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Young Guns . . . Again


Editor's Note: Tony Dear is reporting for Cybergolf through this week from Sahalee, site of the U.S. Senior Open. Here's another of Tony's reports.

It's been 26 years since Corey Pavin joined the PGA Tour full-time - 26 years since he felt like a "young gun." Now 50 and playing the Champions Tour, he looks very different than he did in the mid-80s when thick black hair and a thicker mustache made him instantly recognizable (on top of his diminutive frame and rather ungainly swing). His hair is grey now and the mustache long gone, but if he's added a single pound since winning the Houston Coca-Cola Open in his first full year, he's doing a good job of hiding it.

Pavin can still mix it on the regular tour, of course. A month ago, he finished joint runner-up at the Travelers Championship in Connecticut, losing in a playoff to Bubba Watson. The month before that, he tied for seventh at Colonial. Back among his contemporaries, he finished second at the Senior British Open at Carnoustie last week.

He gives much of the credit for this good recent form to wife Lisa, who is performing all his Ryder Cup duties - the ones that don't involve monitoring the team or responding to European captain Colin Montgomerie's latest comments anyway, allowing him to focus on his golf. But despite looking so healthy and playing so well, Pavin is reluctant to claim he's feeling terribly youthful.

"I feel more like an experienced rookie," he said Wednesday morning on the eve of the U.S. Senior Open at Sahalee Country Club near Seattle, before adding he has been a little surprised at the quality of play among the over-50s. "These guys are still in great golf shape. I think there are players out here that can certainly win on the regular tour. There is no doubt in my mind about that."

The reason, says the 15-time PGA Tour winner, is that players in their mid-40s are now very aware that the Champions Tour is looming and that in order to remain competitive they better stay in good health. "You really have to play exceptional golf to win out here," he says.

Besides unfailingly sound putting (at present he's ranked No. 1 on the PGA Tour with 1.723 putts per green), the reason Pavin is still a factor whichever tour he plays on, is his accuracy off the tee. Some would argue it's easier to be accurate when you only hit your tee-ball 257 yards (194th on tour), but by keeping his ball in play so adeptly (over 75% of fairways hit), Pavin is not going to make the double-bogeys and "others" that take him out of the tournament.

It's a game and set of stats that match up perfectly to Sahalee's demands. As tight and visually intimidating a course as you'll find, Sahalee calls for straight shooting, very straight shooting. Pavin says he can shape his tee shots, but not very much. "I can work it a little bit, but there's not too much room side-to-side obviously," he says. "So I'm trying to hit it kind of low, not putting it up in the air a lot."

He didn't talk much about his performance here during the 1998 PGA Championship when he shot 71, 79 to miss the cut, but it's a good bet Pavin will finish higher up the leaderboard this week than he did then. "He's absolutely got a great chance to win here this week," says Golf World's Bill Fields, who has followed Pavin's career since his UCLA days 30 years ago.

"Even though the gap between the shortest and longest hitters wasn't so great then as it is now, he still gave up a lot of length playing college golf. But a place like Sahalee is really tailor-made for him. Great length won't be that big an advantage this week, but a short game like Pavin's definitely will be."

Another newbie here this week is Mark Calcavecchia, who was in second place after 36 holes at the Open Championship at St. Andrews 11 days ago. He finished poorly, shooting 77-80 on the weekend to fall all the way down to 73rd, but with three top-20 finishes in the three Champions Tour events he's played since reaching his half-century on June 12th, "Calc" very clearly still has game.

He'd probably be the first to admit, however, that he's not so well-suited for Sahalee. Ranked 121st in driving accuracy on the PGA Tour and hitting only 66% of fairways on the Champions Tour - where the fairways should theoretically be much easier to find, Calcavecchia is more likely to encounter tree trouble this week than players like Pavin, or defending champion Fred Funk, who has long been the professional game's straightest driver.

"No, the course probably isn't as well-suited to a player like Calcavecchia," says Fields. "Mind you, he did better here in '98 than Pavin (T44). Plus, he's new on the Champions Tour and I think those newly-turned 50-year-olds have a strong desire to make their mark. They like being able to play with old friends again and certainly enjoy the more relaxed atmosphere, but they are competitors and you can bet he'll be determined to win this week."

Paul Azinger, who turned 50 in January, was also scheduled to play his first U.S. Senior Open this week, but withdrew on Monday because of a foot injury. And while it's always disappointing when a player of Zinger's caliber pulls out of an event, you probably won't find many in the gallery that are too concerned about it because they are, of course, here to see the Champions Tour rookie who will draw the biggest galleries and the best wishes of an entire city with him when he tees off at 7.45 on Thursday morning.

No one is bigger than the game, and no one is bigger than the U.S. Senior Open, but try telling that to Fred Couples's army of Seattle fans. He hasn't lived in the area since he left for college at Houston 30-some years ago, but his ties to the area are still strong and his presence here this week is dominating the headlines. And though he actually fell behind Bernhard Langer in the race for the Charles Schwab Cup after the German won at Carnoustie last week, there are plenty of players who say he's also dominating the Champions Tour. He won three tournaments in a row earlier in the year and is a barely conceivable 131-under-par for 27 rounds on the over-50s circuit, 23 of them in the 60s.

Couples doesn't have great memories of Sahalee - he was tied for 13th at the '98 PGA Championship, and never did much here in his amateur days - but insists he loves the course. "It's in absolutely perfect shape," he says. "But it's tough and going to take a lot from the best players to do well. It's just like a U.S. Open. No one's going to tell me any differently. It's brutal. If you asked me what the lowest score was going to be, I would say if you laid the line on 67, I wouldn't go under it."

Of the Champions Tour's new stars, you have to say Pavin has the game most likely to succeed at Sahalee. But if support generated by the locals can have the desired effect, the other "rookie" this year, Freddie "Boom Boom" Couples, will win by 10.

Tony Dear is an Englishman living in Bellingham, Wash. In the early 1990s he was a member of the Liverpool University golf team which played its home matches at Royal Liverpool GC. Easy access to Hoylake made it increasingly difficult for him to focus on Politics (his chosen major) and, after dropping out, he ended up teaching golf at a club just south of London where he also made a futile attempt at becoming a "player." He moved into writing when it became abundantly clear he had no business playing the game for a living. A one-time golf correspondent of the New York Sun, Tony is a member of the Golf Writers Association of America, the Pacific Northwest Golf Media Association and the Golf Travel Writers Association. In 2009, Tony won first place for Editorial/Opinion in the ING Media Awards for Cybergolf. The article (http://www.cybergolf.com/golf_newsa_euros_take_on_the_2008_ryder_cup_matches) that impressed the judges was the one about Europe's Ryder Cup team and Captain Nick Faldo's decision to pick Paul Casey and Ian Poulter rather than Darren Clarke.

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