Five things we’re thankful for in 2021
November 24, 2021
By Bret Lasky, PGATOUR.COM
- November 24, 2021
- Phil Mickelson became just the 2nd player ever to win four of his first six starts on the Champions Tour. (Ben Jared/PGA TOUR)
The 2020-2021 season super season will go down as historic. Not just for the length (39 events), but also the incredible rookie classic (Phil Mickelson, Jim Furyk, Ernie Els, Mike Weir, Alex Cejka, etc.) and of course the epic ending with Bernhard Langer, at 64 years old, defying odds and winning his sixth season-long Schwab Cup.
Here are five things we’re thankful to have witnessed in 2021
Phil playing six times during the season
As Paul Goydos told our insider, Bob McClellan, so many people wondered out loud if Phil Mickelson would ever play the Champions Tour. The question is understandable in one sense. He won a major in 2021 while competing on the Regular Tour and has 45 career wins and lifetime earnings of almost $95 million dollars. He doesn’t need the money. But all this sort of misses the point.
“I heard people say, ‘Why would Mickelson play on the Champions Tour?’” Goydos said. “Because it’s what we do. We love playing golf.
“I was watching him last week in Phoenix, and he was working on his game as hard as anyone. I think he’ll play a few more (Champions) events next year. And eventually, it’ll be where he plays (full-time).”
I’m not suggesting Phil is ready to make PGA TOUR Champions his full-time home next year. He’s said many times while competing on the Champions Tour that he loves to see guys he grew up playing with, but he’s still motivated to win events and majors on the Regular Tour.
“It’s enticing to come and play more on the Champions Tour because I love to compete, I love to have success and I also like to play against guys I’ve played against for decades now,” said Mickelson, in a sit down interview at the Charles Schwab Cup Championship. “I also need the challenge of these great young players (on the PGA TOUR) to keep me motivated to keep my drive up and keep my worth ethic up to try and compete on the Regular Tour. It’s hard week in and week out, I haven’t been able to do it, but I have been able to do it occasionally here and there and those moments are what really drive me.”
Just Phil’s presence has meant a lot to the Champions Tour. Bigger galleries, more media attention and better television ratings. Phil is a draw wherever he goes and his fellow Champions Tour professionals appreciate his presence.
“He's got so much firepower when you're watching him play, it's just fun to be out with him, with a Hall of Famer,” said Triplett, who was paired with Phil on Friday of the final event. “I said that to him on 6 or 7, I said, "Thank you." He said, "For what?" I said, "Thanks for bringing all these people out." We get nice crowds here at Phoenix every year, but we've got more people than we usually do and he's the reason.”
The question of, will Phil play the Champions Tour has been answered loud and clear. He became just the 2nd player ever to win four of his first six starts. Jack Nicklaus was the only other.
The real question now is how much will Phil play in 2022. Only time will tell.
Bernhard continuing his pursuit of GOAT status
Many people began to wonder in 2021 if Bernhard Langer would ever win again, myself included. I think it was fair to wonder. He started the 2020 season red hot with three straight top 10s and then won for a 41st time on March 1st, 2020. At that point he was 63 and everyone was like, Langer hasn’t lost a beat. But then he went the next 18 months without a win and people started to wonder. Of course he turned 64 in August and continued to play well, but wasn’t knocking down the door as often as he once was.
But then, on October 24, 2021, he won the Dominion Energy Charity Classic in a playoff for a 42nd victory. He become the oldest player to ever win on PGA TOUR Champions. Truly one of the great achievements in golf history. It doesn’t matter what stage of career he’s in. At 64 years old, without a win in 18 months, with young 50 year old’s breathing down his neck, he won.
“Yeah, it's very special because when you get to my age, you never know if you're going to win again, it's as simple as that,” said Langer during his post round interview in Richmond. “Hopefully this won't be the last one, but if it is, it was very special. To become the oldest so far to win out here, it's not easy. It doesn't matter what you do, it's not easy.”
The aches and pains are increasing in frequency for Langer. He isn’t able to practice and grind on the range as much as he once did. But the desire is still there.
After winning his sixth Schwab Cup in Phoenix, he admitted that this could be his last season long title, but he’s coming back for more in 2022, but he also conceded that his time is coming towards an end.
“I used to not think about it (retiring), I used to just say, ‘Oh, it’s way down the road’, but the end is coming sooner than later so I still don’t know, certainly not next year. But I’ve had a few aches and pains lately and I’m going to try and get those taken care of and I would love to be healthy.”
Langer flew to Germany on Monday after Phoenix to get treatment on his knee.
It’s important to take a step back and appreciate his greatness. After winning in Phoenix, Phil Mickelson summed up Langer best.
“It's really amazing how Bernhard has played so well for so long, but he works at it. He works so hard at it and is in the gym constantly and he's constantly working out, recovering and practicing and hitting balls. His work ethic is second to none and the results show. He's kind of the gold standard for what professional golf is about. You have talent, but you've got to put in the time and work in to have success.”
