POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Jan 24, 2011
KA'UPULEHU-KONA, HAWAII » John Cook froze a field full of past champions yesterday to win the Mitsubishi Electric Championship at Hualalai.
Cook opened the back nine with five consecutive birdies to make everyone go away in the final round. The 1992 Hawaiian Open champion fired his second straight 8-under-par 64 at Hualalai Golf Club. With a final score of 22-under 194, he won by two shots over Tom Lehman (64) and three over defending champion Tom Watson (68).
"I made some nice putts and I hit some really, really good quality shots," said Cook, who won the final senior stop last year. "I had a lot of 3-foot birdie putts today. That was good."
Watson also won with a score of 22 under last year. The 61-year old now has eight top-10 finishes here, which helped inspire him to buy a home at Hualalai. He also "owns" the back nine, where he was 17 under last year and 15 under this year. With Cook sizzling, it was not enough.
"After three-putting (No.) 9, that kind of put me behind the 8-ball," said Watson, who pointed to three missed putts inside 5 feet and a "stubbed" chip shot as his greatest frustration. "The back nine, if anybody is playing well you're going to shoot well on the back nine. John did, Tom did.
"I had to shoot 29 on the back nine to tie today. The first nine did me in."
Russ Cochran seized the lead with a 62 Friday and took a two-shot advantage over Watson into the final round -- three ahead of Cook. That wasn't nearly enough. He had his first bogey of the week on the second hole and finished at even-par 72. The average score this week was 68.746.
Cochran, who won twice last year, called his closing round "a little weak and timid." He shared fourth with Jeff Sluman at 17 under.
This one was over long before it was over. Cook, 53, was untouchable as the season opener of the Champions Tour's 32nd season wore on. He one-putted the first seven greens on the back nine yesterday, bursting into first when he drained a 30-footer at No. 11 to go 18 under.
He called that hole the "catalyst" for what followed. Cook's approach came from a lie "in the rough about 6 inches from the bunker on the downslope, on the wrong side, with the wind blowing the wrong way."
He hit an 8-iron to the green and fell into the bunker feet first.
"I didn't have any idea I was going to come away with 3 on that hole, so that was a great, great bonus," Cook said. "This is early in the year. We haven't practiced many of those shots yet."
He pushed his advantage with a 10-footer on the next hole, hit it within 3 feet on the 13th and launched in another 30-footer on the 14th -- "another bonus."
The bonus birdies proved to be the separation he needed from Lehman, who birdied the last two holes ahead of Cook but was left to lament two bogeys that closed his front nine.
"On the back nine, I felt I was playing really well, but John Cook just kept making birdies," Lehman said. "I don't know what he shot over the last 10 or 11 holes, but it had to be really low."
Told that Cook started the back nine with five birdies, Lehman could only shrug: "Yeah, well, that will do it."
Cook birdied the 16th from 3 feet to flirt with his career low, a 10-under 62 that gave him a runner-up finish at the 2002 United Airlines Hawaiian Open. Instead, he parred the last two to lead a swarm of former Hawaiian Open champs who spent yesterday tearing up Hualalai.
Sluman, the 1998 winner, birdied the final hole to get his share of fourth. Corey Pavin, the last guy to successfully defend at Waialae (1986-87), soared into second after 11 holes but could not keep up Cook's torrid pace, parring out.
Cook never backed up or backed off. He needed just 11 putts on the back nine and 27 for the round -- two more than Friday, one more than Saturday and nine fewer than Watson for the week.
"I thought yesterday I needed to get to 20 (under)," Cook said. "Once I got to 20 I went 'Maybe that won't be enough. You better keep the pedal down.' That one at 16 was the killer. I didn't relax after that, but I knew I hit such a good shot there and I knew the next shot would be the same club and I knew I'd done this."
All week Cook talked about his more "efficient" preparation for the season, working "10 percent harder at everything" to try to get his game to the level where he can win more tournaments and his first major.
Yesterday, he compared his game to when it was best, in that magical 1992 season when he won three times and had a pair of runner-up finishes in majors.
"Now I feel I know as much, I'm a lot more confident and a little more at ease with my life," said Cook, who won $305,000 to kick his career earnings to $18.5 million. "The kids are grown and gone, that helps. And I have such a great support group that's been there through thick and thin.
"Yeah, I feel like I strike the ball as well or better as I did. ... I feel like I'm in control of all the things I've worked on since I was 13 years old."
He looked it. So did Watson, the World Golf Hall of Famer.
"I still have some life in the game, some pop in the ball," Watson said. "I can hit the shots when I want to. I'm still there.
"I finished third but disappointing missing the short putts the way I did. I missed some the first day and some pretty short putts yesterday too. I made more long putts than I did short putts, basically. ... I better figure something out with that."
Jack Nicklaus joins seven players from Hualalai on Maui this weekend for the Ka'anapali Champions Skins Game. Nicklaus and Tom Watson will defend their title against 2009 winners Fuzzy Zoeller and Ben Crenshaw, Fred Couples and Nick Price and Bernhard Langer and Mark O'Meara.
The first nine holes will be Saturday and the final nine Sunday on the Royal Ka'anapali Course. The first six holes are worth $30,000 apiece, the next six $40,000, the next five $50,000 and the last hole $100,000.
Format is two-man team, alternate shot. The seniors start at 2 p.m. each day and both rounds will be shown on the Golf Channel. Admission is free.
» This was John Cook's sixth Champions victory. He has finished among the top five in his past four events.