CARY — There aren’t many athletes who like the thought of turning 50.
Unless you’re a professional golfer, that is. Unless you have your sights set on the Champions Tour. Then, you’re counting down the days.
Neal Lancaster is one of those golfers. The Smithfield native celebrated his 50th birthday on Sept. 13 and will be making his Champions Tour debut this week in the SAS Championship at Prestonwood Country Club.
“It’s great being a rookie this week,” Lancaster said Tuesday. “I know I’ll probably have some sleepless nights this week, this being my first event.
“It’s going to be different. It’s a little more laid-back atmosphere out here I believe, but they’re still competitors who know how to win, because they’ve all won golf tournaments.”
Lancaster won once on the PGA Tour, at the 1994 Byron Nelson Golf Classic, surviving a six-man playoff. A streaky player in his years on tour, he once birdied seven straight holes in a tournament and twice shot a 29 on nine holes in the U.S. Open.
And Lancaster hasn’t completely given up on competing on the PGA Tour. He said he still has medical exemptions into tournaments and wants to use them while playing as many Champions Tour events as he can work in.
“No disrespect to this tour, but coming out to this tour is a pay cut,” Lancaster said, smiling. “There’s so much money on that big tour.
“But these are the guys I know out here. Nick Price, Bernhard Langer ... these are guys I’ve basically played with my whole life up ’til the last five years. These guys can really play. They play three days and average about 15- or 16-under. It’s good golf.
Not fully exempt on the Champions Tour, Lancaster will either have to receive a sponsor’s exemption – he has one this week in the SAS – or go through Monday open qualifying to try and earn spots in the fields.
“This is the toughest tour in the world to get on,” he said. “It’s tougher than the PGA Tour. I’ve played 500 (PGA Tour) events and made 350 cuts and I have limited status out here, if any.”
Monday qualifying is a hard route to take, but it can be done. Bobby Clampett has successfully gone through Monday qualifying. Willie Wood did it and has won twice this year on the Champions Tour.
“The key is getting in the club,” Lancaster said. “Then you’ve got to go do it.”
Lancaster hasn’t played a lot of competitive golf in recent years after undergoing shoulder and neck surgeries. But Lancaster willingly concedes he also suffered from golf “burnout.”
But a more healthy, eager Lancaster is giving it another try.
He has competed in eight PGA Tour events this year, making the cut just twice. His best finish was a tie for 70th in the FedEx St. Jude Classic in June.
He missed the cut in four of five Web.com Tour starts, tying for 62nd in the News Sentinel Open in Knoxville, Tenn., in late August. He had rounds of 74 and 71 last week in the Chiquita Classic outside Charlotte, falling five shots below the cut line.
“I’ve been trying to play with the kids on the (Web.com) tour and it’s been tough,” he said.
Asked about his expectations in the SAS Championship, which has a $2.1 million purse, Lancaster grinned again.
“No expectations, because I haven’t played well in the last five years and haven’t played a lot,” he said. “I’d like to just go out and play well enough to get my juices going on Sunday.
“I’m ready to go. I feel like time’s running out on me, actually. I feel like I need to get out and compete.”