Lehman adds another victory on the Champions Tour

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Tom Lehman

Tom Lehman

Some golfers never stop tinkering with their golf swing. Others, like Tom Lehman, simply go with what they have.

 

Nobody can doubt that Lehman’s approach has been and continues to be a winner.

Lehman added another victory last week at the Mississippi Gulf Coast Classic, his second in four starts this year on the Champions Tour.

Lehman has four wins on the Champions Tour to go along with five career victories on the PGA TOUR, including a major triumph at the 1996 British Open.

He is No. 1 in the greens in regulation statistic on both tours. He’s at 80.56 percent on the PGA TOUR and at 83.33 percent on the Champions Tour. By any standard, that’s a remarkable achievement.

Lehman learned the basics from his late father, Jim, and has never forgotten them.

“The grip and the posture and the position,” Tom Lehman said. “He always talked about making sure you turn your shoulders. But he wasn’t a real technical golfer. So I basically learned the swing on my own, getting the basics and then hitting shots.”

Lehman has studied under two men — Les Bolstad, a Minnesota legend in golf circles, and for the past 20 years or so, Jim Flick.

“Les kind of got me on the right path with my swing, and then Jim kind of kept me there,” Lehman said. “I’ve always lived by the philosophy that you find what you do well and then perfect it. What I have done well is draw the ball, and so every teacher I ever had, every lesson I ever had I always said don’t ever, ever, ever try to get me to do anything where I can’t draw the ball.

“If you think I hook it too much, then make it less high or something, but I always want to hook it. And I was telling Jim this, if you ever try to get me to hit it left or right, I’m dropping you like a bad habit. You know, we’re done. So obviously he never, ever pushed that, never even tried to go there. He simply just helped me work through my swing issues until I could fix them in the middle of a round and then always, always keeping the path of my swing in such a way that I could hit a draw.”

Lehman, 52, has moved to the top of the Champions Tour’s Charles Schwab Cup standings and money list ($718,038) with his two victories. The first came at the Allianz Championship.

Lehman’s game was in good shape as the Mississippi event approached.

“I really expected to have a good week,” he said. “I expected to play well. You don’t ever predict a victory. But I did feel that, knowing the golf course is a good course, that it would probably fit my style of play.

“A lot of the guys out here have been telling me for a year, you need to go there and play, you’ll love the course. It’s really good for you, and I think they were right.”

Lehman’s win in Mississippi came 20 years after he won a Ben Hogan Tour (now Nationwide Tour) at Windance Country Club in Gulfport, Miss., in a playoff with Tim Straub and John Wilson. One of the other competitors in that event was Olin Browne, who finished T5, the same finish he posted Sunday at Fallen Oak.

Lehman is the only player to have claimed Player of the Year awards on both the Nationwide Tour (1991) and the PGA TOUR (1996). With two victories on the Champions Tour in 2011, Lehman he’s in position to contend for Champions Tour Player of the Year and complete an unprecedented hat trick.

He’s also the fourth straight former major championship winner to claim a Champions Tour title this year. Lehman began the string with his win at the Allianz Championship, followed by Bernhard Langer (The ACE Group Classic) and Nick Price (Toshiba Classic).

Champions Tour Insider Notes:

Fred Couples remembers the noise. Couples was on the 18th green at Augusta National Golf Club in 1986. He was almost close enough to shake hands with Jack Nicklaus, who was putting on the ninth green. Nicklaus made the birdie putt, the first of three straight on his way to winning the Masters at age 46.

“It was loud and furious,” Couples said. “Great.”

Couples, who will tee it up Thursday for the 27th time in the Masters, was too preoccupied to see much else of the historic victory by Nicklaus until he went back to watch a highlight reel.

Couples, who won his Green Jacket in 1992, has come close to adding another on more than one occasion. He finished sixth last year a few years earlier, in 2006, couples tied for third behind Phil Mickelson.

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Champion’s Tour players can still provide very competitive play on PGA Tour

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Couples and Cook

Couples and Cook

In his most recent start, Fred Couples demonstrated the power of synergy between a golfer and a golf course.

In his most recent start, John Cook proved he’s capable of competing at the highest levels.

Couples & Cook. Sounds like a law firm and that’s appropriate because they certainly made a strong case for the Champions Tour when they took busman’s holidays on the PGA TOUR.

For Couples, there are positive vibes every step of the way each time he returns to Riviera Country Club. At the PGA TOUR’s Northern Trust Open two weeks ago, Couples, 51, asked no quarter and gave none against the kids. For 3 and a half rounds of golf on one of his two favorite courses, he was exceptional. It was vintage Couples, a blast from the past.

