By Vartan Kupelian, PGATOUR.COM Correspondent
DULUTH, Ga. – The forecast for the opening round of the Greater Gwinnett Championship wasn’t very good. It proved to be accurate. Severe storms moved into the area, forced a delay and eventually pushed back Friday’s start time for the new Champions Tour event by four hours.
Steve Elkington didn’t mind. He knows all about how fickle weather can be and the kind of impact it can have on a golf tournament.
Flashback to the 2002 British Open at Muirfield, which this year will again be host for the venerable championship. Tiger Woods was chasing golf’s elusive Grand Slam after victories at the Masters and the U.S. Open. But Mother Nature wasn’t going to let it happen.
Elkington opened with rounds of 71-73 and adjourned to a favorite watering hole in nearby North Berwick, home of one of the world’s great, underrated courses.
“There is a place called the Auld Hoos in North Berwick,” said Elkington, the Aussie, embellishing a Scottish accent. “If you go there now, the same people are probably sitting at the bar as they were 10 years ago.
“It sits just above the harbor. It is so old that they still have stone gates that open manually to let boats in and out. At the end of the bar there’s a guy with a silver jug they leave there for him. The harbormaster looks like one of the guys on 'Duck Dynasty.'
“The harbormaster pulls me aside – he could tell the weather from the current - and says, ‘I’m telling you it is going to be (awful).’”
The next morning, Elkington went out early, shot 68 – Saturday’s best round - and returned to the pub.
As predicted by the harbormaster, by 1 p.m. Saturday at Muirfield, an enormous cloud was looming. With it came high winds measuring 30 mph and a wind-chill factor of 40. Just as Woods was teeing off, a vengeful, chilling weather front cut through Muirfield like a saber. The rain began to fall and continued unmercifully for the next four hours. Umbrellas were useless. Rain gear was superfluous. “It was basically survival out there,” Nick Price said that day.
Elkington, with his morning tee time, was a survivor. Woods, tied for ninth after 36 holes, shot 81, no longer to appear on the leaderboard. After his round, Elkington returned to the Auld Hoos.
“I went in the back to have a sleep in the back of the Auld Hoos,” he said. “The weather was so bad outside, guys were crawling on hands and knees trying to get into the pub … and watching me (on television) go from 40 to 30 to 20 to 10 and into the top five with that weather.”
Suddenly and quite unexpectedly in contention, Elkington shot a final-round 66 to finish in a four-way tie with Ernie Els, Thomas Levet and Stuart Appleby. Els won the playoff, which required the mandatory three holes plus two more sudden-death holes against Levet before Els was handed the Claret Jug.
“That was a great break which has happened to everyone,” Elkington said. “Probably the hardest course in the rotation over there. I was pretty unlucky to lose it. They split us up (in twosomes) for the playoff. Made it up on the spot. Didn’t know what to do. That couldn’t happen again.”
Elkington is enjoying a solid rookie season on the Champions Tour. He has three top 10s in five starts, including back-to-back top 10s at the Toshiba Classic and Mississippi Gulf Resort Classic in the last two events. He’s been looking forward to the Greater Gwinnett Championship. TPC Sugarloaf is the design of his buddy, Greg Norman.
“It’s the first Champions Tour event I get to play on a course that I know,” he said. “I feel better coming in here. Maybe I’ll have a slight advantage.”
In the weather-delayed first round, Elkington is even par through 14 holes. He'll finish his round on Saturday morning.
Elkington took a sabbatical to prepare for the Champions Tour. The decision to take time off was “strictly by choice,” he said.
“I wanted to have a break on the PGA TOUR, I wanted to be energized, I didn’t want to just roll into it,” he said. “I wanted to have a lot of energy coming into it. So I’m thankful I was in a position to be able to do that.”
The time off had mixed results on his golf game. His driving has been “unreal” but not his short game.
“The short game has been pretty pitiful,” he said. “I’m focusing a fair bit of time on that and it’s getting better. I’ve got a handle on it now.”
Elkington knows the formula for success in the 54-hole format of Champions Tour events.
“It’s 5-5-5,” he said. “No matter what tournament you’re talking about, that’s the focus – 15-under-par. There is a sense of urgency. If you can bite off an 8-under you can get a real good run out here.
“I told my wife and kid I’ve gotta kind of retool my deal here. I knew there would be golf carts, some hit-and-giggles. These guys are focused with the right attitude. The stress is gone out of a lot of these guys’ faces. There’s no cut, they know they’re all here for the weekend, they can attack the course as much as they want.”
But with Mother Nature, they still need to be patient.