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From mediocre to meteoric

Given a second chance, former unknowns are grabbing the spotlight, and the titles, on the Champions Tour.

By BOB HARIG, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 21, 2003

LUTZ -- In a different era, Doug Tewell would have trouble making it to the first tee today. The other members of his threesome: Jack Nicklaus and Lee Trevino.

"Truthfully, if this were 25 years ago, I'd have been scared to death," Tewell said. "I would have needed a bottle of oxygen in my bag."

When Tewell, 53, begins defense of his Verizon Classic title, breathing will be of little concern. Nicklaus' 18 major championships and 60 PGA Tour titles and Trevino's six majors and 29 titles will barely cross his mind.

In fact, were it Tom Watson, Tom Kite, Gary Player, Arnold Palmer, Hale Irwin, Ben Crenshaw, Fuzzy Zoeller . . . it wouldn't really matter to Tewell.

"These guys are good friends now. That's the difference," he said. "It's another pairing."

And it's perhaps another reason why players such as Tewell, who had limited success in his regular tour career, are making such an impact on the 50-and-older Champions Tour.

This weekend's 54-hole, $1.6-million tournament at the TPC of Tampa Bay is just as likely to yield an unheralded winner as it is one who has star power.

The winners so far this year: Dana Quigley, Dave Barr and Vicente Fernandez. They combined to win two PGA Tour titles and no major championships during their careers. Though Irwin won four tournaments and last year's money title, half of the players who finished among the top 10 on the money list had limited success in their former careers.

"I was just looking forward to competing with the guys again," said Morris Hatalsky, who finished 10th on the money list with $1.39-million. "I wasn't putting any expectation at all on it."

Hatalsky won four times in his PGA Tour career but did not have enough career money to be exempt on the Champions Tour. That's why he hardly was noticed when he was part of a rookie class that included Zoeller and Crenshaw in 2002.

Zoeller won once and finished 20th on the money list, and Crenshaw posted just one top 10 in 20 events. Meanwhile, Hatalsky rose from being a Monday qualifier to posting 14 top 10s in 24 tournaments, including a win at the event in Park City, Utah.

"If you consider the way it started and where it ended, I don't know what the odds were, but they probably weren't in my favor," Hatalsky said.

Last weekend at the ACE Group Classic in Naples, Fernandez, 56, won his fourth Champions Tour event, but it was his first victory in four years. He played most of his career in Europe, so he rarely went up against the stars of the PGA Tour. But he has not been intimidated.

"Those players are promoted because of their records," Fernandez said. "I'm pleased with that. They have more pressure than I do. Every week they are the favorites. I don't mind being the underdog at all. I enjoy that."

The formula for senior success has changed over the years. It used to be the game's stars of the past would turn 50 and immediately dominate. Trevino, for instance, won seven times in his rookie senior season in 1990. Nicklaus won the first senior event he played that year. Irwin quickly became a force and has the all-time victories record with 36.

But lately, the Champions Tour has become a haven for second-chance players. Allen Doyle and Bruce Fleisher have had excellent senior careers. Bob Gilder finished second to Irwin on the money list last year, winning four times. He won six in his PGA Tour career. Tewell has six senior titles, including two senior majors.

"I was looking forward to it," Gilder said of the Champions Tour. "I'm not sure some really big stars from the regular tour were necessarily looking forward to this."

"There's a little bit more incentive for us," Tewell said. "We've never won a major. And I don't think (the marquee players) are quite as motivated with as much as they've accomplished.

"From my standpoint, I'm comfortable with myself. Financially, I'm much more comfortable now than when I started on the regular tour. There was a lot more pressure then. Now, this is icing on the cake. It's amazing how much better you play when you're not saying, "I need to make this putt to send my daughter to college.' Now I don't think that way. I try to win.

"I don't care who it is. Kite, Nicklaus. Whoever it is. They have a name, but it's not an intimidating situation."

Yet he still believes it is special, even if not as daunting.

"I grew up watching these guys," Tewell said of Nicklaus and Trevino, who are 10 years older. "I wish my dad were here to see this. He would love it."

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