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Hal Sutton set for senior debut

Hal Sutton felt comfortable immediately when he arrived at The Woodlands Country Club this week to prepare for his debut on the Champions Tour.

Sutton turned 50 on April 28, but only found the urge to return to competitive golf in the last month. He hasn’t entered a tournament since the 2006 Nissan Open and has only played about 40 rounds in the past four years.

Sutton decided to launch his second playing career at this week’s Administaff Small Business Classic because it was being held close to his Shreveport, La., home and on one of his favorite courses. He won the Houston Open at The Woodlands in 2001, the last of his 14 victories on the PGA Tour.

“I felt like coming here this week, to a place where I’d had some success, might be somewhat comforting when they call out my name on the first tee, because it hasn’t been called out in quite some time,” Sutton said.

When Sutton showed up in the locker room, it was like he never left. He spent most of Wednesday rekindling old friendships.

“I knew everybody walking through the door,” he said. “Looked for my name on the tee time list, and I knew everybody that was on that list, too. I thought I was at home when I got here.”

Sutton also will play in next week’s Champions Tour event in San Antonio, but he hasn’t decided if he’ll play a full schedule next year. While still competitive, Sutton said his expectations are low, given the scant amount of time he’s devoted to his game.

“I’m not going to live and die on every shot. That’s just not the nature of 50 years old,” said Sutton, the 1983 PGA champion. “I don’t think at 50 years old, there’s any need in crying yourself to sleep because today was a bad day.”

While Sutton is taking the laid-back approach, there’s plenty at stake for others this week.

With a runner-up finish in Maryland last week, Fred Funk took the lead in the race for the Charles Schwab Cup, the points-based competition to determine the tour’s top player. Funk is only 28 points ahead of money leader Jay Haas and 217 in front of Bernhard Langer, who won this event last year.

There are 255 Schwab points up for grabs this week, not to mention a $255,000 check for the winner.

“You’ve got to go out and just play,” said Funk, who has eight top-10 finishes this year. “You can’t put so much pressure on your shots that it just becomes a mind game. That shuts you down a little bit, when you’re doing that. You’ve got to just play and relax and let it happen.”

The Houston-area tournament moved to The Woodlands after four years at nearby Augusta Pines. The tournament course at The Woodlands, designed in 1978 by Robert Van Hagge and Bruce Devlin, hosted the Houston Open between 1985 to 2002.

Haas, Funk, Curtis Strange and Sutton are among a handful of players in this tournament who won the former PGA Tour event when it was held here. Funk met his wife, Sharon, the same week he won the 1992 event, his first tour victory. Strange won twice on the course, in 1986 and ‘88.

“It’s nice to be back here,” Strange said. “It’s good for the tour. I remember so many things that happened here. All of us have a story.”

Sutton said the last few holes rival the finishing stretch at the TPC at Sawgrass.

“You never knew who was going to win until it was holed out on the 18th hole,” Sutton said. “That’s one reason why we had such big crowds here and everything else. It was exciting.”

Funk said bringing a tournament back here was “the best move the tour’s ever made.” He said he’s disappointed most new courses are built for big hitters. The Woodlands, he said, is an old-style course that rewards precision as much as length.

“It’s an incredible mix of holes out here,” Funk said. “It’s really fun to play.”


October 17, 2008

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