Stars aligned for fantastic finish at SENIOR PLAYERS

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June 30, 2012
Larry Dorman, PGATOUR.COM

PITTSBURGH -- On a Saturday when Arnold Palmer came to the venerable Fox Chapel Golf Club to honor his father's memory, the Champions Tour players -- all of them heirs to Arnie's golf legacy -- put on a show worthy of The King.

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One got the distinct feeling that the action unfolding out on the venerable old course in the third round of the Constellation SENIOR PLAYERS Championship was what former PGA TOUR commissioner Deane Beman had in mind back in 1980 when he, partially inspired by Palmer's impending 50th birthday, first formed what the Champions Tour has become.

It has become an entertaining, at times scintillating and often compelling theater of some really good golf, replete with large galleries and full-throated roars, like those that rolled down the 18th fairway for Mark Calcavecchia's 50-foot birdie putt that finished a round of 64 and tied him with Joe Daley for the tournament lead at 12 under.

Those cheers rumbled and trundled all the way to where the final threesome stood. In the fairway at 10 under was Tom Lehman, the 1996 British Open champion, a multiple winner on the PGA TOUR and established star on the Champions Tour. Up on the left hillside in the rough at 10 under was Fred Couples, a past Masters champion, former and current golf matinee idol and defending SENIOR PLAYERS champion, as well as the 36-hole leader whose back was aching and whose lead was slipping away.

Rounding out this tableau was Daley, 51, a self-taught player who quit his job as a credit manager in 1992 at age 32 to chase the dream as a professional, whose only pro wins came in 1997 and 2005 on the Web.com Tour, and who was now happily tied for the lead in a major championship.

As he smiled at all the commotion, Daley wasn't thinking about too much, other than what a great spot he was in.

"This is a great opportunity for me," he said. "I look at it as if I'm on that page of the attitude side. When you stay on that positive, forward, can-do page, things happen, and it's good. I'd rather be on that than the other end. Take the high road, you know?"

Cynics may scoff, but taking the high road is one of golf's familiar themes, one of its more firmly-embedded values, one of the things Deacon Palmer taught his young son to do and one of the reasons why Arnold Palmer is not just an icon in his hometown, unless you want to call the world his hometown.

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Calcavecchia, who can occasionally get a little angry at himself for mistakes, was chuckling about the way he'd finished his day. After bombing his drive and looking to hit a straightforward 3-wood to set up a two-putt birdie, he instead hit his second shot a little bit right and found his ball in a dicey lie on the downslope of the practice putting green.

"And I chunked it," he said. "It was 50 feet short. And I tapped it in for a 4. Another perfect chip, I guess."

A perfectly-timed putt, at least, which -- after his win last week in Montreal -- has put Calcavecchia in position to win two in a row. And not to put any undue outside pressure on Sunday's final group -- Calcavecchia, Daley and Couples -- but the last 22 winners on the Champions Tour have come from the final threesome.

That could make one of those three players the 23rd or it could make someone like Lehman happy to break the streak. He shot a very solid 66, what he called "probably the best I've played of the three rounds so far." In numerical terms, it was 11 of 14 fairways, 16 of 18 greens, including every one on the back nine, and 32 putts.

That's right, he was happy with 32 putts. "I didn't make as many as I would have liked," he said, "but I hit a lot of quality putts that looked good for a long time. So I think there's a lot of optimism on the greens with the way that the ball rolled today.

"Any time that you are rolling it like that you have to feel good about it, cause it's just a matter of time."

Lehman knows what every one on the Champions Tour knows. Come Sunday, "The guys at the top typically don't slow down a whole lot." For a group of over-50 athletes whose collective aches and pains number as the grains of sand in Fox Chapel's bunkers, the thought of not slowing down is a definite keeper.

Arnie picked the right place and time to announce the endowment in his father's name. He only recently became a Trustee of the First Tee, an organization that was founded in 1997. He said he has always agreed with its objectives of bringing the game and its values to inner-city kids, but was concerned about its ability to endure without being endowed. Tim Finchem, who is Beman's successor, agreed and helped make it happen. Palmer, with a $150,000 grant from Constellation, has now helped build another legacy in the game he has influenced more than any single individual.

And one more thing: Couples, should he win on Sunday, will become the second man to successfully defend a SENIOR PLAYERS title. The first was Palmer in 1984-85. When he heard Couples could tie him, he broke into a wide smile.

"He is an amazing guy," Palmer said. "He's a good player and it would be great if he won this championship. I would be very supportive of that."

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