With the Champions Tour in a mid-winter break, Cook, winner of the season-opening Mitsubishi Electric Championship in Hawaii, had no intention of letting his good form go to waste. He teed it up last week at the Mayakoba Golf Classic at Riviera-Maya Cancun and turned in a sterling third-place finish behind winner Johnson Wagner.

“I think the important thing to know is the guys in their 50s haven’t lost their competitiveness and they haven’t lost their game,” said Cook, 53.

“If our health holds, which at our age we’re all starting to have health issues, but other than that, there’s certain courses that we all can compete on still, whether it’s Fred, whether it’s me, Tom Lehman, it doesn’t matter. (Mark) Calcavecchia. It doesn’t matter. Certain courses we’ll be able to compete on because that’s what we’ve done. We know how to compete.”

Five of the six Champions Tour players at the Mayakoba Classic made the cut. In addition to Cook, they were Tom Lehman (T13), Tom Pernice Jr. (T19), Steve Lowery (T29) and Michael Allen (T56). Fred Funk, the 2007 Mayakoba Classic champion, missed the cut.

This week at the Honda Classic, the Champions Tour will be represented by Calcavecchia, Nick Price, Funk, Kenny Perry and Lee Rinker.

Next week, Couples and Cook return to action on the Champions Tour at the Toshiba Classic at Newport Beach Country Club. Couples, the defending champion, connected instantly to Newport Beach CC.

Although Couples once lived in Newport Beach, he had never played the course until last year’s Toshiba Classic.

“The important thing to know is the guys in their 50s haven’t lost their competitiveness and they haven’t lost their game.”

–John Cook

“It was the first time I’d ever seen it,” Couples said. “I played two Pro-Ams, and I really, really liked it. I like the greens. I like the way the course is set up. I’m from Seattle, and we play a lot of courses like that, where they’re not extremely long. They’re kind of tricky, and they’re very, very good greens.

“When you go play courses, sometimes you like them, sometimes you don’t. And that one I just liked from the beginning.”

There was little about Toshiba Classic week that Couples didn’t enjoy last year.

“I had probably 50 very close friends that came out to watch, which was fun,” Couples said. “As you know, Newport is one of the top two or three for crowd attendance. I can tell you that it was very fun playing in front of that many people. I played with Mark O’Meara and Tom Watson. So it was a great pairing.”

This is a time of the year that Couples relishes. In addition to Riviera and Newport Beach, he’ll soon be back at Augusta National Golf Club to play in another Masters. Augusta National and Riviera are his favorites and his excellence in playing those courses is well-documented.

In 2010, Couples rode his string of impressive victories on the Champions Tour into the Masters — now only five weeks away — and put on another glistening display to tie for sixth on the course Bobby Jones built.

“I always shoot for the Masters,” said Couples, who won his green jacket in 1992.

It’s no mystery why that’s the case. Couples (1983-2007) shares the Masters record for most consecutive cuts made at 23 with Gary Player and Couples has 11 top 10 finishes in his career. He opened with 66 last year at Augusta National to take the first-round lead and closed with rounds of 68-70. The only blemish was a third-round 75.

There were few blemishes on Cook’s play at Mayakoba. He put a charge into the final round with a 66 on the Greg Norman-designed El Camaleon course in Playa del Carmen, Mexico. His 270 total was 14-under. It was Cook’s best PGA TOUR finish since a T3 at the 2006 St. Jude Classic.

“I hit some nice shots early,” Cook said. “I hit quality iron shots, much longer iron shots than these guys are hitting in, but I hit them all really well.”

Champions Tour Insider Notes:

Couples is picking up right where he left off last year when it comes to excellence on the greens. Granted, he’s only played three rounds, but Couples is No. 1 in putts per round (27.33). He’s also the driving distance leader at 312.3 yards. That’s 17.3 yards more than Hal Sutton.

But it’s the putting that continues to grab Couples’ attention. He credits it for his success during the short time he’s been on the Champions Tour. He was top-ranked in putting with an average of 28.20 last year, just ahead of Corey Pavin‘s 28.53.

“I don’t even know the last time I was even in the top 10 on the regular TOUR in putting,” Couples said. “I know there were a few years where I putted pretty well. But that’s the whole thing for anybody. You don’t do well on any tour unless you putt well.”

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Langer wins ACE Group Classic with record score

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Bernard Langer

Bernhard Langer shot a 6-under-par 66 Sunday to set a tournament record with a 20-under 196 total and win the ACE Group Classic by four shots.

