Mark Calcavecchia was making deft saves out of bunkers, sinking long putts and generally making the Regions Tradition look like a scramble for second.
Then, he found trouble he couldn’t escape at Shoal Creek.
Calcavecchia shot a 1-under 71 after a sparkling start Saturday in the Champions Tour major, faltering with a double bogey and two bogeys on the final eight holes. He finished at 12-under 204 for a one-stroke lead over Jay Haas, who shot a 68. Haas’ son, Bill, also is contending at the PGA Tour’s Wells Fargo Championship.
Calcavecchia is familiar enough with the situation to predict he’d only be ”a little bummed out for a while.”
”It seems like my whole career, I sort of had a way of making things interesting,” the 13-time PGA Tour winner said. ”Every Phoenix Open I’ve won was kind of a blowout. But all the other ones I tried to make close, which is probably why I have so many seconds. I’ve lost some tournaments in my day, but everybody has.
”But I’ll be fine. I’ll be ready and excited and happy as a lark (Sunday).”
Tom Pernice Jr. three-putted the final hole from about three feet for double bogey to drop two shots back, along with Tom Lehman. Both shot 68s.
Calcavecchia had sailed to a six-shot lead and managed to bail himself out of trouble a number of times, managing a 32 on the first nine holes despite hitting only two fairways. That knack seemed to abandon him late in the round.
”I’m glad I ran out of holes,” Calcavecchia said. ”As I look at the whole day, probably about what I deserved. I got away with murder on the front nine.”
Seeking his first Champions Tour win in attempt No. 21, the 1989 British Open winner had run his bogey-free streak to 46 holes, was 16 under and threatening a runaway. Then came No. 12 — and trouble. He buried his drive in pine straw and then hit a branch trying to get it out of the woods.
”I didn’t even see the tree that I hit because it was straight up,” he said. ”I was trying to hit a 9-iron over the set of trees that I was looking at.
”It never crossed my mind. I didn’t even see that tree. I looked up and there was like a 2-inch branch up there. I hit it solid. Nothing good happened after that.”
He then two-putted for a double bogey to break the bogey-free string that started after his double on the opening hole of the tournament.
Haas is seeking victory No. 15 on the Champions Tour, and trying to end a 33-event winless streak — going back to the 2009 Senior Players Championship.
And if he should end that drought the same weekend his son wins?
”That would be very cool,” Haas said. ”That would be unbelievable.”
He peeked at a TV before discussing his round.
”I think Bill’s getting ready to hit,” he explained.
Haas parred his final five holes after two straight birdies, managing to avoid the trouble that struck Calcavecchia and Pernice.
”I’m very encouraged with how I’m striking the ball,” he said. ”I think out here you have to hit the ball well to score. There are certain courses that you don’t have to be quite as sharp and you can still get away with a few things, but out here you can’t.
”If your irons aren’t sharp, you’re going to struggle. And if I’m not driving to the fairway my irons aren’t going to be good. I’ve managed to do that quite a bit.”
He’s the only player with three rounds in the 60s this week. Gil Morgan is the only one to post four in the Tradition, managing that in 1997.
Haas looked at the scoreboard after 11 and was six back, then heard cheers as Calcavecchia birdied that same hole a few minutes later. When he checked it out again after 14, he was two back.
”Pretty fortunate for all of us for him to have backed up like that to give us some hope,” Haas said.
First-round leader Lehman, who has won two of the first six events, birdied three of the final six holes.
Pernice, whose only Champions Tour win came in the 2009 SAS Championship, was cruising until hitting it into the bunker on the final hole and missing his putts.
He had hit a 14-footer for birdie on No. 17. Pernice said he was unaware that he might need only a par after that to manage a share of the lead.
”I didn’t really see a scoreboard until 18, and then I really didn’t have a chance to look at it because I was too busy putting,” he said. ”I saw earlier that he had gone to 15 (under) and I really didn’t see anything since then. I was really just trying to mind my own business.”
Peter Senior (68) and Kenny Perry (71) were three shots back. Perry had a number of near-misses on birdie putts while paired with Calcavecchia but ended up just matching the leader.