ENDICOTT, N.Y. – Mark Calcavecchia remembers the good old days, when he was a threat to win almost every time out on the PGA Tour.
“Going into any tournament, my goal was to make the cut. Back in my so-called heyday, that was never really an issue,” said Calcavecchia, who has won 13 times and pocketed nearly $25 million on the PGA Tour. “It was just how high up I was going to finish, and how low I was going to shoot.”
Time stands still for no one, though. His considerable skills have diminished, and he’s more than ready to become the newest member of the Champions Tour.
“Just battling that cut line every single Friday was a nightmare,” said Calcavecchia, who turned 50 less than two weeks ago and will make his debut on Friday in the Dick’s Sporting Goods Open. “When I made it, it was almost like I was out of gas. It was like it was out of the question to have a good weekend. So I mastered the tie for 55th or whatever it was, and that’s no good.
“It’s a great change of pace,” Calcavecchia said. “I know everybody. That will be nice not to have to go to the range to crank my head to look to see who that kid is over there. The relaxed atmosphere of it, everybody tells me it’s a lot of fun. The golf is still super competitive.”
It sure is. Lonnie Nielsen shot a 21-under 195 in winning the 2009 Dick’s Sporting Goods Open. It was the lowest 54-hole total by a winner on the Champions Tour last year, and his 9-under 63 was the lowest final-round score by a winner.
The field this year includes most of the top 30 players on the Champions Tour, and Ben Crenshaw will be making his first trip to Endicott.
When play begins, all eyes are likely to be trained on Ken Green, who will be making just his second start in a stroke-play event since a tragic crash a year ago.
Last June, after playing a tournament in Texas, Green’s RV blew a tire on a Mississippi highway and careened into an oak tree. His girlfriend and brother were killed in the crash, as was Nip, his beloved German shepherd.
Green opted to have his lower right leg amputated a week later and replaced with a prosthetic because it was his only hope of playing golf again.
Then another setback. In January, Green’s son was found dead in his college dorm room.
Green persevered and made his return to the game at the Legends of Golf, a two-man team event in April. He followed that by playing the Regions Charity Classic in mid-May at Ross Bridge, the longest course on the Champions Tour, and finished 73rd in the 77-player field.
Nielsen marvels at Green’s grit.
“He’s an inspiration for everybody. I can’t imagine even getting out of bed with what he’s had to go through,” Nielsen said. “I saw him walking up the steps after he played at the Legends, and it was all he could do. If there wouldn’t have been a railing, there was no chance he could have gotten into that clubhouse. I know how much pain he’s in. You can just tell it by watching him walk around, but he’s gone out and played some pretty respectable golf.”
The En-Joie Golf Club course is a 7,034-yard layout with narrow fairways and short par-5s. It should be easier for Green to traverse.
“I think he was a little worried at first that he wasn’t going to be competitive,” tournament director John Karedes said. “But the other players made him feel right at home. This is a course that’s flat, isn’t the longest. I think Ken will be able to play well. I certainly hope so.”
Repeating, which no one has done in the first three years of the tournament, promises to be a difficult task for Nielsen, just days from his 57th birthday and hobbling on wounded knees. He’s had eight knee operations – four on each – and just started playing again in March after surgery on his left knee.
“It’s going to be quite a challenge,” said Nielsen, who opened the final round a year ago with birdie, birdie, eagle, birdie, birdie to quickly erase Fred Funk’s three-shot lead and went on to beat Funk and Ronnie Black by three shots. “I haven’t been able to walk 18 holes this year with the problems I’ve been having.”
Divots: In his only previous title defense on the Champions Tour, Nielsen finished T2 at the 2008 Commerce Bank Championship, one stroke behind Loren Roberts. … Calcavecchia played En-Joie six times when the B.C. Open was a stop on the PGA Tour. His best finish was a T11 in 1982.