Constellation rich in purse, in history and in challenges

October 04, 2007|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN REPORTER

The 78 players who will tee off today in the Constellation Energy Senior Players Championship at Baltimore Country Club in Timonium are going to be facing one of the most challenging tests on the Champions Tour, on one of the more historic venues in the country while playing for the tour's biggest overall purse.

But what exactly are they going after in the golf season's final major championship?

Is it the satisfaction that comes from conquering the 7,003-yard course, the longest on the Champions Tour? Is it winning a major at a club that hosted the 1928 PGA Championship? Or is it simply a matter of depositing the $390,000 first-place check?

It could be all of the above.

There's Tom Watson, a Hall of Famer from accomplishments on the PGA Tour that include eight major championships, trying to stay formidable at age 58 despite a hip that will need to be replaced and a sometimes yippy putting stroke.

"The way I look at it, everybody out here is a competitor; they're not out here to walk around the golf course," Watson said yesterday. "That's what brings me out. I'd like to beat everybody, very simple. That's how I get my jollies."

There's Jay Haas, who, after a productive PGA Tour career that included nine victories and several close calls in major championships, has become the most dominant player on the Champions Tour, trying to lead the money list for the second straight season and become the second to reach $3 million in a year.

"I don't know if anybody is playing for history out here, because Hale [Irwin] has 45 wins, so as far as rewriting, I don't think anybody is considering that option," said Haas, who has won 10 events on the Champions Tour, including four this year. "I think we're out here because it's competitive, to be able to play quality golf courses for more money than we've ever dreamed of when we all first started to play."

And there's Fred Funk, the former University of Maryland golf coach who went from a 33-year-old rookie on the PGA Tour to a late-blooming star who two years ago became the oldest winner of the prestigious Players Championship and the oldest player to qualify for the U.S. Ryder Cup team.

"I think the guys are really appreciative that we have a Champions Tour and we have a chance to compete at this age, to have an opportunity to have some fun and to be competitive," said Funk, 51. "There's no other sport that you can be 60 or 65 - Gary Player is 71 - and be out here competing."

This week might not be much fun, and there might be a very short list with a legitimate chance to win.

Not only is the A.W. Tillinghast-designed course the longest par-70 on the Champions Tour at 7,003 yards, but it's also one of the hilliest to walk and the trickiest to putt. Course superintendent Tim Kenelly said last week that the greens had to be slowed, but there's no talk of removing the hills.

"Being a new golf course [on the Champions Tour], I don't think any of us really know what to expect and how it's going to play out," Haas said. "Generally, when you go to a new place we think it's harder than it actually is, but I'm afraid this one is pretty difficult."

Watson said, "Everyone is playing it for the first time. There will be some judgments in error."

Tom Jenkins, who has won seven times in 10 years on the Champions Tour, said the tour itself is guilty of that, not only in choosing courses that might be better suited for younger players but also in drifting far from its nostalgic roots to become, in some ways, no different from the tour many players left behind.

"They're trying to make this another PGA Tour, and I think they're going to lose the fan-friendliness they want by doing that. They're making it so difficult again for us that you're going to see people grinding out there to death out there," said Jenkins, who will turn 60 this year.

Bruce Summerhays, who remains fairly competitive at age 63, disagrees that the Champions Tour has become a balder version of the PGA Tour.

"It can't happen," Summerhays said. "We don't have a cut out here. I played with Nick Price the other week, and he said, `I didn't know it was going to be this much fun.' Is it competitive? It's very, very competitive, but it's still fun. Has it changed? I don't think it has. You've always had to beat the very best at their game, and this is going to be no different."

Rick George, president of the Champions Tour, said there is an obvious contrast to the PGA Tour.

"While they're very competitive inside the ropes and the guys want to win - and this will be the best field we'll have this year - they haven't lost sight of engaging with sponsors and fans," George said recently. "You're going to see that competitive nature of the players. What we do as a tour doesn't change because it's a major championship."

How competitive will it get come Sunday afternoon?

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