By Mike Blum
The Champions Tour will return to Atlanta for the first time since 2000, playing at TPC Sugarloaf the week after the Masters next April.
It also marks a return as host of a tour event for TPC Sugarloaf, which was the site of the BellSouth/AT&T Classic from 1997-2008 before AT&T withdrew its sponsorship and the tournament dropped off the PGA Tour schedule after a 40-year run.
The Champions (then Senior) Tour played in the Atlanta area from 1986-2000 with the exception of the ’89 season. North Fulton clubs Horseshoe Bend (1986-88), Country Club of the South (1990-94) and Golf Club of Georgia (1995-2000) were the tournament hosts, with the event ending after the 2000 season when Nationwide Insurance dropped its title sponsorship that began in 1990.
Metro Atlanta, which once had three full field events on all three of the major tours, has been without a regular tour stop since the AT&T Classic ended in 2008, two years after the LPGA event sponsored by Chick-fil-A was played for the last time.
“I always felt Atlanta was the perfect location for a Champions Tour event,” veteran Champions Tour player and long-time Marietta resident Larry Nelson said at a press conference announcing the tournament. “We had one and we lost it, and it’s nice to have it back. All the players love Atlanta.”
The impetus for the tournament came from the Gwinnett County Sports Commission. Norcross-based Mitsubishi Electric Cooling & Heating will serve as title sponsor for the event, which will be known as the Greater Gwinnett Championship. It will be played at Sugarloaf at least through 2016.
The tournament is scheduled for April 19-21, the week after the Masters and the week before the Liberty Mutual Legends of Golf in Savannah, making for at least three straight weeks of tour events in the state.
The Web.com (formerly Nationwide) Tour made its two stops in Georgia in late April and early May last year, and if the two tournaments retain their spots on the schedule, it will be an extremely busy four or five weeks of professional golf in the state next Spring.
The Greater Gwinnett Championship will have a $1.8 purse, right at the Champions Tour standard, and will feature a field of 81 players.
The PGA Senior Tour tour began in the early 1980s largely as a vehicle to continue the competitive career of Arnold Palmer. For most of its first two decades, it was largely a showcase for its most prominent players, including Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino and Hale Irwin.
In recent years, the Champions Tour has lacked for a dominant player, with the current season’s top players a mixture of the well known (Bernhard Langer, Tom Lehman, Fred Couples), familiar (Mark Calcavecchia, John Cook, Jay Haas) and obscure (leading money winner Michael Allen, multiple major champion Roger Chapman and Monday qualifier turned two-time winner Willie Wood).
“There is much more depth on the tour now,” said Corey Pavin, who joined Nelson at the press conference.
Pavin is one of 17 players to win on the Champions Tour this year, with just three players winning two individual events. Chapman, Wood and Fred Couples, generally conceded to the tour’s best player (when healthy) and biggest draw are the lone two-time winners, with Allen No. 1 on the money list largely on the strength of his victory in the Legends of Golf, an official team event.
With the 65-year-old Nelson and 64-year-old Allen Doyle of LaGrange both winding down their long and successful Champion Tour careers, Georgia has just one player in the top 80 on the current money list – Augusta native and Columbus resident Larry Mize.
With three tournaments remaining before the season-ending Charles Schwab Championship, Mize was 28th on the money list and 31st in the Charles Schwab Cup standings, just outside the top 30 position needed to qualify for the tournament.
Former Georgia PGA member James Mason of Dillard has turned one Champions Tour victory over a decade ago into a nice career, but is 61 and has gotten into just six tournaments this year. Current Georgia PGA member and tour veteran Sonny Skinner of Sylvester also has limited status on tour and has made eight starts.
One of the two most recent additions to the Champions Tour is Savannah’s Gene Sauers, who turned 50 in late August and tied for 8th in Hawaii in his second start.
Vijay Singh turns 50 early next year, with Davis Love celebrating his 50th birthday in April 2013.
Some of the most recent players to turn 50 have tried to play both tours, but almost all of them came to the conclusion that the Champions Tour was the better fit.
Pavin has gradually reduced his PGA Tour starts, but was not as reticent about playing the Champions Tour as some of his contemporaries.
“I couldn’t wait to turn 50 and come out here,” he said. “I’m enjoying the Champions Tour so much.”
One thing that has changed about the Champions Tour in recent years is the preference of most of the players to walk, even though they are allowed to ride in carts. Even though Sugarloaf is known as a very difficult course to walk, Pavin says he expects to leave the cart to his caddy, although he admits he will either ride the cart or take a shuttle on some of the holes where there are sizeable distances between the green and the next tee.
Having so many players walk is good for the fans who follow groups, which was occasionally a problem when the Champions Tour played at Golf Club of Georgia and most of the players rode in carts.