Bernhard Langer is the best old golfer in the world — or maybe it’s the oldest best golfer in the world — and before Sunday’s final round of the Tucson Conquistadores Classic he updated his website with this insightful message:
“Zweite auflage der Tucson Conquistadores Classic mit Bernhard Langer.”
That can be translated to “If Woody Austin shoots a 65, even I can’t win.”
Austin shot 65 Sunday, just as he did Friday. He is one of the quirkiest, refreshing, up-front, soulful good guys ever to play in a Tucson Open of any sort, dating to the 1940s. The 52-year-old former bank teller from Derby, Kansas, was awarded $255,000, and for one of the few times in a world overblown by ridiculous sports paydays, it didn’t seem like enough.
Austin stayed in a Holiday Inn Express while in Tucson, which, according to the hotel’s TV marketing campaign, makes you a bit smarter than the other guy.
Ordinarily, you don’t use your 16-year-old son as an emergency caddy, or change putters when you’re on the leaderboard, or hit your shot of the year (of many years) — holing out a bunker shot for an eagle at No. 15 — when you admit, as Austin did, that he never practices that shot.
But on Sunday at the Omni Tucson National, Woody Austin did all three. He was a golf brainiac.
“I shot 65 and it still came down to the last shot,” he said, donning the Conquistadores champion’s helmet the same way Arnold Palmer, Lee Trevino and Johnny Miller did on the 18th green at Tucson National.
The Sunscreen Open was again a robust success: It didn’t snow, the bleachers and suites at the 18th green were full and nobody went into debt to pay the bills.
Even though Tiger Woods no longer plays in Tucson, and the prize money has diminished from $8.5 million to $1.7 million, pro golf remains Tucson’s most enjoyable sports weekend.
By the time the final putt dropped Sunday, the sponsoring Conquistadores had raised about $3.9 million locally. The people at the top of that 54-year-old group — Judy McDermott, Regan Jasper and Oscar Lizardi — have kept pro golf alive and thumping in Tucson after eight wonderful years of the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championships.
We have moved on. The new WGC-Dell Match Play Championships begin this week in Austin, Texas, with a field that includes Emiliano Grillo, Patton Kizzire and Jaco Van Zyl.
Woody Austin holding off Bernhard Langer isn’t quite the same, but every shot counted, and nobody got lost in the Wild Burro Wash at Dove Mountain.
Of all the events on the PGA Tour and the Champions Tour, this is the only one that operates without a title sponsor or a presenting sponsor.
It’s not that the Conquistadores want it that way, it’s just that times are tough in the will-you-sponsor-my-new-golf-tournament business.
The Conquistadores worked all the angles, hustling corporate groups from IHOP to Fry’s Food Stores. They spent time with the governor, asking for his support. But in the end, they raised close to $4 million by themselves.
About $1.2 million of that came from a two-day Pro-Am, in which close to 350 players each threw $3,500 into the pot, playing from sunrise to darkness. That would never happen on the PGA Tour, because the younger players aren’t good at mingling with the public at the expense of hitting 300 more practice shots.
The Champions Tour is much more friendly. The 81 players who arrived in Tucson last week have all survived career crises, injuries, slumps and reality. They play two days of Pro-Ams and make friends. There are no out-of-the-box prodigies with their own sponsorship brand on the Champions Tour.
Instead, you have Woody Austin, who didn’t get a tour card until he was 32, a man who is so grateful to have made a living as a golfer that he remembers exactly how he did in his Tucson Open debut in 1995.
“I finished tied for sixth,” he said.
Austin and Langer will have notable challengers in coming years. John Daly turns 50 in April. Steve Stricker will be 50 next year and Ernie Els in 2019. Even Jim Furyk will soon be 50.
For much of his career, Austin was labeled for all the wrong reasons. He smacked a putter against his head, famously bending it during a 1997 tournament that got more TV play and replay than an episode of Seinfeld. He lost his balance and fell into the water, fully submerged, at the 2007 President’s Cup.
He long ago moved past those laugh tracks by playing good golf for two decades.
Winning the Tucson Conquistadores Classic doesn’t validate Austin’s golf reputation any more than it would Langer’s or Fred Couples’, or that of the Conquistadores.
Austin didn’t “arrive” Sunday. Much like the tournament in which he played, the champion was already a winner.