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Trying to be one of the Champions

Mark McNulty takes the Outback lead as he goes for his first U.S. win.

Published February 22, 2004

LUTZ - There is no roof, but Mark McNulty did get shingles. Not the kind he would someday love to have over his head on American soil, but the medical condition that causes itching and pain and delayed his debut on the Champions Tour.

McNulty is from Zimbabwe, lives outside of London and has Irish citizenship, although he has yet to get his own place on this side of the Atlantic. He has won 55 golf tournaments around the world, including 16 times on the PGA European Tour. He led the South African Tour's Order of Merit eight times.

Today he goes after his first victory in the United States.

McNulty, 50, shot 6-under 65 on Saturday at the TPC of Tampa Bay to take a one-stroke lead over Larry Nelson and D.A. Weibring into today's final round of the Outback Steakhouse Pro-Am.

This is McNulty's first Champions Tour event after contracting shingles last month.

"I'm excited," said McNulty, considered one of the top rookies on the 50-and-over tour after taking medalist honors last fall at the Champions Tour Qualifying Tournament. "I've looked forward to playing the Champions Tour for about a year and a half. There are not too many sports professions where you have a second chance."

And there are not too many golf tournaments where amateurs play alongside the pros, especially when they are competing for a $1.6-million purse. But after two days of competition, the top 12 pro-am teams advanced to today's final round.

For McNulty, that means having amateur Ben Shanley along with him in the final group. The team was in third place, three strokes behind the leading pro-am team of Mike McCullough and Steve Chapman.

"I can guarantee you, you speak to 90 percent of the amateurs, and they've had a ball," McNulty said.

Today, things get a bit more serious as the pros in contention focus on the $240,000 first prize.

McNulty was at 132, 10 under par. Chasing him was three-time major-champion Nelson (69) and Weibring (65), who won last year in his rookie season.

They were at 133.

Another stroke back at 134 was the foursome of Vicente Fernandez (67), Mike McCullough (70), Tom Purtzer (67) and Tom Jenkins (67).

First-round leader Tom Kite shot 74 and dropped into a tie for 11th, five back. Defending champion Bruce Fleisher also shot 74 and was nine strokes back.

McNulty figured to be a force on the Champions Tour. He was fifth on South Africa's Sunshine Tour Order of Merit last year and nearly became the European tour's oldest winner, tying for second at the European Open in Ireland.

"Not many guys compete on the regular tour right up until they're 50," McNulty said.

"I've taken that experience over to the Champions Tour, and I hope to be in position to win several times.

"You can't buy experience."

Nelson, 56, knows that.

He didn't take up the game until age 21 yet went on to win 10 times on the PGA Tour, including the 1983 U.S. Open, and 17 more times on the Champions Tour.

His Saturday began at 4:30 a.m., a far cry from the cushy life of senior golfers. Due to the pro-am format, he had a 7:50 tee time. Not that he's complaining.

"I can't tell you how thankful I am to do what I do," Nelson said. "To play golf as a professional ... I couldn't say it was a dream come true. It wasn't even a fantasy. It's just unbelievable."

Nelson is one of golf's most amazing stories. He never picked up a golf club until he returned from Vietnam in 1969.

Five years later, he had his PGA Tour card, and five years after that, in 1979, he won his first tournament. In 1981, he won the PGA Championship and is the answer to one of the game's great trivia questions: Who in addition to Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson and Seve Ballesteros won three or more majors in the 1980s?

McNulty could become the answer to a different trivia question: How many players have won their Champions Tour debut? He would be the 11th.

"I didn't have much in the way of expectations," said McNulty, referring to his case of shingles. "I'm just trying to relax and enjoy myself. That's what I'm doing. Leading is a bonus."

[Last modified February 22, 2004, 01:45:26]

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