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Champions Tour Returns to City of its Birth

By: Steve Habel


New Finishing Hole at Triton Financial Classic.

The Champions Tour returns to the city of its birth this week when 79 professionals and a handful of Heisman Trophy-winning former football players tee it up at the newly christened Triton Financial Classic in The Hills, Texas, a western suburb of Austin.

The Austin area - and its Onion Creek Club in particular - was where the Champions Tour was founded and nurtured. The inaugural Legends of Golf, a made-for-television event pairing senior golfers for a tournament, was a hit, with Sam Snead teaming with Gardner Dickinson for a one-stroke victory.

It was in the dramatic second edition in 1979, which featured a six-hole, nationally televised playoff between Julius Boros-Roberto De Vicenzo and Tommy Bolt-Art Wall Jr. It was at this event that the notion of a senior tour took flight and convinced people a second act for the sport's aging champions was a good idea. The Senior (now Champions) Tour was born the following year.

"This event has been one that is cherished by the people of Austin," said Tom Kite, a Champions Tour professional who grew up in the capitol of Texas. "There is a sense of history for the event here because this was where the Champions Tour got its start."

The tour left Austin in 1995 after a dozen years at Onion Creek and five more years at Barton Creek Resort's Fazio Foothills track. It returned as the FedEx Kinkos Classic in 2003, and moved to the Jack Nicklaus-designed course at the Hills Country Club.

Triton Financial stepped in as a sponsor this season and, in essence, saved the tournament. But there are more changes to the event than just its name: this year the pros will tackle a course that will be rerouted to add drama to the finishing holes as they compete in two rounds with some of the greatest players in the history of college football.

The course at Hills Country Club has always been a favorite among the senior set because of its typically firm fairways, sparse rough and lightning-fast but true greens. On the card at 6,965 yards, the Hills plays much shorter because of its downhill shots and the fact that ball placement is paramount.

This year the tournament will end on the par-3 waterfall hole at the Hills, part of a new course routing to add drama to the final holes. The changes include starting the tournament at what used to be the par-4 sixth. The new opening hole is shorter, and far less perilous, than the previous one.

The former finishing hole, a short, dogleg par-5 where birdies can easily be had, has become the 17th. The previous 17th is now the 16th; only the 10th through 15th holes remain the same. "We thought we'd get a little creative," tournament executive director Bryan Naugle said.

The new routing will dramatically alter the finale at the Triton Financial Classic. The new 18th hole also will be more appealing to television and improves sightlines for spectators, who will be able to see the entire finish instead of just parts of it. The change also puts more value on smart, conservative shot-making.

On the former finishing hole, players could afford a loose swing and still recover for a par or better. Now at the end players must negotiate what used to be No. 16, a lengthy par-3 whose narrow green is guarded front and right by a waterfall and creek. The shot is always a tough one, but in years past, players had two holes to make up for mistakes; now it's a do-or-die situation, especially in the final round when the leaders arrive on the tee.

"If you come in there near the lead or with a one-shot lead all you're going to be looking for dry land somewhere," said Kite, who said he's swung clubs as long as a 4-iron in the past at the new finishing hole.

The change puts more pressure on fewer shots. "You can have a two-, three-, four-shot swing on that hole," Kite added. The new finish is "going to have the same dynamics we've always had. Now it's just more crucial."

The format for this year's Triton Financial Classic will include play from nine Heisman winners during the tourney's first two rounds.

"Austin has always been a great college football town, and this will give fans a chance to see their football heroes along with the great Champions Tour players," said former Heisman winner Ty Detmer, who works for Austin-based Triton. Among the Heisman winners playing in the tournament are former running backs George Rogers, Mike Rozier, quarterbacks Doug Flutie, Andre Ware, Gino Torretta, Chris Weinke and Eric Crouch, and receiver Tim Brown.

Other Heisman winners, who will be in Austin during the golf tournament and to take part in a special Heisman Winners Anniversary Dinner, are Texas legend Earl Campbell, Texas A&M's John David Crow, former Dallas Cowboy star and Hall of Famer Tony Dorsett, and 1953 winner John Lattner of Notre Dame.

Originally the idea was for the Heisman winners to play together in a separate tournament. Instead, local organizers and the PGA Tour decided to pair one Heisman Trophy winner with two Champions Tour players for the first two rounds before making it pros-only for the final 18 on Sunday.

The Heisman winners will still compete in their own separate tournament but do it under the watchful eyes of the Champions Tour legends in the same group. "I think the pressure is off them and on us," said Detmer. "For us, bogey is usually a good score and we're just happy to find the fairways."

Denis Watson, the tournament's defending champion, is in the field that begins play June 5. Also set to tee it up are Austin favorites Kite, Ben Crenshaw and Tom Jenkins as well as Champions Tour powerhouses Loren Roberts, Bernhard Langer, Hale Irwin, Fred Funk and Scott Hoch.

Steve Habel is one of Cybergolf's national correspondents, contributing news stories, features, equipment and book reviews and personality profiles from his base in Central Texas. He is also the media coordinator for Bechtol Golf Design, the managing editor for Business District magazine in Austin and works as a contributing editor for Horns Illustrated magazine, a publication focusing on University of Texas sports. He also writes a blog (www.shotoverthegreen.blogspot.com), which features news on golf and the Longhorns.