Senior Players Championship: What's old is new again in golf at Fox Chapel
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Tom Watson's history of achievement in Western Pennsylvania includes several near-misses -- a playoff loss to John Mahaffey in the 1978 PGA Championship and a second-place finish to Larry Nelson in the '83 U.S. Open, both at Oakmont. He also finished tied for sixth in the '94 U.S. Open there.
Fred Couples does not have that kind of sterling record at Oakmont -- he missed the cut in '83 when he was 23 and finished tied for 16th in '94 -- but he has a history in Western Pennsylvania that stretches to his days when he played in the two-day Family House Invitational that was hosted by Frank B Fuhrer Jr.
Watson and Couples, along with Greg Norman, are the headliners for the 30th Constellation Senior Players Championship that begins this week at the Fox Chapel Golf Club -- a classic par-70 design that features undulating greens, deep sod-faced sand bunkers and four copy-cat holes straight from the Seth Raynor design handbook.
The tournament once had a permanent home, spending 17 years at TPC Michigan in Dearborn as the fifth major on the Champions Tour. But, since 2007, it has bounced around and didn't even settle on Fox Chapel until December. Nearly every player in the field of 81 -- with the possible exception of Kirk Triplett, who played Fox Chapel when he missed the cut in the '07 U.S. Open -- has never seen the course.
"It's another course we're all going to have to go figure out on a Tuesday and Wednesday," Couples said. "But I think it's an old school course and should be a very interesting week."
Couples, 52, is the defending champion and one of just three players to win the Players Championship on the PGA Tour and Champions Tour (Jack Nicklaus and Raymond Floyd are the others). He has won seven times since joining the tour in 2010 and has become the marquee player at a time when the Champions Tour keeps growing with former major champions and established winners from the PGA Tour.
"Our big guy now is Freddie," said Fred Funk, an eight-time winner on the PGA Tour who has won seven times on the Champions. "He's our needle-mover. When he shows up, that's huge. Greg Norman is one, too.
"We need our big guys, but we put on a good show. The fans will be really impressed if they haven't seen a Champions Tour event. They will be impressed how much we appreciate them. We get the big picture. We're thankful to have the opportunity to do what we do. And we really like showing off."
The presence of Watson, 63, is a big boost for the tournament as well. An eight-time major champion on the PGA Tour, he will be making his first appearance on the Champions Tour since he injured his wrist and withdrew from a tournament in mid-April in Tampa, Fla.
Two players who are not in the field are Nick Price, a former world No. 1 who has been out since April with torn tendons in his forearm, and Bernhard Langer, who chose to honor a commitment he made before the Senior TPC was moved from July to June.
It would have been the first time Couples and Price faced each other since they were named captains of their respective teams for the 2013 President's Cup.
"I'll go in there and I'll be ready at the time I'm playing," Couples said. "As I get older, I cherish being in the last few groups."
That's where Couples was just two months ago -- playing in the final group at Augusta National -- as the oldest 36-hole co-leader in Masters history.
"At Augusta, let me tell you, to be in the last group on Saturday, every green we walked up to people stood and clapped," Couples said. "I don't expect that, but I feel like I get that at Augusta and it's a neat feeling. When you play on the Champions Tour and you do well, you're here every week and you find yourself in the last two or three groups and people rally behind you and they get you going, and I like that feeling.
"How long it will last? I'm hoping a couple more years. Guys like Tom Watson in their 60s -- he had to withdraw [at the Senior PGA], but he's still dominating and playing well. It's got to be an incredible feeling, so I hope I can continue that. When we get to Pittsburgh, I think I will be one of the top five guys to beat."