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Game change pays off

After years of pedestrian performance, a fundamental change in his play brings Mike McCullough success.

By BOB HARIG, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 22, 2003

LUTZ -- There is a lesson to be learned from Mike McCullough, and it has nothing to do with the sandals and spikes he wears on the golf course. Casual observers know him for his unusual footwear. They probably have no idea what he went through to get to the top of a Champions Tour leaderboard.

McCullough shot 4-under-par 67 on Friday at the TPC of Tampa Bay to take the first-round lead at the Verizon Classic by a shot over Hale Irwin, Tom Kite, Bruce Fleisher and Mark McCumber.

That foursome of followers is much more heralded than McCullough, whose PGA Tour career was marked by dogged determination but little to show for it.

Irwin and Kite are major-championship winners, McCumber a 10-time PGA Tour winner. Fleisher has made a name for himself on this tour, winning 15 times.

McCullough? He made 270 cuts in 405 starts from 1973-76, but never won a tournament. His best finish came in 1977 at what is now called the Players Championship, where he finished second. That was his top season, and he earned all of $79,000.

When he joined what was then the Senior PGA Tour in 1995, McCullough kept spinning his spikes, getting nowhere, becoming known more for playing every week than playing well. He decided to do something about it. With the help of friend and fellow tour player Gil Morgan and teaching pro Ernie Vossler, McCullough reworked his game -- at age 53.

And it paid off two years ago with his first two victores on any tour. McCullough won $1.335-million in 2001 and added $918,340 last year. Next month, he turns 58.

"I've been very blessed," said McCullough, who lives in Scottsdale, Ariz. "In the most general terms, it's been said that nobody has seen anybody at this age make a change like this. And I'm very proud of that.

"It's not been easy. It took me three years to make a grip change. It didn't take three years physically to make the change. It took three years so that all the other body parts would not compensate and go back to where they wanted to. That is the very, very hard part."

McCullough has been a different player since, posting 26 top-10 finishes in the past three-plus seasons, including a tie for sixth two weeks ago in Key Biscayne.

He put up the Friday's low round with a three-birdie stretch at the 12th through 14th holes, then followed bogey at the 17th hole with a 40-foot birdie putt at No. 18.

It didn't give him much of a cushion, however. Irwin, the Champions Tour's all-time victory leader, finished runner-up here last year; McCumber posted his best senior finish, a tie for seventh here last year; Fleisher, who won the 2000 tournament, has shot just one round over par on the TPC course in five tournament appearances; and Kite tied for fifth here last year, despite a final-round 75.

"There's probably 30 guys within two shots," McCullough said.

Actually, there are 29 players within four shots, including defending champion Doug Tewell who shot 70 and Jack Nicklaus, who shot par 71.

"I like this course," said Irwin, who for the first time in six appearances in the tournament broke 70 in the opening round. "This course requires some distance, but it also requires control."

Kite also put himself in position after a disappointing back nine in the final round a year ago cost him a victory. Kite made double bogeys at the 12th and 14th holes coming in, and finished four strokes behind Tewell. His 68 wasn't without some trouble, however.

"I played pretty well on the back nine but I wasn't very sharp on the front nine," he said. "I actually put two balls in the water. You've got to keep your golf balls dry. But the back nine was encouraging."

It was encouraging to McCullough to start hitting the ball squarely on the clubface. That's what his change was all about, becoming a more consistent ball-striker.

But it wasn't anything he would recommend to the average player. "Don't expect to make a change unless you want to work at it," he said.

McCullough was willing to because he felt he had no choice if he wanted to continue being a pro. "I was losing interest because I wasn't getting any better," McCullough said. "I just didn't think I could take it to another level. The level I was on wasn't good enough and I knew it. I did it probably just to save a job. I just wasn't good enough.

"There were some real tears. I had everything to lose. I still had a job the other way. It just wasn't satisfying. It wasn't fulfilling. It wasn't good. It was an amateur golf game on the professional level."

For McCullough, perseverance has paid off.

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