Champions could be headed for tight finish

Constellation field, 2005 season point to crowded conclusion Sunday


September 16, 2005|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

Predicting a winner for the Constellation Energy Classic is hard.

Forecasting a tight finish come Sunday's final round at Hayfields Country Club is easy.

It's been a crowded season on the Champions Tour, where the past 14 events have produced as many winners, from Jim Thorpe in May to Tom Watson at the Senior British Open in July and Hale Irwin two weeks ago.

They've had to go to a playoff eight times this season. Only once since it opened for business in 1980 has the 50-and-over set produced more drama.

Only once has an event that's been in Baltimore since 1998 had a margin of victory bigger than a stroke. Twice it has gone to a playoff, and the guys at the Golf Channel know that Sunday could go beyond a final-round window scheduled to close at 4 p.m.

What gives?

"Hale hasn't run away and won five, six, seven times like he's accustomed to," Dana Quigley said. "Seriously, we've got a group of guys who are playing well every week. When we start playing Friday morning, we know we have to go low. You want to win, you have to suck it up and be aggressive."

Quigley, who leads the Champions Tour in earnings and scoring average this season, is one of its four multiple winners. One-time Morgan State football player Thorpe and Ireland's Des Smyth are also here, but Irwin, the most dominant player in tour history, is out with a back problem.

Peter Jacobsen, whose company is operating the CEC, sends his regrets, as he's recuperating from knee surgery. Mark McNulty, the 2004 Rookie of the Year, is also on the shelf after minor surgery for skin cancer. Craig Stadler and Loren Roberts, who's kept his focus on the PGA Tour this season, are also absent.

Tournament director Joe Rotellini can't complain, however, as the threat of Hurricane Ophelia has given way to a decent weekend forecast and a favorable spot on the calendar has conspired to deliver two of the men who made the Champions Tour a viable television product.

Lee Trevino, one of the game's great showmen, will play for the first time since January, thanks to back surgery he sought in Germany. Thanks to next week's Presidents Cup in Gainesville, Va., International captain Gary Player is in the CEC field.

At the other end of the Champions Tour spectrum is a rookie class that includes Curtis Strange, the only man to repeat at the U.S. Open in the last five decades. Strange, who turned 50 in January, had spent most of his 40s as an ABC analyst.

"I'm to the point of being impatient," said Strange, who has one top 10 in 14 starts this season. "It's taking a bit longer than I thought, getting the rust off, doing things you took for granted when you were 25. If they [shots] go where I'm looking ..."

Strange, who was born in Norfolk, last remembers playing in the Baltimore area in 1971, in a junior event. Watson came to town early and played a benefit for ALS research on Monday at Caves Valley. The $1.7 million CEC is still getting a bump from the 2002 U.S. Senior Open there.

"There's no question," said Tom Kite, "that gave the area a lot of credibility."

Kite and company wouldn't be here, however, if Hayfields hadn't proved itself as a venue. On Wednesday, Watson said the course was playing "soft," and hopes that the greens firm up. Strange acknowledged that "that's life in the Mid-Atlantic. You've got to keep water on them, to keep this grass growing."

High temperatures at night and high humidity during the day were a beaker for the pythium blight that wreaked havoc on many of the area's finest courses this summer. Charlie Ulevich, the director of course maintenance at Hayfields, avoided that hazard. He played yesterday's Pro-Am with Quigley, who said that conditions at Hayfields are primed for another low score on a tour where the average winning score this season has been 12-under.

"You have to go for the throat from the beginning," Quigley said. "You've got to get to 15-under, we figure."

NOTES: There will be a two-tee start for the second and third rounds, with the first threesomes going off Nos. 1 and 10 at approximately 9:30 a.m. ... Gil Morgan, 59, is ready to bust out of his first winless season on the Champions Tour. In the last six tournaments, he has four top-five finishes. ... Gary McCord and Lanny Wadkins of CBS and NBC's Gary Koch and Bob Murphy are known for their work as TV analysts. ... Wayne Levi tied the tournament record with a first-round 64 last year and became its first wire-to-wire winner.

Tournament data

What: Champions Tour Constellation Energy Classic

When: Today-Sunday

Where: Hayfields Country Club

TV: Golf Channel, 1:30 p.m. to 4 p.m. each day

What's different

How is the Champions Tour different from the PGA Tour?

3 rounds (as opposed to 4)

Smaller field (78 as opposed to 156)

No cut

Regroup after Round 1

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