It was two years ago that Cook won the season-opening Champions Tour event at Hualalai. It kick-started him to a three-win season. Cook had capped the 2010 season by winning his second straight Charles Schwab Cup Championship.
For Cook, the goal in 2011 was to turn some of his solid early-season play over the years into victories. Previously, none of his five Champions Tour victories had come before October.
He accomplished it by winning the Mitsubishi Electric in January.
Cook went on to win twice more that year, in April and in July. The three victories matched his best year on the PGA TOUR – 1992 – when he won Bob Hope Chrysler Classic, the United Airlines Hawaiian Open and the Las Vegas Invitational. In Las Vegas, the runner-up was David Frost, who again fell just short against Cook Sunday at Hualalai.
Cook’s goal this year was straightforward: To make sure what happened in 2012 didn’t become a trend. Despite some fine play, he failed to win a tournament for the first time since his arrival on the Champions Tour in 2007.
“I played better last year than any time in my career but just didn’t win,” Cook said after closing the deal at Hualalai. “I made some small changes and worked really hard in the winter.”
How well did Cook play in 2012? He certainly remained among the elite. Only Bernhard Langer, Tom Lehman, Michael Allen and Mark Calcavecchia had more top 10 finishes than Cook, who posted 10. Cook passed the $1 million mark (No. 10 on the Money List). He was the only player in the top 10 without a victory. Statistically, the numbers were just as revealing as Cook ranked high across the board.
Perhaps most revealing was Cook’s play in major championships. Still looking for his first major victory, Cook was runner-up at the Senior PGA Championship, tied for sixth at both the Senior British Open and the U.S. Senior Open and tied for 20th at the Constellation Senior PLAYERS Championship.
Cook shot a final-round 5-under 67 at Hualalai to reel in Frost, making a 16-foot birdie putt on the 18th green to force a playoff. Cook went on to win with a birdie on the second extra hole.
The victory was a milestone for Cook – his 20th combined on the PGA TOUR and Champions Tour. He has 11 on the PGA TOUR, now nine on the Champions Tour.
“I’m really proud of that,” Cook said.
He should be. At Hualalai, the Champions Tour got off to a stimulating start for 2013.
Bernhard Langer and Kenny Perry shot final-round 64s, with Langer reeling off a stretch of nine birdies in 11 holes. Perry started the final round in 14th and tied for fifth after six birdies and an eagle. Kirk Triplett, the 2012 Rookie of the Year, joined Perry in fifth. Fred Couples faced a 5-shot deficit, started slowly but then made an eagle and six birdies to get into the fray before a late three-putt left him adrift of the top leaders.
Two-time defending Charles Schwab Cup champion Tom Lehman was also back at his ball-striking best. Lehman’s Greens in Regulation percentage of 87.04 was best in the Mitsubishi Electric field. He led the Champions Tour in that category in each of the past two years.
Frost won twice in 2012 (the Liberty Mutual Insurance Legends of Golf with Michael Allen and the AT&T Championship). Cook expects him to have a very big season and Frost knows what his runner-up finish could portend.
“I feel really good about my game,” Frost said. “Really optimistic that there will be good things this year. I’m not too disappointed.”
Maybe that’s because his putter continues to be infallible and any golfer knows that’s the biggest advantage in the game. Frost has now played 254 holes without a three-putt. Remarkable.
“You’ve got a lot of guys on this tour who have won a lot of tournaments and major championships,” Cook said. “I love starting the season to see where your game is.”
There’s no doubt where Cook’s game is starting the 2013 Champions Tour season.