Toms, Andrade reflect on the ascension of the Ascension Charity Classic
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Written by Bob McClellan @ChampionsTour
In just its third year as part of the PGA TOUR Champions schedule, the Ascension Charity Classic presented by Emerson has become a popular spot among players because of the venue and the fan interest.
The St. Louis area has a long golf history, so the players are not strangers, and they have found the West Course at Norwood Hills Country Club to be a stern but fair test that they say reminds them of their younger playing days.
“Well, first of all, I think it's a big event for this community,” said David Toms, who won the inaugural Ascension in 2021. “I know it's a big sports town, and the crowds have really supported this event since we started it.
“All the players really enjoy the event. Old-style golf course, beautiful old clubhouse. People are very nice. Here we are in the middle of the country. Good time for sports this time of year with baseball getting close to playoffs and college football, NFL starting, so a lot of people are paying attention to sports. Just to be a part of that mix. … I think this tournament is very popular obviously in the community. But everybody's positioning themselves for the Playoffs, trying to move up to give themselves a chance in the Schwab Cup.”
Toms, 56, won twice this season before the calendar even hit April. He then hit a lull before finding himself back in form over his past three events – all top 10s. He’s fourth in the Schwab Cup standings.
“The putter has been very consistent lately,” Toms said. “Need to hit the driver a little bit better certainly to have a chance to win golf tournaments. I've been working on that. I'm hoping that pays off.”
Toms is second on PGA TOUR Champions in scoring average (at 69.08) to Schwab Cup leader Steve Stricker (67.52). The Louisiana native is 21st in total driving and 19th in driving accuracy.
Hitting fairways is at a premium at Norwood Hills.
“It helps to get it in the fairway,” Toms said. “The rough has been fairly penal. Not so much that you can't hit shots out of it, but it's hard to judge your distance. And it's a good old golf course where you need to stay below the hole. A lot of slope – back-to-front – on the greens. Above the hole is not a good spot.
“It's just a good test. It's a lot like the golf courses that we all played our careers on, cut our teeth on growing up and everything. … I'm hoping that it will firm up a little bit. I heard the golf course is a little soft in the pro-am, which is surprising with the weather they've had. Hopefully it will firm up a little bit, play a little bit shorter, a lot like it did the first year.”
Billy Andrade, coming off his first top-10 finish of the season, had a similar assessment as Toms of what is required to play well at Norwood Hills.
“You've really got to drive the ball straight here, keep it out of this wispy rough where you really can't control the ball,” said Andrade, 59, who recently tied for fourth at the Shaw Charity Classic in Calgary. “If you can do that, you're at a big advantage.
“Then from there, you have to be precise on where you're hitting your birdie putts or your putts from. It's easy here to play defensive putting. If you get above the hole all day, versus if you have some good looks you can make some putts. … I think that's what I've learned the most is that if I can drive it pretty straight, which I'm OK there, I can give myself some good opportunities.”
Andrade also gave a nod to the atmosphere provided by the St. Louis crowds.
“This is one of our best tournaments of the year,” Andrade said. “The people come out in droves. It's awesome to have the energy that the fans here in St. Louis have always done, especially in the last couple years here.
“We have tournaments where the PGA TOUR plays in some cities, and it's just a different vibe because who do you want to go see, do you want to go see the legends or go see the young stars? Places like Atlanta and Houston – It is what it is. But when you come to places where the PGA TOUR doesn't play every year, places like here, Madison (Wisconsin), next week in Sioux Falls (South Dakota), those places are electric for us.”
St. Louis will get the best from the pros playing this week.
“My analogy would be, hey, we're going to play a pickup basketball game in an empty arena, and then all of a sudden we're going to play a pickup basketball game and there's 20,000 people watching you,” Andrade said. “It's a little different, and it's fun.
“That's what we all grew up doing, and that's what we love to do is entertain and play well in front of fans.”
Andrade, who has little to show for his first two appearances at the Ascension, a tie for 29th and a tie for 62nd, believes he should play better there.
“I haven't played well the last two years here, so I'm thinking in my brain that it's time,” Andrade said. “There's no reason I shouldn't play well here. It reminds me of courses I grew up in Rhode Island with undulations and having to hit drives into some tight driving holes. It fits my eye, so really I have no excuses, so hopefully I can get in the mix here.”