At the close of a gusty Friday at TPC Sugarloaf, five former major champions had lashed themselves to the Mitsubishi Electric Classic leaderboard with under-par opening rounds.
If you could pick out Todd Hamilton as being one among the majordomos, you need apply immediately for a Golf Channel executive position.
Everyone knows first-round co-leader Tom Watson (4 under Friday), fresh off his farewell to the Masters and showing no outward signs of emotional hangover. His was a lovely and relatively stress-free afternoon at Sugarloaf, befitting a man of 66 with no more golfing wars to win. “I putted for birdies on every hole — I like that,” he said.
Mark O’Meara, who also claimed a share of the Day 1 lead, along with Tom Byrum, lends a familiar name to any scoring standard. Just having completed his own sentimental stroll in Augusta as a former Masters champion, O’Meara continued a form of mastery here at Sugarloaf. His bogey on his closing hole Friday was his first in his past 53 holes on the property.
Two strokes back was Lee Janzen, who might have ranked as a leading unknown major champion if he hadn’t had the nerve to back his one U.S. Open championship in 1993 with another one in ’98. Diminutive Corey Pavin (1995 U.S. Open winner) joined Janzen at 2 under, but is alone in the welterweight flight of former major winners here.
None of those accomplished souls have swung between the golfing extremes quite like the 50-year-old Hamilton, a newcomer to the Champions Tour.
As Hamilton was wrapping up his 3-under 69 on Friday, one of the handful of spectators around the green wondered aloud, “Didn’t he win the Open?” while sounding none too sure of the answer.
For his most-recent birthday, Hamilton’s wife bought him a personalized Texas tag for his car, with the message BOC O4 (standing for British Open Champion ’04). That didn’t clear up anything.
“Everybody asks what’s BOCO 4?” he laughs, “I just say, nah, you wouldn’t understand.”
It can be argued that no one with a replica claret jug over his mantle has chased golfing obscurity with the commitment of this fellow.
Consider some his specs:
Toiled for more than a decade overseas, winning 14 times, mostly in Japan.
Didn’t get his PGA Tour card until the age of 38, on his ninth Q-school attempt. In his first full year on Tour, he up and won twice, including a British Open playoff victory over Ernie Els at Royal Troon.
Confidence is such a fragile thing. Hamilton remembers how much of it he gained in 2004 upon getting a new driver that seemed to fit him like the best pair of jeans ever. And how quickly that evaporated while searching the next decade for just the whiff of another stirring finish (he had just three top-10 finishes in 195 PGA Tour starts after that, along with 117 missed cuts).
Before joining the Champions Tour, this former British Open champion’s most-recent professional appearance was a missed cut at the Price Cutter Charity Championship, a Web.com event in Missouri. Why would a major champion still be chasing it on a minor league circuit, you wonder?
“It didn’t make a difference to me,” he said. “As a former major champion, sure, you want to play out on the regular PGA Tour. But I just wanted to play golf. I like to play golf. I like to play golf when it means something.
“I play golf every day back home (in North Texas). If I have two weeks off, and I just play 10 days of those 14, that’s a vacation for me.”
The Champions Tour represents a chance for Hamilton to write a last competitive chapter to a fascinating, winding tale. It promises to be an enriching one: He has picked up nearly $100,000 through just four Champions Tour events, with a best finish of sixth at an event in Naples, Fla. He could, if he wished, brag that he came in six shots ahead of Champions Tour money leader Bernhard Langer (whose 75 broke a streak of seven consecutive rounds in the 60s at Sugarloaf).
Asked if he was surprised to see Hamilton among the leaders Thursday, five-time British Open champion Watson answered, “Not at all. Todd’s a good player.” Hamilton overcame three bogeys to start his round, putting up six birdies in a seven-hole stretch.
Then Watson ventured deeper into the philosophical woods: “It’s a game in which it’s easy to get frustrated. But on the other hand, you’ve got to realize if you stay around it long enough, it will give you something.”
This year, for the first time since he won the British Open a dozen years ago, Hamilton and golf return to Royal Troon. His three children, ranging in age from 18 to 13, will be there to get back in touch with their father’s legacy. And he will enjoy being recognized for a week — more in Scotland he said, than anywhere in the U.S.
These are days for Hamilton to recognize that golf, for all the detours, has given him plenty.