KAUPULEHU-KONA, Hawaii – It was a run that John Cook had never experienced in his long, successful career.
Cook birdied five straight holes after the turn to win the Champions Tour’s season-opening Mitsubishi Electric Championship on Sunday, shooting a second straight 8-under 64 for a two-stroke victory over Tom Lehman.
“I’ve hit some runs of birdies but never on Sunday on the back side to win a championship,” Cook said.
The 53-year-old Cook had eight birdies in his bogey-free round for a 22-under 194 total and his second straight victory. He finished last season with a successful title defense in the Charles Schwab Cup Championship.
The last player to win the last event of a season and the first of the next on the Champions Tour was Gil Morgan in 1997-98.
After two birdies on the front side, Cook scorched the back nine, dropping putt after putt. He birdied six holes during a seven-hole stretch to take home $305,000 and the hook-shaped trophy.
The win was Cook’s sixth on the 50-and-over circuit and his first in the islands since the 1992 Hawaiian Open at Waialae, which he considers one of his favorite wins.
Cook was relaxed and focused on Sunday, only distracted by the Pacific behind him.
“I get caught looking at the surf,” he said. “There’s a nice little left (surf break) behind the 17th green. I said, ‘Boy that would be nice right now – dig into one of those.”’
Cook began the day three strokes behind second-round-leader Russ Cochran and surged to the top of the leaderboard with his five birdies after making the turn by aggressively firing for the pins. The run was capped by a 30-foot birdie putt on the par-5 14th.
After going up-and-down for a rare par on No. 15, he got back to the birdie clinic by sticking his 7-iron shot to 3 feet to reach 22 under at 16, which he called “the killer.”
He tapped in for par on 17 for his first two-putt hole on the back nine and missed a 10-foot birdie try on the final hole. But even with a big lead, he never felt he had it in the bag.
“I grind to the end. That’s the way I practice. That’s the way I’ve learned. That’s the way it was instilled in me playing whatever sport I was playing,” he said. “You just grind until the end.
“You just never know. But I know one thing: Playing the last hole with a three-stroke lead is better than a one-shot lead.”
Lehman, who closed with a 64, had an eagle, eight birdies and two bogeys.
“I felt I was playing real well, but John Cook just kept making birdies,” Lehman said. “I don’t know what he shot over the last 10 or 11 holes, but it had to be low.”
Defending champion Tom Watson couldn’t overcome his three bogeys on the front nine and shot a 68 to finish third at 19 under, two strokes ahead of Cochran (72) and Jeff Sluman (68).
“After three-putting nine, that kind of put me behind the eight-ball because if any one is playing well, you’re going to shoot well on the back nine like John and Tom did,” Watson said.
At 61, Watson was vying to become the seventh oldest winner on the Champions Tour.
“I had too many defeats today and not enough victories when it came to my shot-making,” said Watson, who missed three short putts.
Every one was expecting a showdown between Watson and Cochran. But it was Cook taking control.
Cook pumped his fist twice after taking the outright lead for the first time at 18 under by bending in a left-to-right putt from about 30 feet on the par-4 11th where he nearly tumbled into the bunker.
He had an ugly, downslope lie a few inches of the bunker on his second shot. But his sweet putting came to the rescue.
Standing in the shadow of the palm tree, Cook holed a 3 1/2 -foot birdie putt to open up a three-stroke lead on 13.
Lehman made a move early with four birdies in the first seven to reach 16 under. He made back-to-back bogeys before the turn, but went birdie-par-birdie-eagle starting on No. 11 to put him back near Cook. Lehman birdied the final two holes to slip into second place.
“To shoot 20-under par and not win is tough to swallow,” he said.
Players had a third day of low-scoring conditions with just a gentle tradewind to contend with. Hualalai, surrounded by lava rock fields, $5 million homes and humpback whales in the ocean, has historically the been the easiest course on the Champions Tour.