After one of the longest days of golf in Champions Tour history, a hardy group of Atlanta area golf fans were treated to an exciting finish that concluded with a three-way playoff, the second time in six years the Mitsubishi Electric Classic has gone to extra holes at TPC Sugarloaf..
A forecast of inclement weather Sunday resulted in tournament officials deciding to play 36 holes Saturday to complete the 54-hole event. It was the second time in four years the tournament ended without a shot being hit on Sunday, with the scheduled final round in 2015 washed out before play could begin.
Not all the fans who came out to TPC Sugarloaf stuck it out ‘til the end, with regulation play ending after 7 p.m. and the playoff finally wrapping up after 8 p.m. with darkness approaching, almost 13 hours after the second round teed off Saturday morning.
The playoff involved the trio of Bernhard Langer, Augusta’s Scott Parel and Steve Flesch, with Langer looking for his second Champions Tour win at Sugarloaf and 37th of his career as the tour’s dominant player for almost a decade. Neither Parel nor Flesch had won in their relatively brief tenures on the tour, but when Langer was eliminated with a par on the first playoff hole, one of them was going to come away with his first official title.
That turned out to be Flesch, who birdied the par-5 18th at Sugarloaf for the third straight time, scoring his first victory in more than a decade after collecting his fourth and final PGA Tour title in 2007. After a birdie at the 18th got him into the playoff and another one kept him in it, Parel made bogey on the second extra hole when his second shot landed on the bank left of the green and bounced into the hazard looming just off the putting surface.
Parel was unable to save par after giving himself a decent opportunity, with Flesch electing to go for the green after watching Parel ‘s second shot get wet. Flesch aimed away from the hole, cut close to the water on the left, and found the bunker long and right of the green. He followed with a deft sand shot that ended up just a few feet from the cup, and after Parel missed his attempt for par, Flesch holed out for a birdie and the victory.
“You never know if you’re going to win again,” Flesch said. “Honestly, it’s been harder than I anticipated winning on this tour. The guys are so good. That Langer guy is hard to beat.”
Flesch, Langer, Parel, Jay Haas and Wes Short jockeyed for position at the top of the leader board for most of the final round, with Langer, Haas and Jerry Kelly beginning the round tied at 8-under 136, Flesch one back and Short two off the lead. Parel was five behind the leaders at 141 after managing just one birdie in a Saturday morning 73.
Parel and Short were paired in the next-to-last group for both the second and third rounds, just before the final trio of Langer, Flesch and Haas. Kelly was more than an hour ahead of the leaders, surging into a tie for first with a 65 Saturday morning. Also going low Saturday morning was Russ Cochran, like Flesch a lefthander from Kentucky. Cochran’s 66 moved him within one of the lead heading to the final round, but both he and Kelly shot themselves out of contention on the opening nine Saturday afternoon.
Four bogeys on front nine dashed Kelly’s hopes, and he ended up tied for 8th at 211 after a 75. Cochran was doomed by an 8 on the par-4 fifth hole, and plummeted to a tie for 14th at 213 after a 76.
With the lead trio of Langer, Flesch and Haas unable to separate themselves from the pack after steady but mostly unproductive front nines, Parel and Short both made blazing runs early.
With birdies on six of his first seven holes, Parel quickly pulled within one of the lead held by playing partner Short, who was 4-under after six holes Sunday afternoon with an eagle on the par-5 fourth and a birdie at the par-5 sixth to move one ahead of Langer.
Short dropped back into a tie for the lead when he bogeyed the difficult par-4 ninth, with Parel also making bogey on the hole to remain one off the lead. Parel just missed reaching the par-5 10th in two and chipped close for a birdie to tie Short and Langer.
Minutes later, Haas and Flesch also birdied the 10th, and when Langer missed a birdie putt from around four feet, there was a 5-way tie for the lead at 9-under. Flesch and Haas both birdied the 12th to get to 10-under, with Langer again missed from close range on the hole to fall one off the lead. He regained a share of first place with a beautifully-judged chip shot from just in front of the green at the short, par-4 13th for the only birdie on the vulnerable hole among the five main contenders.
