The SAS Championship begins Friday, a three-day run at Prestonwood Country Club with a purse of $2.1 million.
Tom Lehman will be looking to repeat as champion, although it will be hard to match his scorched-earth finish in last year’s final round. Bernhard Langer, a former SAS champion, also is back and could be the favorite, having been the leading man on the PGA Tour Champions this year with his four victories and $2.5 million in winnings.
But there’s a new wrinkle this year – a tournament within the tournament. “Wildcard Weekend,” the tour is calling it.
The SAS Championship is the last tournament before the inaugural Charles Schwab Cup playoffs, and the top 72 players on the money list will advance to the three-event playoffs for the 50-and-older set that’s similar to the PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup playoffs.
The new twist for the SAS: If a player outside the top 72 finishes in the top 10 this week, he can take the No. 72 spot as the “wildcard.”
“I think it’s a good idea,” said Russ Cochran, a two-time SAS winner. “I think the tour wants to bring a little more excitement to the tour toward the end of the year as far as the Schwab Cup. I think it’s going to work out well.”
It could work out well for Cochran. He’s 88th on the money list with $81,267. A top-10 at the SAS could get him in the playoffs, and he obviously has a great feel for the Prestonwood course.
“And it’s more than the golf course,” Cochran said. “I like the feel of the place. I feel comfortable here. I can concentrate here and it’s worked out well for me.”
The golfer on the playoff bubble this week is Brian Henninger, No. 72 on the list. Henninger flew in from California without a guaranteed spot in the SAS field and entered the Tuesday qualifier at The Club at 12 Oaks in Holly Springs.
“Got in at 2 in the morning, was up at 7 and started the qualifier,” he said.
On his third hole Tuesday, Henninger was notified Jeff Maggert had pulled out of the tournament. He was in as an alternate. He could pick up and head on to Prestonwood.
“Some of us go about this completely different than other people,” he said, smiling. “I’m one of those journeyman guys who have struggled and persevered, working really hard to make a living playing golf.”
Henninger, like the rest of his peers, marvels at what Langer has done – this year and in years past. A two-time Masters champion, Langer, 59, is more than $1 million more than Miguel Angel Jimenez, No. 2 on the money list.
“It’s hard to articulate how good he is,” Henninger said. “He stays in better shape than a lot of the guys. He does the same thing he did when he was on the PGA Tour, puts in his practice, goes about his diligence on the course before the tournament. And he doesn’t age.”
Lehman, 57, surged ahead in the SAS a year ago, going birdie, birdie, eagle, birdie on the last four holes for a 65 to edge Joe Durant by one shot. It was the ninth career PGA Tour Champions victory for the former British Open winner.
Neither Cochran, 57, nor Henninger, 53, has had a top-10 finish this year. Cochran, who won the 2011 Senior Open Championship, has played just eight events because of an injury.
But the wildcard element will be there the next three days. Get hot and who knows?
“Exactly,” Cochran said. “My game’s not in terrific shape but I’m hoping to get something going and get some momentum and go from there.”
Maybe into the top 72.
As Henninger put it, “Someone outside the top 72 could dive right into the whole thing.”
If you go
What: SAS Championship
When: Through Sunday
Where: Prestonwood Country Club, Cary