When Savannah native Gene Sauers left the PGA Tour in 2005, he did not expect to return to golf as a profession.
Six years later, Sauers was told he had only about a 25 percent chance of survival as a result of a mysterious skin ailment he contracted that doctors could neither diagnose nor treat.
Fortunately for Sauers, his condition was finally diagnosed and treated, and he was able to return to his livelihood at the age of 49 after an absence of seven years.
Sauers returned to golf with the hope of competing on the Champions Tour, and played well in a brief stint on the tour after turning 50 in the summer of 2012. Any questions Sauers had about successfully competing on the tour in 2013 were quickly answered, as he placed third in his second start as a “rookie,” tied for second in his hometown of Savannah in the Legends of Golf team event and got into a playoff the following week in Houston,.
He finished the year among the top 20 on the money list and had an even better year in 2014, moving up to 14th in earnings with another playoff loss, this time in the U.S. Senior Open at Oak Tree.
Two years after losing in extra holes to Colin Montgomerie in the U.S. Senior Open, Sauers again found himself in contention for the most coveted title on the Champions Tour, competing against another one of Europe’s elite players over the age of 50.
Sauers battled Spain’s Miguel Angel Jimenez for 18 holes in the rain-delayed final round at Scioto CC outside Columbus, O., outplaying the colorful Spaniard over the tense final holes to capture a trophy that barely eluded him two years earlier.
Less than a week shy of his 54th birthday, and just five years removed from his return to golf after his lengthy stay on the sidelines, Sauers is the champion of the most prestigious event in senior golf. He shot 3-under 277 to edge Jimenez and Billy Mayfair by one stroke each, earning $675,000 to move from 34th to 4th on the Champions Tour money list.
“I can’t put it into words. I’m speechless,” Sauers said after his victory, which had to wait an extra day after the scheduled fourth round was completely washed out the day before.
Thoughts of his heartbreaking loss to Montgomerie two years earlier were fresh in Sauers’ memory, but proved to be a positive force as he battled Jimenez down the stretch.
“The more times you’re in there, the easier it’s going to be,” Sauers said. “I’m not saying it was easy today, but I got it done.”
Two years ago, Sauers surged to a 4-shot lead over Montgomerie after firing a third round 68, but after leading for most of the final round, wound up in a three-hole playoff, which Montgomerie won.
This time, Sauers began the final round one shot out of the lead after hanging close to the top of the leader board the first two days. Sauers opened with scores of 68 and 69 to trail by two at the end of both rounds, and closed with birdies on two of the final three holes in the third round for a 71 to enter the final day of play one behind Jimenez in outright second.
When Sauers holed a 35-footer for birdie on the first hole of the rain-delayed final round and Jimenez made double bogey on the second, Sauers was suddenly two shots in front and held the lead for most of the day. After both players birdied the third, Sauers bogeyed the fourth to lose one shot of his lead, and the margin held firmly at one shot for the next 10 holes before Jimenez took the lead with a birdie at the 14th to Sauers’ bogey.
During that 10-hole stretch, Sauers carded nine pars and a birdie on the par-5 12th, but had to struggle to make bogey on the 14th, holing a clutch putt to limit the damage.
Sauers had chances for birdie at both 16 and 17 after a pair of outstanding iron shots, but could not capitalize on the opportunities. When Jimenez bogeyed the 17th, the two went to the final hole tied, but both players drove in the rough on the 18th, needing pars to stay ahead of Mayfair.
Jimenez was unable to save par after hitting his second shot on the par-4 finishing hole into a greenside bunker, but Sauers chipped to about five feet for a winning par after just missing the green with his approach from the rough that had to deal with a tree that obstructed his second shot.
“I lipped out to win a couple of years ago,” Sauers recalled. “I said, ‘Just don’t let this one get away’.”
This time, he holed the putt for the victory, Sauers’ first since he scored a surprise win in 2002 in a now-defunct PGA Tour event in Vancouver.
Sauers won three times during his PGA Tour career, his first two coming in 1986 and ’89, his third and sixth seasons on tour. Sauers played his college golf at Georgia Southern and turned pro in 1984, going straight to the PGA Tour.
From 1986 to ’92, Sauers was a remarkably consistent performer, placing between 31st and 42nd on the money list all seven years. But after finishing outside the top 125 in 1993, Sauers never regained the consistency he displayed the previous seven years, and was effectively done as a productive PGA Tour player after two respectable seasons in 1994 and ’95.
Other than his one week revival in Vancouver in 2002, Sauers never finished higher than 148 on the money list after ’95, and called it quits at the age of 43 in 2005.
“I got to really just hitting it awful, driving myself crazy, missing putts. I was really fed up with the game,’ Sauers said of his decision to step away. “I was about to pull my hair out of my head.”
Sauers worked hard to make his way back to the PGA Tour after losing his game in the late 1990s, spending five seasons playing mainly on what is now the Web.com Tour before his victory in Vancouver offered the prospect of a legitimate comeback. But he did not threaten the top 125 in either 2003 or ’04, and after playing a limited schedule the next year, put his clubs away.
“After I didn’t finish in the top 125, I said. ‘This is it. I’m done’.”
Physically, Sauers was OK when he called it quits, but things changed a few years later. Arthritis began to attack Sauers’ joints, and for a while he said he “couldn’t get off the couch.” Then his mysterious skin condition began to manifest, with the skin on his arms and legs starting to turn black and burning from the inside out.
“I saw the light at the end of a tunnel and I was heading there,” Sauers recalled before doctors finally reversed the deterioration of his health.
With his 50th birthday approaching, Sauers decided to give golf another shot, and made a dozen starts in late 2011 and ’12, primarily on the Web.com Tour, with an eye on August 2012, when he reached golf’s magic number for career mulligans. His first three-plus seasons on the Champions Tour produced four runner-up finishes, four thirds and a total of 15 top 10s, with Sauers qualifying for the season-ending Charles Schwab Cup all three years.
Prior to his U.S. Senior Open victory, Sauers had contended only once this year, tying for fourth in a first-year event in Wisconsin, but was 12th, 14th and 18th in the first three majors of 2016. As the U.S. Senior Open champion, Sauers will be eligible to compete in the 2017 U.S. Open, which will be played at Erin Hills in Wisconsin.