Langer is three wins away from Hale Irwin’s record of 45 Champions Tour wins. It feels like a long shot, and Langer has said that too, but don’t put anything past him.
The emergence of Steven Alker
Sometimes the Champions Tour gets a bad rap as just a place where all-time greats go to have a second chapter and collect more paychecks.
But in recent years, it’s also become a place where the likes of Scott Parel and Ken Tanigawa and now Steven Alker can have truly life changing moments.
Steven Alker was an average Korn Ferry Tour player over the last five years. In 2018, as he was approaching 50, he made only $42,254 in 18 starts. Most of his career was spent on the KFT.
In 2021 when he turned 50 in late July, he got into the Boeing Classic through the Monday Qualifier and earned his way into the next event by finishing T7. Remember he had zero status for the Champions Tour so he needed to top 10 every week to get into the next event and he did that. Six straight top 10s and then his break through win at the TimberTech Championship and then his solo second at the Schwab Cup Championship.
In ten starts, he made $1,146,207 and earned fully exempt status for 2022 and a spot in the season opening Mitsubishi Electric Championship at Hualalai.
“I was just rolling with it, it was kind of black and white, if I wanted to keep playing I had to be the best top 10 or win obviously or go back to a Monday Qualifier so I was just rolling with it and the game was in good shape and it worked out nicely,” said Alker during a sit down in Phoenix. “I don’t really have a formula, all my ducks were in a row and I just rolled with it.”
Alker has earned the respect of all of his peers, including the Hall of Famers.
“It seems like he’s very athletic in his swing and his ability, he looks like a young 50 year old,” said Ernie Els. “I feel like he’s going to have a hell of a career out here. I really like his game from what I’ve seen.”
Fred Couples even gave Alker a ringing endorsement.
“I don’t know Steven Alker at all, I know the name, but he would be my Rookie of the Year and he’s played what six of seven times and he’s top six every time. He’s obviously the perfect age, great game and loves it out here.”
If his first ten starts are any indication, the sky is the limit.
Jim Furyk completely embracing PGA TOUR Champions
Not many PGA TOUR stars that are still competing at a high level as they approach 50 commit to PGA TOUR Champions and go all in as quickly as Jim Furyk did when he turned 50.
Don’t forget that Furyk finished second to Rory McIlroy at THE PLAYERS Championship in March of 2019.
A little over a year later on May 12, 2020, he turned 50 and then made his PGA TOUR Champions debut when play returned after COVID-19 and won The Ally Challenge in August 2020.
Over the next 15 months, he played 25 more times on the Champions Tour and it became his full-time home.
“You want to win golf tournaments, I always thought about winning the FedExCup or being the Player of the Year always seemed like an amazing feat to me and now all of us have turned over a new leaf in our careers and it’s that same feel and you’re still jockeying for that year long Schwab Cup,” said Furyk on the Wednesday of the Charles Schwab Cup Championship. “It would be special to pull that off in the first year, but there’s three other guys thinking the same thing.”
Turns out Furyk finished second, but still had an incredible year with two wins and the U.S. Senior Open title.
He became an amazing spokesperson for the Champions Tour. Time after time in media sessions, he debunked the myth that guys just drank beer and wine and then played 18 holes.
“There’s a misconception that everyone is out having a beer and a glass of wine and no one is practicing,” said Furyk at his media session at the Insperity Invitational. “It’s not that way. Guys aren’t shooting 15, 16 under every week and the range is usually packed. Even though we are 50 and over, a lot of guys are really competitive.”
In addition to being a great ambassador for the Tour, Jim also brought a brand new event, the Constellation Furyk & Friends to his home of Jacksonville, Florida.
Maybe more than any PGA TOUR star in recent memory, Furyk truly embraced the Champions Tour and will win a ton and continue to elevate the Tour for years to come.
David Duval is coming to PGA TOUR Champions
The momentum of an incredible rookie class in 2020-21 won’t stop in 2022. David Duval turned 50 on November 9 and announced that he would be playing in the PGA TOUR Champions season-opener on an exemption. Duval had an strong PGA TOUR career with 13 wins including The Open Championship in 2001. Duval is a former world No. 1.
Similar to Mickelson, there probably were some question as to whether Duval would play PGA TOUR Champions. He hasn’t played a ton of competitive golf since playing 15 times on the PGA TOUR in 2014.
He transitioned to a broadcasting career when he made his ESPN debut in 2012 and then joined Golf Channel in 2015, but it sounds like he’s dedicated himself to preparing for PGA TOUR Champions.
“I've really been looking forward to turning 50 and starting this next chapter of my career,” said Duval. “The level of competition on PGA TOUR Champions is incredibly impressive, and I can’t wait to be back out there alongside my peers and good friends. I’ve been working hard on my game and I’m excited to get the competitive juices flowing again."
Brian Gay and Justin Leonard are two other guys to keep an eye on in 2022.