PITTSBURGH — Flanked by major champions and pursued by big names, Joe Daley stuck to his game.
Twenty years after quitting his job as a credit salesman to turn pro, Daley wasn’t going to back down.
Not with his first victory on the PGA or Champions tours within reach. Not even with Fred Couples, Mark Calcavecchia and Tom Lehman among those looming.
Daley won the Senior Players Championship on Sunday for his first Champions Tour title, closing with a 2-under 68 for a 14-under 266 total and a two-stroke victory over Lehman at Fox Chapel.
Daley outdueled final-round playing partners Calcavecchia — the winner the previous week in the Montreal Championships — and Couples, the defending champion. Daley entered the day tied with Calcavecchia and a shot ahead of Couples and Lehman, who won the previous major last month.
“I was my competition — not them,” Daley said. I’m my own competition. Have been for years.”
After he won, Daley wore the same grin he had throughout much of a weekend in which he was always near the top of the leaderboard but never the center of attention.
The 51-year-old Daley became slightly choked up on the 18th green after capping his victory with a 20-foot putt for his tournament-high 24th birdie.
Daley shook his head disbelievingly sand said, “Wow” four times before four questions were asked in his media conference.
“All I was keying on was what I had next, with the best possible attitude and keeping my emotions under control,” Daley said. “I had a little adrenaline going later in the round and I dealt with it pretty good, so here I am.”
The victory earned Daley full Champions Tour status for a calendar year.
Before this weekend, Daley was perhaps best known for missing out on a PGA Tour card in 2000 when a short putt popped out of the hole during Q-School.
Daley earned $405,000, more than double the $155,537 he made in 59 PGA Tour starts spread out over six seasons between 1994-2007. He had a tour card only in 1996 and ’98, with only one top-10 finish — a tie for sixth in the 1996 B.C. Open.
Daley was a two-time winner on the Web.com Tour but had only one top-10 finish in 10 previous Champions Tour starts.
Daley hit 43 of 56 fairways to tie for third in the tournament and had only four three-putts all tournament, none in the final round.
“I thought he might get a little shaky in the back, but he was solid. …” Calcavecchia said. “He deserves it. He’s been at this a long time, and this is a huge win for him.”
Lehman finished with a 69. He was trying to win his second straight Champions Tour major after taking the Regions Traditions in his previous start.
Playing in the 90-plus-degree heat, Lehman bogeyed three of the final six holes.
“Just a little bit off all day today,” Lehman said. “I didn’t play badly; I didn’t play great. With the conditions the way they were, being a little bit off was enough.”
With the greens having baked all week under the heat wave, putting became increasingly difficult. Lehman compared the conditions of firmness and speeds of Sunday’s greens to that of a U.S. Open.
Scoring was up more than a stroke and a half per round compared to Saturday, when it was a tournament-low 69.5.
Nowhere was that more apparent than among the final three groups. The nine players were a combined 5-over. Only Perry matched Daley’s 68.
Olin Browne was finished at 11 under after a 65. Calcavecchia had a 72 to match Couples at 10 under.
Couples, fighting chronic back problems all weekend, bogeyed Nos. 15 and 16 to drop out of contention. He wasn’t the same after a second-round 63, shooting 1 over the final two days. His back stiff, Couples was stretching and moving gingerly throughout the tournament, finishing with a 71.
Calcavecchia played the worst of the players in contention Sunday. He did not have a birdie until the back nine.
Jeff Freeman briefly pulled within one of the lead with an eagle at No. 2, but finished with a 74 and ended up 11th at 6 under.
Daley’s best finish in 10 previous Champions Tour events was a tie for fourth in the Senior PGA in May. The $405,000 check figures to go a long way toward earning a full tour exemption next season as a top-30 finisher on the money list. Daley also is exempt for next season’s Players Championship.
Daley was at least 2 under during all four rounds, gradually working his way up the leaderboard by the end of each round. Daley was two shots off the lead at the end of the first round, one shot back behind Couples after the second and tied with Calcavecchia after shooting a 68 on Saturday.
Daley took sole possession of the lead with a birdie on the 483-yard par-5 second hole, pulling ahead of Calcavecchia and Lehman. Daley also birdied No. 9.
“I know him enough to know he’s a hard worker, he’s very committed and willing to pay the price,” Lehman said about Daley. “I look at a guy like him and say, ‘Well deserved.'”