Here’s hoping forecasted rain doesn’t put a complete damper on the first round of the PGA Tour Champions Dominion Energy Charity Classic that begins Friday morning at the Country Club of Virginia.
Although no spectators will be on hand for the fifth renewal of the $2 million, 54-hole tournament on the club’s James River Course, the Golf Channel will provide coverage of an 81-player field that includes 19 players who have combined to win 33 PGA Tour major championships: nine Masters, nine U.S. Opens, eight Open Championships and seven PGA titles. Five players have won Players Championships.
Champions Tour rookies Phil Mickelson and Jim Furyk are paired with DECC reigning champion Miguel Angel Jimenez in the first round’s feature group. Mickelson and Furyk turned 50 during the pandemic time off. When play resumed, Furyk won his debut tournament and has added a second title since.
Mickelson won his Champions Tour debut as well.
“I really enjoyed playing my first Champions event in the Ozarks. I thought [Richmond] would be a good place to start getting ready for the Masters,” Mickelson said after concluding his pro-am round Thursday. “I heard a lot of great things about the golf course. I’ve had friends who have grown up playing here; friends who have gotten married here. It’s got great history. I thought it would be fun to come and play my second one here.”
Ernie Els (four majors), another rookie on tour, has won twice this season, one before the shut down and then last week.
Masters winner Mike Weir, Players champion K.J. Choi and PGA winner Rich Beem also are in their first year.
Richmonder Bobby Wadkins, a Virginia Golf Hall of Fame member and Champions Tour major winner, is teeing it up as well.
In addition to Jimenez, previous DECC winners Bernhard Langer, Scott McCarron and Woody Austin are in the field. McCarron is the reigning Schwab Cup champion and will get to hold on to that crown until November of 2021.
COVID-19 played havoc with the 2020 schedule, so the PGA Tour Champions combined the 2020 and 2021 seasons into one. The DECC will be back in it’s usual place as the first playoff tournament next fall.
Mickelson says the atmosphere on the Champions Tour is what he likes best about the 50 and older circuit.
“Getting to see guys that I haven’t seen in many years, guys that I grew up watching on television, guys that I then had a chance to play on many team events. … Seeing these guys I haven’t seen in 10-plus years has been fun for me. And the environment, how welcoming the guys have been, and I love competing against these guys, too,” Mickelson said.
“I think this Tour helps me quite a bit, moreso than I realized. It helps me free up, work on the areas that I need to work on in my game. It’s very difficult to be competitive on the regular tour. I’ve had a couple of good finishes, but it’s hard to be competitive week in and week out unless you drive the ball incredibly long and straight. The long part I’m okay with; it’s the straight part I struggle with.
“This tour is a little bit more forgiving. The rough isn’t quite as long, the fairways aren’t quite as tight. It’s still very challenging, but it’s not as penalizing as the regular tour’s been.”
No spectators is a factor with which the players are wrestling.
“I’m getting used to it now, unfortunately. I don’t want to get used to it, it’s a lot more fun to have the fans out, to have the excitement, the cheers,” Furyk said.
“I miss the atmosphere, but it’s part of what we are doing and I think we all have to kind of count our blessings that we’re out here, we’re able to play, we’re able to do our jobs and we have a lot of fun playing golf for a living.
“Everyone in the world today isn’t that fortunate, so I think we’re really lucky to get to do what we do.”
The rookies learn fast how stiff the competition is on the PGA Tour Champions.
“The guys who are working, they’re sharp, their all-around games are very sharp,” Els said. “You see that in the scoring every week, there’s guys shooting very low scores and it’s not going to be any different this week, so you’ve got to stay sharp. You can come with a lot of heavyweight credentials, but you’ve got to still show it out here.”