2004: Champions Tour - Another major battle won
Mark James has fought bigger battles and beaten more formidable foes, but that only increased the satisfaction of becoming the first European player to win a Champions Tour major championship.
James, an Englishman who underwent two operations and strength-sapping chemotherapy treatments for testicular cancer a little more than four years ago and had surgery at the beginning of this year for torn meniscus cartilage in his left knee, showed the world that he is all the way back July 11 by capturing the Ford Senior Players Championship at the TPC of Michigan.
James, a seven-time member of the European Ryder Cup team and its captain in 1999, shot 13-under-par 275 and survived sun-baked fairways and thirsty greens to win by one stroke over another European, Jose Maria Canizares of Spain.
James spoke candidly following his victory about his battle with cancer in late 2000-early 2001, saying at one point he wasn’t sure he would play golf again and that it took nearly two years to fully regain his strength. But the 18-time winner on the PGA European Tour wasn’t buying any talk of a new perspective.
“I don’t think I have a new look on where golf fits into my life, or anything like that,” he said. “Golf wasn’t life or death before my cancer, and it’s not life or death now. It’s a wonderful way to make a living, and I consider myself very lucky to be able to do it, but it’s never been the end-all.”
James took a three-stroke lead after three rounds, and said he thought he might need to get to 17 under to win. Instead, with the TPC greens burnt and rock-hard, James shot 73 Sunday and 13 under was good enough. He realized early in the final round that the conditions were tougher, and he started aiming toward the middle of the greens, calling the pins “nearly inaccessible.”
“They had the pins in places that were very narrow, and the ball was bouncing so much you didn’t dare go at them,” James said. “They turned this course, which started as a friendly little fellow, into a ruthless menace. So I thought conservative play was the best way to survive.”
Survival of the greens themselves was a question. Many were brown and distressed to near death and some players were none too pleased with conditions – particularly on Sunday.
“We came out Thursday, and they had the course in great shape,” said Doug Tewell, who was at 6 under through three rounds, but slipped to 2 under after battling the elements Sunday. “Then, they decide not to water the greens the rest of the week. It was ridiculous.
“I blame Bruce Sudderth (tournament director for the Champions Tour) for this. It’s not the first time he’s done this, and it won’t be the last, I’m sure. But, I think it takes away from the show. I hit the ball pretty well and shot 76 because the greens were dead and the ball was bouncing all over the place.”
Countered Rick George, president of the Champions Tour: “We had major championship conditions, and we ended up with a major champion.”
James, who said he was “just pleased to earn a card for the Champions Tour, let alone win a tournament, let alone a major,” earned $375,000.
He spoke after his victory about the lack of European players on the Champions Tour, and how surprising it was that it took 24 years for the first European to win a Champions Tour major.
Certainly, there are European players on the tour, but none of James’ stature.
He is a former member of the PGA European Tour’s Tournament Committee, he was part of Ryder Cup captain Sam Torrance’s “back room” committee that was consulted for selection for the 2002 team which won the Cup at The Belfry and he is a frequent television commentator for European Tour events. James’ victory at the Ford Senior Players will no doubt spur interest overseas.
“I think you’re going to see more European players coming over to play this tour,” said Mark McNulty, who was born in Zimbabwe, played out of Sunningdale, England, before moving to the States and won the 2004 Outback Steakhouse Pro-Am in February.
“It’s difficult to break in and establish yourself over here, being so far away from home. But once you get yourself to where you can make your own schedule, it’s not so bad. However, the task of getting to that point isn’t easy.”
It also is difficult to close out a major championship victory. Just ask Canizares, who made double bogey on Nos. 14 and 17 in the final round. He birdied No. 16 to take a one-shot lead, but when he inexplicably chunked a short-iron shot dead left into a pond off the 17th fairway, James’ path to victory was clear.
“Not bad luck,” said Canizares, who shot 71 Sunday. “Just bad play.”
Canizares made a run, but the late mistakes were his undoing. James outlasted his European counterpart, he made it through the treacherous conditions at TPC of Michigan and he turned back a case of the nerves that left him “unsteady and insecure” coming down the stretch.
In other words, Mark James survived.
He has been here before.