Mark Brooks came within one putt 10 years ago of retiring from competitive golf.
Yet here he is, still carving out a living on the fairways and greens, and he went about that business in a most efficient manner Friday, shooting a 6-under 65 in hot, breezy conditions to take a two-stroke lead in the Principal Charity Classic.
”I’m stuck playing golf for the rest of my life,” the Champions Tour rookie said, smiling. ”Which is all right.”
Brooks had said after the third round of the 2001 U.S. Open that if he won the tournament, he’d retire. He came close, losing to Retief Goosen in a playoff. Brooks would have won if he hadn’t missed his par putt on the 72nd hole. A little later, Goosen also bogeyed the hole to create the playoff.
”I was young enough then I could have done something else,” Brooks said. ”Now I’m not.”
He’s a youngster on the senior circuit, though, joining in April after turning 50 on March 25. It’s been a bit of a struggle, but Brooks put together his best round of the year on the Glen Oaks course, highlighted by a 60-foot putt for birdie on the par-5 17th hole.
Mark Calcavecchia and Peter Senior opened with 67s. Calcavecchia stayed close by conquering the three par 5s, making an eagle and two birdies. Senior had four birdies in a bogey-free round.
Defending champion Nick Price and money leader Tom Lehman led a group at 68. Joey Sindelar, Rod Spittle, Jeff Hart and Bobby Wadkins also came in at 3 under, as did Bob Gilder, the 2002 winner
Coming in, Brooks had failed to break 70 in his last eight Champions Tour rounds, including an 81 in the third round last week’s Senior PGA Championship.
”It’s nice not to go out there and shoot a 72-3-4 or something the first day, which you could do today,” Brooks said. ”If you get going a little funny out there, you can shoot over par. You pull the wrong club two or three times, next thing you know, you’re not under par.”
Brooks, who hasn’t won since beating Kenny Perry in a playoff at the 1996 PGA Championship, had little trouble in the 90-degree heat and gusts that blew up to 25 mph.
He’s accustomed to wind at his home in Fort Worth, Texas, and said the key to playing in a stiff breeze is really pretty simple.
”You’ve got to hit it really solid,” Brooks said. ”If you hit it really solid in the wind, you can play golf. A solidly struck ball is going to be less affected.”
Brooks’ only poorly struck tee shot resulted in his lone bogey, at the par-4 10th. He hit his second to the front fringe, 35 feet from the hole, and he three-putted.
”I was kind of overplaying the wind and got confused,” he said.
Brooks picked it up after that, knocking in birdie putts on five of his next seven holes. He felt it should have been six of eight.
On No. 18, Brooks missed a straight-in, downhill birdie putt from 10 feet.
”It evens out eventually,” he said.
Brooks’ best round previously in Champions play had been a 68 in the final round of the Mississippi Gulf Resort Classic in early April, his first event. His only other round in the 60s before Friday was a 69 in the second round of the Outback Steakhouse Pro-Am in mid-April.
A back problem slowed Brooks early in the year, but he said that’s under control now. Then, he switched to an all-titanium driver for this tournament and, so far, so good.
”I probably haven’t driven the ball very good for me,” he said. ”I’ve kind of been searching for something that would start going where I’m looking instead of just going.”
Calcavecchia stepped to the last tee at 5 under, but his sand wedge from the fairway left him below the lip of the green and he made bogey.
”It’s a good score,” he said. ”It wasn’t easy out there today. At least I got by the par 5s and played those well and got a good score out of it.”
Price, who coasted to a four-stroke win here last year, made bogey on two of his first eight holes. But he came back with a birdie on No. 9, then added four more birdies on the back.
Lehman, who already has won three tournaments this year, stood 1 over after eight holes before he finished with four birdies the rest of the way.
Sindelar, playing for the first time since withdrawing from the Liberty Mutual Legends of Golf in April because of a back injury, marked his return with an eagle on No. 9 before bogeys on Nos. 12 and 16 knocked him back.
On his 57th birthday, Hale Irwin, who owns a record 45 wins on the Champions Tour, shot a 2-over 73. Graham Marsh, a six-time winner on the Champions Tour, withdrew after three holes because of a back injury.