All with Different Expectations
Finally, “Boom Boom” has returned to the Champions Tour! And his many fans at the Boca Raton Allianz Championship can’t wait to see both that perfect swing tempo and the resulting accuracy of his shots. Other notables making their debuts at the Allianz are two-time Masters champion Jose Maria Olazabal and his close friend and European Tour star Miguel Angel Jimenez, the “most interesting golfer in the world.”
One player who knows The Old Course like his backyard is Boca Raton resident Bernhard Langer. He won the 2010 event with an eagle from a bunker in a playoff, one of the highlights of his 30 career PGA TOUR Champions wins that has him #2 on the all-time list next to Hale Irwin’s 45.
The Allianz Championship’s field is among the best in the 37-year history of the Champions Tour. It includes eight Hall of Famers, 28 former Ryder Cup players, and the top 35 players in last year’s Charles Schwab Cup standings.
Couples, Olazabal, and Langer all spent a significant amount of time with the golf writers on Thursday, and what follows are edited versions of their interviews.
Freddie Is Ready to Play Again
Fred Couples, one of the PGA TOUR’s most popular, all-time favorites, was greatly anticipating his debut at the Allianz on Friday morning, following an abysmal 2016 season when persistent back problems limited him to just three starts. A World Golf Hall of Famer, a victor at the 1992 Masters and two Players Championships, and a winner of 12 more PGA TOUR titles, Couples has played on the Champions Tour for seven years and has won 11 times. This is the first time, however, he’s played The Old Course at Broken Sound.
“I love playing down here. I’ve won a couple of times in Florida,” said Couples, who was runner-up to Bernhard Langer in the Champions Tour season-opening event in Hawaii. “I missed playing down here.”
“The back’s doing well at the moment. I hurt it in February, 2016, so I tried everything I could to play Augusta. And after I didn’t play there, I just stayed away. Then I played one tournament at the end of the year just to see if I could do it, and I got through four rounds. Then I didn’t play for almost another two months. If I just take my time and don’t hurt myself, then I should be able to swing.
“I shocked them in Hawaii, and I actually practiced a little last week, so I feel okay. I chipped and putted well in Hawaii and that’s why I played well. I have only played five times in 15 months, but I know I can hit it. I can get it around the course.
“Today it will be fun playing with the amateurs and just getting the feel for the course. I love the Bermuda greens. I know it’s a real nice golf course, and I know there are some quality shots you have to hit, so that’s what I’ll pay attention to.
“We don’t have Nicklaus, Player, Palmer and Trevino out here any more, but we have pretty good players, that’s for sure.”
For Jose Maria Olazabal, 50 Is the New 25
Jose Maria Olazabal is best remembered for his impressive Ryder Cup play with fellow Spaniard Seve Ballesteros and for his two Masters victories. He compiled 21 European Tour and four other PGA TOUR victories during his career. In 2012 he captained Europe’s Ryder Cup team to the improbable Sunday comeback over the USA at Medinah CC. The win was inspired by and dedicated to his late friend Seve.
Serious health problems delayed Ollie’s return to competitive golf on the Champions Tour, but he is well now and raring to tee it up with his old playing rivals. He’s just not sure what will happen at first.
“I think that has been the best part of my being here, to see players that I haven’t seen for quite a few years that I played with when I was on both tours. That was maybe the nicest part of everything up to now. It’s just great to be here. Everything is new obviously. I had a practice round on Tuesday with Miguel and, as we played 18 holes, I couldn’t have been happier.
“I’m coming from a very tough situation with my health the last few years. I’ve really struggled with the form of arthritis I have. I haven’t been able to practice or play any golf actually. I was feeling under such pain that I couldn’t leave home for a year and a half. So my expectations are mainly to stay healthy and to get back in touch with the competition.
“Obviously I followed the Champions Tour back home. I’ve seen how good these guys can play. I think it might take me a while to get back into the competition, and the goal obviously will be to be successful on this Tour. The emotions are still there. At times on the golf course the last couple weeks, I didn’t play well, but I thought about how lucky I was to be on the golf course again. I really enjoyed the company of the players like Miguel, the scenery of the golf course, and the blue skies. You tend to notice more of those things when you go through a time like I went through.
“I’ve been able to exercise properly the last few months, trying to recover some of the conditioning that I had lost, muscle tissue and things like that. At the moment, that shouldn’t be a problem. Yeah. I love competition, I love standing on the golf course, and I love the challenge that the game of golf represents every day. It doesn’t matter how good you are or what golf course you play; there’s always a challenge in that regard.
“I’m so glad to be back.”
Bernhard Langer Plays to His Home Crowd
“This has always been a special tournament to me because I’ve lived here for 30-odd years, close by, which makes it pretty unique,” said Bernhard Langer, who is the Allianz Championship’s leading money winner ($781,135 in nine starts). “It’s my only real home game.”
“Winning at Hualalai was a very good way to start the year and to follow up the season that I had last year. 2016 was pretty spectacular and might have been the best year of my career [in 21 starts: four firsts, four seconds, three thirds, and 18 top 10’s for $3,016,959].
“This course kind of looks innocent. It’s not the longest course we play, it may be one of the shorter ones, but every green is elevated, which means if the ball rolls off the green or you miss the green, you’re going to either end up in the water or in some deep bunkers or just in some tight lies, which make it very hard to get it up and down.
“The Old Course has a great finishing stretch. Four out of the last five, from 14-17, are really tough holes. And then 18 [507 yards, par 5], you can make an eagle, but you can also make a six. The other thing I like is that the grass is similar to what I practice on and play on when I’m home. The greens are usually pretty fast here, which I love.
“Yes, I still have goals. I haven’t won the Senior PGA Championship, for instance. My overall goal is to improve. To improve my swing, my technique, my way of thinking, and my putting stroke. There are a lot of parts to the game that I have not perfected. I’m fairly good at it, and nobody will ever perfect it, but I think Bernhard Langer can still get better in certain areas.”
Billy Andrade or Brad Faxon Can Win It All
The strength of this first full field on the Champions Tour for 2017 is certainly impressive. Of the 81 players competing, more than half have a realistic chance of winning the event. I’m going to go with either Billy Andrade or Brad Faxon, two of New England’s favorite sons. Billy lost in a playoff last year to Esteban Toledo and would like to think it’s his turn this year. Brad is hitting the ball extremely well, and I’ll bet on his short game and putting stroke over the best of the rest any time.
(All photography by Vicky MacKay)