RENO, Nevada – John Rollins admits he would rather be at St. Andrews playing in the British Open this weekend.
Still, he’s not complaining about a return trip to the Sierra Nevada where he won the $3 million Reno-Tahoe Open last year after tying for second the year before.
The 34-year-old Rollins matched the course record with a second-round 62 on the way to his third career PGA Tour victory last year at Montreux Golf & Country Club.
“It is a fun tournament. It’s got a different feel. It’s just kind of laid back, sort of a relaxed atmosphere out there this week and we’ve got a good golf course on top of it,” he said after a practice round Wednesday at the Jack Nicklaus-designed course that winds through towering pines and mountain streams a half hour from Lake Tahoe.
“It’s got to be one of the prettiest golf courses we play all year with the mountains and the fairways. I’m hoping I can draw off the good vibes that I have here and jump start a decent finish to the season,” said Rollins, who is currently ranked No. 116, while he is 70th on the tour money list with $779,621.
Because he failed to qualify for the British Open, Rollins will tee it up Thursday in a field that includes eight other past Reno champions – Parker McLachlin (2008), Steve Flesch (2007), Will MacKenzie (2006), Vaughn Taylor (2004-05), Kirk Triplett (2003), Chris Riley (2002) and Notah Begay III (1999).
In past years, the 12-year-old Reno tourney was played in August opposite a World Golf tournament usually in Ohio. It’s one of the so-called encumbered tournaments opposite other majors or World Golf events that attract the top players.
“It’s an opportunity for a rookie or a second or third-year guy who hasn’t won yet, where his status is kind of year to year,” Rollins said. “Guys are really fighting for their jobs and it gives them that extra tournament to possibly win and stay exempt or solidify their job for a couple more years.”
Chad Campbell is the only player in the field in the top 100 of the rankings, at No. 93. Taylor, who ranks 103rd, finished sixth last week at the John Deere Classic after a tie for ninth at the Travelers and tie for 11th at the AT&T National.
Stuart Appleby, who has eight career victories, is making his debut at Reno. Others in the field include Chris DiMarco, Steve Elkington, Jason Gore, Woody Austin, Tim Herron, Scott McCarron and Shaun Micheel, the 2003 PGA Championship winner who was fourth last week at the Deere.
“I’m kind of rooting for the old guys,” said McCarron, who used to live in Reno and is still a member of Montreux. “Guys like myself and Kirk Triplett, Steve Elkington, Mark Brooks. You’ve got a lot of veteran players that are playing here this week who have very good records.”
McCarron is serving as the formal tournament host and been helping this week to try to recruit a title sponsor that might make it possible to some day move to its own date.
“The tournament could be a stand-alone with a big sponsor-type event. The players love coming here,” McCarron said.
Rick George, the PGA tour’s executive vice president and chief of operations, said he chose to forego a trip to the British Open this year so he could visit Reno.
“I wanted to see the product we have here. It is an important event on our schedule,” George said Wednesday. “This tournament has elevated itself in a lot of ways already. The only missing piece is the title sponsor. It’s a great golf course that our players love. It’s really a first-class event.”
With it’s wide fairways, the 7,472-yard Montreux ranked as the third easiest course on tour to hit the fairway off the tee (following Silver Rock and Pebble Beach) but was second toughest only to Harbour Town to hit the greens from 150 to 175 yards out.
“You’ve go to be accurate because these greens are tough to hit and the greens are very difficult to read,” McCarron said. “This golf course is built on such a severe slope that there are a lot of optical illusions out there.”
Rollins said the hills take a toll by the end of the day.
“I don’t get to carry an oxygen mask with me so it’s always tough,” he said after Wednesday’s practice round. “I need like a 20-second time out just to catch my breath.”