The 53-year-old Langer held a four-stroke lead going into the final round. Fred Funk got within two after Langer bogeyed No. 11, but Langer came right back with birdies on Nos. 12 and 14. He finished with a 5-footer for birdie on No. 18.

“It’s always exciting winning,” said Langer, who earned his 14th Champions Tour win. “It never gets old no matter where or how big the tournament, whether it’s a major or not. Winning is what we’re out here for, what I practice for.”

Funk had a chance to make the final hole a little interesting, but missed a short birdie putt on No. 17 and finished with a 66 for a 16-under total.

“I just couldn’t get them in the hole from there,” he said. “I gave myself some opportunities. I thought if I could’ve kept the heat on him and made a few more of those putts, but Bernhard played great.”

Nick Price (66) and Russ Cochran (67) tied for third, another shot back. Mark Calcavecchia (68) was fifth at 14 under.

“Overall, it was kind of a crazy day,” said Cochran, who was tied for the first-round lead with Langer. “I missed some putts you’d thought I’d make and made a bunch of them you didn’t think I’d make.”

Langer, a three-time Champions Tour Player of the Year, won after what had been a slow start to the year. He finished tied for 16th and 17th in the season’s first two full-field events.

Unhappy with those two finishes, Langer practiced hard this week. He came in with a new driver, even longer putter and three sets of irons to try. He called swing coach Willie Hoffman almost every day and was even worried he may have worked too hard.

“I was pretty tired, but I knew I had to work on my game extremely hard to sort out what clubs to use, what putter to use,” he said. “It all came together at the right time.”

It marked the 10th time in 11 tournaments Langer has won when he either held or shared the lead after two rounds. The German had played well in his previous two appearances in Naples, tying for fourth last year and for third in 2009.

Langer earned 240 Charles Schwab Cup points. Tom Lehman, who didn’t play this week, leads the points race with 454, followed by John Cook, Cochran and Jeff Sluman.

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Fuzzy Zoeller grabs chance to play with Crenshaw in Skins Game

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Fuzzy and Crenshaw

Fuzzy and Crenshaw

It was a line straight out of the movies. They made Fuzzy Zoeller an offer he couldn’t refuse.

“They called me and said, ‘Would you mind playing with Ben Crenshaw,” Zoeller recalled. “What? Do you think I’m crazy? Of course I want Ben Crenshaw.”

That was three years ago and the partnership has flourished at the Ka’anapali Champions Skins Game. The 2009 champions will be together again as one of the four teams vying for $770,000 in Skins prize money this week on the second leg of the Champions Tour’s Hawaii journey.

All eight players in the field are major winners, led by defending champions Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson. They’ll be joined by three-time Champions Tour Player of the Year Bernhard Langer and Mark O’Meara, and for the second year a Fred Couples-Nick Price entry.

The two-man teams will play a unique alternate shot format. The first six holes are worth $30,000 each, with increases to $40,000 for the next six holes and $50,000 for the Nos. 13-17. The 18th hole is worth a $100,000 Super Skin. Ten percent of all the winnings will be donated to the charity of a player’s choice.

The front nine will be played Saturday, the back nine Sunday on the Robert Trent Jones Sr. course opened in 1962. Ka’anapali is 6,700 yards with par 71 and plenty of pedigree. The course was host to the Champions Tour’s Ka’anapali Classic for 14 years, the most recent of a long list of events. Past champions at Ka’anapali include Nicklaus, Arnold Player, Gary Player and Chi Chi Rodriguez, all Champions Tour legends.

The team format for the Skins Game was adopted in 2006. Zoeller needed a new partner after an injury KO’d his original sidekick, Peter Jacobsen.

“When I started playing with Peter Jacobsen, I thought I got a tremendous draw, because he and I clicked right away,” Zoeller said. “Now when Peter broke down, as us older players tend to do … I go from a guy with a suspect putter to a guy who is the best putter in the world.”

In addition to the title they won in 2009 with a tournament record 12 Skins on the back nine, Zoeller and Crenshaw were runners-up last year to Nicklaus and Watson.

For Zoeller and Crenshaw, both Masters champions, the synergy was immediate.

“I’m not going to lie to you, our connection, and our camaraderie, have been great,” Zoeller said. “It has been a pleasure playing with him the past two years and we look forward to this year’s event. I’m one of the fortunate ones. Not many people have the opportunity to play with Ben Crenshaw, or a Nicklaus, Watson, Nick Price, or Freddy Couples or a Gary Player and the opportunity I’ve had to play with all those players over the years has just been tremendous.”

