Towards the end of his PGA Tour career, Gene Sauers wasn’t especially motivated to play, and walked away from the game at the relatively young age of 43.
Sauers was away from the game for six years. When he made his return, he had a fresh outlook on golf and life after an intervening health scare that almost ended his hopes of a comeback, and for a time had him uncomfortably close to death.
Several years after his departure from the game at the end of the 2005 season, Sauers was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis and prescribed medication to alleviate the problem.
Not only did his health fail to improve, but Sauers developed a potentially fatal skin condition known as Stevens-Johnson Syndrome, in which the skin seems to burn from the inside.
Sauers was in considerable pain for a lengthy period of time, with his condition finally treated successfully after a number of skin grafts to the affected areas.
His recovery took months, and when Sauers decided to see if he could swing a club, he picked up a pitching wedge and gave it a try.
“I couldn’t hit it ten yards,” he said after completing the second round of the recent Greater Gwinnett Championship, an inaugural event on the Champions Tour.
Early in his career, Sauers was one of the most consistently successful players on the PGA Tour, but motivation became a problem once he reached his early 30s with three young children at home in Savannah.
By his mid-30s, Sauers was no longer very competitive. The combination of playing poorly and being away from his family for long stretches eventually became more than he could tolerate.
Sauers managed a brief moment of professional satisfaction when he won his first PGA Tour event in 13 years. But that victory only delayed Sauers’ decision to put his clubs up and pick up a fishing rod on a more regular basis.
Three years after his surprise 2002 win in Vancouver, Sauers was done with golf, and it took a serious health scare to revive his interest in the game he played so well as a younger man.
On his 49th birthday, Sauers made his return to the golf course at the Ford Plantation in late August Savannah heat.
“I had been out for six years,” he recalled. “I shot 71 and figured if I can do that, I’ll give it another shot.”
Sauers entered a handful of late-season events on the Nationwide Tour and nearly made the cut in one of them. He turned in several respectable efforts in Nationwide Tour events the next year, and said goodbye to the PGA Tour by making the cut in the annual low-profile event in Mississippi, where he scored an unofficial victory 22 years earlier.
The week of his 50th birthday, Sauers was eligible for his first Champions Tour event, and carded three straight scores of 71 in Seattle, tying for 21st. In his next start, he tied for 8th in Hawaii, the state where he scored his second PGA Tour victory in 1989. Ties for 10th and 12th in consecutive weeks in North Carolina made it a profitable return to the tour for Sauers, who has continued his excellent play this season.
In his first three starts of 2013, Sauers has finished 14th, 3rd and 17th, making a serious run
at victory in the Mississippi Gulf Resort Classic.
“Here I am and I’m doing good,” Sauers said after a second round 68 that had him only two shots out of the lead heading to the final round of the Greater Gwinnett Championship.
“I’m glad there was no negative effect from all that and I was able to get a second chance at playing.”
Sauers says the level of his play is approaching that from his early days on the PGA Tour, when he compiled a seven-year stretch of high finishes on the season-ending money list.
“I’m playing some of my best golf ever.”
The start of Sauers’ comeback began when he was in no condition to work on his rusty game.
“While I was in the hospital, I had a picture of my swing in my mind,” he says. Sauers believes his mental images of his swing helped correct some of the flaws that had crept into it, “and I’ve played a lot better golf than I did at the end on the regular tour.”
Sauers’ recovery coincided nicely with his approaching 50th birthday, and he received a warm greeting when he made his Champions Tour debut last August.
“Everybody said, ‘We’re so glad to see you’. That really made it worth it.”
Sauers is enjoying life on the Champions Tour, which is much more relaxed than the PGA Tour and fits his laid back approach better.
“The Champions Tour is not cutthroat,” Sauers observed. “Everybody is nice to each other.”
The schedule is also less hectic than on the PGA Tour, with frequent weeks off. That can cut both ways, and Sauers said he was a little antsy to get back on tour after his strong showing in Mississippi. But the Champions Tour was off the next three weeks, and Sauers was unable to follow up his excellent second round at TPC Sugarloaf with a strong finish.
Sauers birdied the first hole in the final round, but that turned out to be his only one of the day. He was even par until the seventh hole, when he flared his tee shot into the thick native grass right of the fairway, which led to a triple bogey. He settled down after that, but was unable to make a move back up the leader board and wound up tied for 17th at even par after a final round 76.
A native and life long Savannah resident, Sauers was a college standout at nearby Georgia Southern, turning pro at the age of 21. Prior to qualifying for the PGA Tour in his first attempt, Sauers won the 1983 Georgia Open, and won the event again in both ’85 and ’86.
Sauers’ first win on the PGA Tour came in Boston in his third season as a pro in 1986, and he finished 42nd on the money list. For the next six years, he placed between 31st and 38th in earnings, gradually increasing his money totals every year.
But Sauers plummeted from 32 to 128 in 1993 before bouncing back with decent showings in ’94 and ’95. By ’98, however, Sauers was playing more of his golf on the Nike (now Web.com) Tour, and apart from an unexpected win in a second tier event in Vancouver in 2002, successful weeks on the PGA Tour were a rarity.
During his stay on the Nike Tour, Sauers collected a victory in Florence, S.C., in 1998, and has the chance to become one of just a few players to win on all three circuits operated by the PGA Tour.
“I’ve won on the PGA and Nike Tours. “It would be great to win on the Champions Tour.”