA Tour member in the early 2000s. Jimenez enjoyed little success in the U.S. other than the majors and WGC events and has rarely played a regular PGA Tour event for the past decade, concentrating his efforts on the European Tour and the elite events played in the U.S.
Having turned 50 early this year, Jimenez decided to extend his stay in the U.S. for a week. He made the short trip from Augusta to Atlanta for a Champions Tour event played on a course he was familiar with in a city he visited a number of times in his capacity as a world traveling tour pro.
In addition to the BellSouth Classic, Jimenez had competed in both PGA Championships at Atlanta Athletic Club, along with several appearances in the Sarazen World Open at Chateau Elan in the late 1990s.
His record at Sugarloaf was nothing to write home about, but when he left Atlanta to return home to Spain after his most recent to the U.S, he took with him his first American victory, a check for $270,000 and some questions about his professional schedule for the near future.
At the age of 50, Jimenez remains a strong contender for what would be a fifth Ryder Cup berth, and his schedule for the rest of 2014 will be focused on the tournaments that will give him the best opportunity to qualify for the team.
As a result, his Champions Tour win at Sugarloaf may represent his lone appearance this year against the over-50 set, with his remaining trips to America limited to the U.S. Open, PGA Championship and the WGC event that precedes the PGA, all of which offer European Ryder Cup points.
With his wedding a few weeks away, Jimenez elected to bypass the European Tour’s three week post-Masters swing through Asia, playing in Atlanta to assess his possible future and pick up a nice check to help cover the cost of his nuptials.
Jimenez quickly established that he did not stop at Sugarloaf for 54 holes of exhibition golf. In rainy, cold conditions during the opening round, he shot a 7-under 65, three strokes clear of the field and one of only six scores in the 60s that day.
Starting on Sugarloaf’s par-5 10th, Jimenez birdied the first hole he played on the Champions Tour, added three straight birdies beginning at 13th and capped off a back nine 30 with an eagle at the 18th,
Following a birdie at the short, par-3 second, Jimenez was 7-under with seven holes to play, but settled for seven pars to end his day. He missed short birdie putts on the two par 5s on the front nine, with his 30-footer for eagle at the 18th one of just two putts he made of any consequence.
Of his Champions Tour debut, Jimenez offered a predictable, succinct response.
“I love it. Is nice. The people are so nice.”
Jimenez spotted a few familiar faces in the gallery from his previous appearances at Sugarloaf, and gave the hearty souls who braved the inclement weather something to cheer about.
After beginning his second round with a birdie on the first hole, Jimenez gave the field some hope when he went bogey-double bogey on holes three and four. A visit to a fairway bunker led to a bogey at the third, and he pulled his tee shot into the creek left of the fairway on the par-5 fourth and came away with a double bogey after his lone three-putt in the tournament.
Jimenez righted himself with birdies at two of the tougher holes at Sugarloaf – five and nine, and added two birdies on the back at 13 and 18 for a 70 and a 36-hole total of 9-under 135
That left Jimenez one shot ahead of defending tournament champion Bernhard Langer, the tour’s top player since he turned 50 six years ago, and two in front of Fred Couples, the main challenger to Langer’s status.
No one else was closer than four shots of the lead, giving the Gwinnett Championship a final round Sunday pairing of three players who had all made strong runs in Augusta the previous week,
Couples struck first with a birdie on the opening hole to close within one of the lead, but that turned out to be his only highlight until three birdies on his last six holes enabled him to salvage a 70 and outright fourth at 10-under 206. Bogeys at three and four dropped him from contention, leaving Jimenez and Langer to battle it out for a third straight day as playing partners.
Langer wedged his way to birdies at the two par 5s on the outgoing nine, with Jimenez matching him at the sixth. The two players were tied going to the eighth, but Jimenez made birdie after what he accurately assessed as “a beautiful tee shot” on the lengthy par 3 to set up a birdie. Langer had to scramble for bogey after missing the green to the right and dumping his second shot into a bunker to fall two behind.
Jimenez and Langer matched birdies at 10 and 13, with both players driving the green on the short, par-4 13th. By that time, Jimenez had increased his lead to three after another superb approach to the 12th. After both players carded four straight pars, Langer closed the final margin to two with a birdie at the 18th.
Jimenez closed with a bogey-free 67 to finish at 14-under 202, with Langer firing his third straight 68 to take third at 204. Jay Haas ran off four birdies on the first five holes on the back nine, closing with a 67 to take third at 206.
Three of the five Georgians in the field made runs at top-10 finishes. Atlantan Billy Andrade and Duluth’s Scott Dunlap tied for 12th at 5-under 211, with Augusta native and Columbus resident Larry Mize 15th at 212.
Andrade shot 67 the final day with seven birdies, just missing an eagle putt on the 18th that would have tied him for eighth. Dunlap, who shot 68 on Saturday after a 4-under 32 on the back nine, three-putted the 18th for par on Sunday for a 70, with the short miss costing him a top-10 finish.
Mize was 3-over for the tournament after 26 holes, but played his last 28 holes without a bogey and shot 68 Sunday to move up in the standings.
During his career, Jimenez has won four times in Hong Kong, several times in his native Spain including the Volvo Masters, and lists the European Masters (Switzerland), French Open, Dubai Desert Classic, BMW PGA (England), BMW International (Germany), Johnnie Walker Classic (Thailand) and Asian Open (China) among his worldwide victories.
“To play my first Champions event and win the first event I play, that’s amazing, no?” Jimenez said after his victory. “But still, my goal for the end of the year, I would love to be part of Ryder Cup. The Ryder Cup is THE event.”
Currently, Jimenez is not among the top nine players in the points standings, and is part of a group of players competing for three wild card selections that includes Lee Westwood, Graham McDowell and Masters runner-up Jonas Blixt.
At the age of 50, Jimenez would be the oldest European to compete in the event, but given his play at Augusta National and TPC Sugarloaf, he is very much a contender for the 2014 team.
If that’s the case, the Champions Tour will have to wait.