Crenshaw brings his signature velvety putting stroke. Zoeller brings an intangible. It’s what makes the partnership click.

“Fuzzy’s the ideal partner for the Champions Skins Game,” Crenshaw said. “He’s loose all the time, his temperament never changes and he hits the ball so solid. He’ll get his chances in this format. He actually calms you down and we’ve done well together in this event. We’re looking forward to it.”

Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson are the defending champs and playing together for the seventh straight year.

Nicklaus and Watson will again be attempting to do what they’ve done so much and so well over the years — claim a Skins Game title. Nicklaus will be playing in his 21st Skins Game. He holds 11 career Skins Game records, including most career skins (111) and most career money ($2,605,000). His 73 front-nine skins are more than every other competitor’s total skins.

Watson will tee it up for his eighth Skins Game, with victories every three years beginning in 2004. Nicklaus and Watson are playing together for the seventh straight time.

“We’re the old team,” said Watson, 61, who is 10 years younger than Nicklaus. “I hope they set the tees a little shorter.

“It’s always special to play with Jack. He’s always been the guy I’ve looked up to. We’ve partnered many times in other events and enjoy each other’s company. It will be nice to have him as my partner again.”

By the way, the age factor won’t garner the Nicklaus-Watson duo any sympathy. As defending champions, they’re the gold standard this week and the team to beat – never mind how old they are. Watson proved again last week at the Mitsubishia Electric Championship that he’ll give no quarter when he finished third at 19-under behind winner John Cook and Tom Lehman.

“Nicklaus and Watson are always going to be a factor,” Price said.

Price also expects his partner, Couples, to make some adjustments after his Champions Skins debut in 2009. Price and Couples finished third with $95,000 despite some erratic play by Couples off the tee.

“I really don’t see him driving the ball poorly,” Price said. “I think it will come down to who make the most putts, and I’m excited. I think we are going to have an exciting two days.”

Couples called Ka’anapali “a great little alternate-shot course.

“It’s tricky and tough,” he said. “I learned last year. I hit bombs away, and I left Nick in the rough, so I might try to get it a little more in the fairway this year.”

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PGA Tour Hall of Famer is met in clubhouse by MLB Hall of Famer

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Tom Watson

The man waiting for Tom Watson in the clubhouse at TPC Harding Park was a decent golfer once. Also more than a decent baseball player.

“Hey,” an official told Watson, “Willie Mays is in there. Wants to shake your hand.”

Watson could only shake his head. Sure this was Mays’ town, and he was one of the former stars who took part in the San Francisco Giants victory parade on Wednesday, riding in a vintage car, appropriate for a vintage ballplayer, a 79-year-old Hall of Famer.

And sure, Watson made his own reputation in Northern California, even if he grew up and resides in the Kansas City area, attending Stanford, beginning his pro career at Silverado in Napa, almost winning the 1987 U.S. Open at Olympic Club — across the road from Harding — and winning the 1992 Open at Pebble Beach.

But Willie Mays? What a fine way to end a round Friday in the Charles Schwab Cup Championship, even if the round, his second consecutive 1-over par 72, was less than Watson had wished.

Mays had played Harding over the years. Indeed, Watson also had played Harding — 42 years ago in the San Francisco City Amateur when Tom was a freshman at Stanford. That was 1968, and Mays still was in centerfield for the Giants, battling the infamous winds at Candlestick Park as well as the opposing pitchers.

Watson was 18 then. Now he is 61 along with Tom Kite (61 next month), who is having a better tournament — a much better tournament. Kite — tied for second at 134 with Tom Lehman, one shot behind leader John Cook — is the other of the two players in the 30-player elite field 60 or older.

Kite is a month from his 61st birthday. A day earlier, taking note of the passage of time, he had pointed out everyone on the Champions Tour understands his “days are numbered,” that once a golfer reaches his late 50s, consistency diminishes.

“And,” said Kite, “you’re kind of hoping for one good week, then a couple of OK weeks, and then another good week … I mean when you’re not playing well, yeah, you say, ‘Golly, am I done? Am I finished?”’

For both Toms, Kite especially, since he is 8-under par for 36 holes, and even Watson, who began driving the ball well in the second round, the response would be a negative.

“I still enjoy competing,” said Watson. “I still get angry, upset, when I don’t do well and miss shots. The anger still is there. I have to say I still have the passion for it.”

Also the game for it. He tied for 18th in the Masters. He tied for 29th in the U.S. Open at Pebble. That would be impressive for anyone of any age. For a 61-year-old it is verification the talent hasn’t been lost.

