Strange back in the swing
KA'UPULEHU, Hawaii » Curtis Strange was back home in North Carolina when he got the call.
Seems Lee Trevino, who owned one of the four coveted sponsor's exemptions, had his back seize up on him and he couldn't make the trip to the MasterCard Championship at Hualalai. Would he like to take Trevino's place?
No one had to ask Strange twice. He already had planned to come to Oahu for next week's Turtle Bay Championship. Strange had spent the offseason fine-tuning his game. Unlike last year when he qualified for the Champions Tour, Strange was ready to play competitive golf. All he needed was a little time to change his flights, get his wife ready and zoom, he was on the Big Island last Sunday acquainting himself with the Hualalai Golf Club.
They got to know each other well enough for Strange to post an 8-under 64 yesterday, leaving him alone in fourth, just one shot off the pace. He's not sure if his game will hold up as well over the weekend, but all things considered, he's just happy to be here.
So much so, he and Ben Crenshaw, who's also here on a sponsor's exemption, bought a few tourist trinkets and sent them back to Texas for Trevino; a sort of wish-you-were-here memento, but also a thank you for allowing Strange the chance to start his second Champions Tour of duty one week earlier.
"This was a bit of a surprise," Strange said. "I got the call to come here. I was extremely excited and honored to get the call to play in this event. I don't think I have the words to describe his place. It's just wonderful.
"The golf course is in as fine a condition as any. It's not as tough a day as it could play. The wind has not picked up at all. When the wind blows, there will be some local knowledge and I will be behind the eight-ball or behind some of the other players who've played here. But even if I don't play as well as I did today, it's a good feeling to come out here and start your year with a 64."
Strange didn't have an auspicious beginning on the senior circuit for a variety of reasons. For one, he had spent most of his time in a booth as a PGA Tour commentator for ABC-TV. And while you're around the game a lot, it doesn't leave you a lot of time to play it competitively.
So when he joined the senior set last year, he wasn't exactly ready to play competitive golf. He didn't win. In fact, he hasn't won on tour since the 1989 U.S. Open. He managed only two top 10s in 18 events, but still earned $321,455. Not bad for the average citizen, but not good enough for a man who won 17 times on the PGA Tour.
"You can't imagine how good I feel this year and how well-prepared I am to play over last year," Strange said. "It wasn't that I didn't work at my game last year; it was simply because I had not played much competitive golf in the last four or five years because of the TV work.
"You know there was some hype because I was the new kid on the block. I knew down deep that I had no game. I was very apprehensive and I knew I had to work hard and it took a long time. I started to play better at the end of last year. It took longer than I thought. I practiced reasonably well in the offseason, so I was looking forward to coming out here to Hawaii already."
After trying to describe his round, something Strange hasn't done in awhile, he had a hard time remembering where his birdies came and went. It took 5 painful minutes to describe his 64, something that left media members laughing quietly to themselves. Even Strange joined in, then remembered again just how painful 2005 was for him.
"I hit the ball well today, where last year I was just terrible," Strange said. "We criticize ourselves too much of the time, but I really wasn't very good last year. And you know, the stats will back it up. When I did TV work, I never said anything that I couldn't back up with the stats.
"Because somebody always said you don't know what you're talking about. Well, you pull up the numbers. And I was awful last year. You never know. But I came over here with Sarah (his wife) on Sunday, had four good days of practice. And here I am."
While playing on the PGA Tour is still what it's all about, he's pleased with the transition to the Champions Tour. For one, he knows everyone. He's played against some of the guys out here since he was at Wake Forest. But what makes it even better, Strange is ready to compete.
"After doing 20 events with ABC over the years, I knew what the feeling was, what the atmosphere was," Strange said. "I knew what to expect as far as the guys and the game. But compared to the regular tour, it's different.
"It's more laid-back, more relaxed, more camaraderie, and that's not a knock on the regular tour. But out here, we've been playing for 30 years, we grew up together. We've known each other for a long time. (Craig) Stadler, (Jay) Haas. We're over trying to kick each other's ass. We're not 25 anymore. We play hard, but then we go have a beer together. And that's nice."
Inside the numbers: The easiest hole yesterday was the par-5 10th with a scoring average of 4.057. There were four eagles, 25 birdies and six pars at that hole. Two of those pars were made by leaders Tom Watson and Loren Roberts. The hardest hole was the par-3 fifth with a scoring average of 3.229. There were two birdies, 26 pars, three bogeys and three double bogeys.
Yesterday's scoring average of 67.543 was the lowest ever at Hualalai. The previous best was a 68.053 in the final round of the 1998 event and the previous first-day best was a 69.105 of that same year. Nine players fired bogey-free rounds and there were also 10 eagles by 10 different players. Last year, there were only 22 eagles for the entire tournament.
John Jacobs, who was afraid he would be first off the tee after shooting a 3-under 69, managed the longest drive of the day. It was 365 yards on the par-5 10th.