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Golf Turns Sweet for Sauers

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KAPALUA, Hawaii -- Gene Sauers was walking off the practice range Monday when a small horde of autograph hounds attacked him.
 
He put a few Sharpies to use and posed for a handful of pictures.
 
When asked if he missed the attention, he said, You get a little bit of this on the Buy.Com Tour, but nothing like on the PGA Tour.
 
Sauers is all-to-familiar with the developmental tour, now sponsored by Nationwide. He played there primarily from 1998 to 2001.
 
That stretch would have run into a fifth full year had it not been for one week north of the border in late August. Sauers ended a 13-year, six-month, 30-day winless drought on the PGA Tour by prevailing at the Air Canada Championship.
 
He went on to garner the PGA Tours Comeback Player of the Year award, finishing the season inside the top 100 on the money list for the first time since 1995.
 
Its great to be back. A lot of players congratulated me on my win, which is good. Curtis Strange called me; I got a letter from Byron Nelson. It was really neat to know that people are still behind you, Sauers said.
 
The victory afforded him a new lease on his professional life, and earned him a spot in this weeks winners-only Mercedes Championships on Kapaluas Plantation Course.
 
Coincidentally, his previous victory on tour came in the 1989 Hawaiian Open at Waialae.
 
It just kind of reminds me of where I grew up ' back in Savannah, Georgia, Sauers said of the Hawaiian venues. I grew up playing on Bermuda grass, of course this is a lot grainier.
 
The 40-year-old had no problem with the greens Thursday as he shot 8-under 65 to finish the round one off the lead.
 
He played alongside 29-year-old Chris Riley, who also shot 65 and remembered Sauers from their days on the junior circuit.
 
I was kind of intimidated by Gene Sauers, the veterans out there, he recalled. Youre like, Man, hes Gene Sauers, you know, 'hes won some tournaments.'
 
This was Sauers first competitive round in the Aloha State since 1999. That was the year his 10-year exemption to what is now known as the Sony Open ran dry.
 
Even before then, Sauers had been a quest to rediscover his game.
 
He tried to find it on the developmental tour, and even won the 1998 South Carolina Classic. It wasnt enough to shoot him onto the PGA Tour, however, as he ended the season 21st on the money list.
 
Going back to the (Nationwide) Tour, it was hard to swallow, Sauers said. It kind of made me feel, 'I need to get back out where I belong.' The last couple of years I grinded pretty hard, I achieved it.
 
It wasnt an easy trek, though. There were several times when Sauers thought of giving up.
 
My wife said, You can go ahead and quit now, Ill get a job. Youll have to take care of these three boys. I said, I dont think so. So she lit the fire under my butt, he said.
 
Prior to his 2002 Air Canada victory, Sauers had gained a bit of confidence by collecting back-to-back top-10s on the Nationwide Tour.
 
He was on his way home to Savannah from Texas that Monday when he learned he had a spot in the Vancouver field.
 
I flew cross-country and they lost my luggage and clubs, he said.
 
He even bogeyed the first hole. But it didnt matter. Sauers shot 69-65-66-69 to edge Steve Lowery by a stroke, at 15 under.
 
Unfortunately, the Air Canada was dropped from the 2003 schedule for financial reasons.
 
Thats a bummer, he said. I havent won in 13 years and I cant even defend.
 
Nonetheless, hell have at least two fully exempt seasons back on the big tour without the worry of losing his card; though, thats not on his mind.
 
I try not to think about that. I try to think that this is my only year to do it, and just try to keep playing hard to do the things that I do best ' just keep on going, he explained.
 
As for this season, Sauers said he wants to earn his fourth career tour title, as well as finish inside the top 30 on the money list ' something hes never done since first joining the tour in 1984. He also wants to earn a return trip to the Masters, which is just a few hours from his home. He hasnt competed in the Augusta event in 10 years.
 
I think Im hungrier now. When I first started, I was hungry, then everything kind of went south, Sauers said.
 
Im going to have to grind harder to try to keep up with these young guys, which is going to be kind of tough, but I think I can do it.
 
Related Links:
  • Full-field scores from the Mercedes Championships
  • Full coverage of the Mercedes Championships