Haas holed a lengthy birdie putt at the 14th to briefly take the outright lead at 11-under, but Langer matched him with a birdie of his own, the only putt of consequence he made the entire day.
Parel birdied the 15th to get to 10-under just before Haas and Langer rolled in their birdie putts at 14. Flesch birdied the 15th to tie Langer at 11-under, with Haas losing his share of the lead when he miss-hit his approach shot and made bogey. When the 64-year-old Haas also bogeyed the 16th, his chance of becoming the oldest winner in Champions Tour history was gone.
When Flesch also bogeyed the apr-3 16th after a badly pulled tee shot, Langer was in the lead by himself at 11-under. Her had an opportunity to put the tournament away, but again missed a birdied putt from short range at the 17th to give Parel and Flesch, his last two challengers, some hope.
Parel, one of the longest hitters on the tour despite his short stature, followed a huge drive at the 17th with a lesser effort at the 18th and was forced to lay up. He hit his third within about 10 feet and holed it for his eighth birdie of the day for a 64, tying the tournament record and pulling him even with Langer at 11-under.
Flesch joined Parel at 11-under 205 when he reached the 18th in two and two-putted for birdie, with Langer coming up a little short with his third after laying up and failing to convert his birdie attempt for the win.
Langer again had to lay up on the 18th in the playoff and again settled for par after both Parel and Flesch hit the green in two. When both players two-putted for birdie, the playoff returned to the 18th.
After a well-struck tee shot, Parel was left with a yardage he said was “as bad a yardage as I could have. I had to choke up on a hybrid and didn’t hit it is as crisply as I needed to.” The shot came up a little short and left and one-hopped off the bank into the water, leaving a huge opening for Flesch.
“When Scott hit it in the water, the most important thing for me was to obviously not hit it in the water,” Flesch observed.
“So I just changed my line where I aimed. I made sure that my mistake was going to be long and in the bunker and just clear the water.”
Flesch enjoyed a reasonably successful run on the PGA Tour from 1998 to 2011, winning four times in that span, most notably the Colonial in 2004. But once he turned 40 he began struggling to retain his exempt status, and he lost it for good after the 2012 season.
After turning 50 in May of last year, Flesch joined the Champions Tour, and ended his rookie season 40th in earnings with just over $550,000, with a pair of fifth place finishes his best showings. He started 2018 with back-to-back top-20 efforts in Florida, but was outside the top 30 in his next three events before scoring his first Champions Tour victory at TPC Sugarloaf.
Flesch opened the Mitsubishi Electric Classic with a bogey-free 66 to trail Haas by one shot. Flesch held the lead throughout the front nine of the second round Saturday morning, but fell back into a tie after 36 holes when he shot 38 coming in without a birdie.
Langer won the inaugural Champions Tour event at Sugarloaf in 2013, and finished as runner-up for the fourth time in five years. With scores of 67-69-69 he was the only player in the field with three rounds in the 60s.
Parel, a long time Augusta resident, was among the first round leaders with a 68, but fell back after a 73 Saturday morning.
“I was five back going to the last round and figured I’ve got to get to double digits,” he said after his playoff loss. “I shot 64 and you can’t complain about that. I was fortunate to be in the playoff.”
Of his 64, Parel said he “hit some good shots and made some putts. I didn’t make anything in the morning. Nothing went in.”
Parel began his final round with four straight birdies, and after just missing his birdie try at the fifth, added two more birdies at 6 and 7, holing a nice putt at the tough seventh. He used his length to birdie the first three par 5s at Sugarloaf before relying on his wedge game and putter to birdie the 18th and get into the playoff.
Haas finished fourth at 207 after a 71 in the final round, with Short fifth at 208 after closing with a 70. Vijay Singh shot a final round 68 to take sixth at 209, with Monday qualifier Clark Dennis carding birdies on his last three holes for a 68 and seventh place at 210.
Flesch took home $270,000 from the purse of $1.8 million, with Parel and Langer both earning $144,000 for heir runner-up finishes.