Watson was the Missouri Amateur Champ when he came west to Stanford, which his father, Ray, and brother, Ridge, also attended. It was the fall of ’67, and America, the Vietnam War exploding, student protests expanding, was in flux — maybe in no location more so than San Francisco, 30 miles or so from Stanford.

But when Watson came to The City in the winter of 1968 it was to watch the Lucky International, a PGA TOUR event then held at Harding and a few weeks later to enter the San Francisco Amateur.

“I followed Billy Casper,” Watson said, referring to the eventual winner of the Lucky. “I was amazed how easily he hit the ball from the sloppy fairways. He was pin high on every hole. People don’t realize how good a player he really was.”

Maybe, because when Casper was at his best, winning the 1959 U.S. Open, winning the 1966 U.S. Open — at Olympic — winning the 1970 Masters, there was no Golf Channel or ESPN or the sort of worldwide coverage the sport eventually would demand.

We do realize how good a player Tom Watson was. And is. The astounding run, at age 59, in last year’s British Open, only to lose in a playoff to Stewart Cink, remains fixed in the mind’s eye. That opening round of 6-under 66 in the Masters this year was headline stuff.

And yet one of the more enduring memories of Watson had less to do with ability than integrity. It was the match-play segment of that ’68 City Amateur, and Tom was playing the 10th hole, which although Harding has been restored and altered wasn’t that much different from the 10th hole he played Friday.

Tom hit his tee shot on the par-5 onto the fairway and what everyone presumed was his second short of the green. But Watson announced the ball had moved when he addressed it, was in fact lying three, not two. He would lose the hole.

“Golfers are supposed to do that,” said Watson 42 years later. “That’s the way the game is played.”

Then and now, the way Tom Watson played is enough to get a handshake from Willie Mays. And symbolically all who love golf.

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Couples shows old boys how it’s done with a Win in Vintage Fashion

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Freddie Couples

Who else can show you every shot in the book and go from a small blip on his front nine and roar like a freight train on the back. Who else do you know that can close a tournament with a record 63 which included a double-bogey. Who else can pour in shots from literally anywhere and take a two shot deficit and turn it into a seven-shot win with a 29 on the back, you guessed it.

It was vintage Freddie.

Some would say it wasn’t even a fair fight this week from the fairways and greens where Couples would be 10 under on the par 5′s alone, and in the last round just in case you were wondering, a ho-hum 24 putts. Freddie was just a touch outside of perfect on his Sunday afternoon round when his desimated the field to win the Administaff Small Business Classic by seven shots. The closest runner-up was Mark Wiebe with a closing 71.

“I feel like I got lapped,” Wiebe said. “If this was a car race, I feel Fred would have had two laps on me.”

At the start of the day, the leader was Corey Pavin who seemed to have gotten stuck in the pits. The Ryder Cup Captain was ahead by two strokes but self destructed on the back nine. On 13 and 14 he had back to back bogies which lead to a 5 shot-swing. With a final double-bogie on the 18th hole, Pavin would finish with a 74 and a tie for fifth place. This was the second time Freddie had come back from behine to beat Pavin. He raced from two shots back to beat him earlier this year at the Cap Cana Championship. But not even Couples could explain his brilliant play on Sunday, hitting the ball great, putting from everywhere. This was the seventh time he had shot 17-under or better this year and the fourth time he has won.

He should have won a few more time this year but has been beaten by some other incredible play by some other pretty good golfers. He would shoot 21-under at the season opening Mitsubishi Electric Championship at Hualalai but was edged out by Tom Watson’s 22-under. He has also lost to Tom Lehman at the PGA Seniors as well as a second place finish to Bernhard Langer at the U.S. Open and another second place to Gary Hallberg at the Ensure Classic at Rock Barn.

“I hit the ball very, very well, and I made a lot of putts, and all that stuff added up to 63,” he said shaking his head. “It was not you know, there wasn’t a lot of stress, you know.”

There are still two events to play and Couples is 535 points behind Langer in the Charles Schwab Cup, although he will not be playing at next week’s AT&T Championship and Bernhard Langer is. He does still have an outside chance of winning however. If Langer, who had tied for 46th on Sunday, were to win next week, it would definitely make it tougher. Freddie could still pass him at the final season-ending Charles Schwab Cup Championship.

The Cup wasn’t even a goal for Couples at the beginning of the season because he was aware that Langer would be playing 5 or 6 more tournaments as well as Freddie had not even considered playing in the AT&T because he is mentally and physically exhausted.

“If I went to San Antonio, I would be a wreck,” Couples said, “and then I wouldn’t be very good at the Schwab Cup either.”

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