Dave Eichelberger soared out of golf semi-retirement and shot his age yesterday to win the Aloha Section PGA Professional Championship as well as the Sony Open in Hawaii exemption that comes with it.
Eichelberger, a member of the Champions Tour since 1993, fired a smooth 5-under-par 67 at Honolulu Country Club. He missed just one green in regulation, by a couple of feet, and buried six birdie putts. He finished one clear of Matt Pakkala, the 37-year-old Punahou School boys coach who came up just short on an eagle putt at the final hole.
Not bad for a guy who turned 67 earlier this month and spends much of his time now trying to keep up with his 12-year-old twins, who are in seventh grade at Punahou.
"Last time I won was a senior tour event (Emerald Coast Classic) in 2002," said Eichelberger, who had never before shot his age in competition. "Other than Spring Club Day at Waialae, that’s about the last thing I won."
It wasn’t as if he saw it coming. And, after playing some 1,240 tour events, if anybody should be able to see it coming in golf it would be Eichelberger. He has won four times on the PGA Tour and six more on the Champions and his career winnings are about $7.5 million — plus the $5,000 he earned yesterday. But he has been playing just part-time the past two years because "the old is catching up with me."
Until yesterday, when the golf gods grinned again.
"I am shocked, I never had any idea," Eichelberger said. "I was just hoping to play good in section events and all that. I love to play, love to practice. Now, even though I’m not full-time on the Champions Tour anymore, I like to play every day and keep hitting balls."
His sixth and decisive birdie putt was a 20-foot "downhill curler" on the par-3 17th. He played the waterlogged, 500-yard, par-5 final hole conservatively — "I thought there was a possibility I could be 1 up and didn’t want to blow it" — and the two-putt par gave him a final total of 4-under 140.
It was just enough to hold off Pakkala, who was in the final group after starting the day in a four-way tie for first. Pakkala knew he needed an eagle on the 18th to catch Eichelberger, and he lashed his second shot to the green with a 4-iron from 212 yards out. His 30-foot putt to tie went 27 feet, stopping on the downslope.
"I hit it right on line," Pakkala shrugged. "I thought, when I hit it, it had a real good chance, but I left it about 3 feet short. I hit the putt I wanted."
He finished at 71–141 to claim second, a shot ahead of GolfTEC Hawaii’s John Lynch (70) and Hilo Municipal’s Lance Taketa (71). The runner-up finish put Pakkala in the national Section Professional Championship next summer in Pennsylvania, where he was born. The qualifier was run in conjunction with the section stroke play, with about half the field participating.
Eichelberger was not the only senior trying to win in meticulous and near-perfect conditions at HCC — only the oldest. There were 10 others at 50-plus playing. Three — Eichelberger, Taketa and Hawaii Golf Hall of Famer Larry Stubblefield — finished in the top six. Pakkala was not surprised, particularly at the guy he plays with often.
"Dave hits it really, really straight," said Pakkala, who will defend his Nike Golf 4-Ball title with Kevin Carll next month. "He’ll probably tell you he’s lost a little distance the last few years … but for him, if he’s making 8- to 10-footers he’s going to go low. This is a good golf course for him because it’s 6,500 yards, not 7,000. If his putter gets going, he’s going to be there."
The best perk yesterday was the exemption into the Sony Open. Eichelberger last played when he was 60, Monday qualifying. It was the same year 14-year-old Michelle Wie became the youngest to play a tour event.
Eichelberger has seen it all. "I remember I played with Sam Snead in the 1975 Quad Cities Open on Saturday," he said. "He was 63 then. I’m not sure who the oldest person is to play in a PGA Tour event. I’ve got to be pushing it pretty close."
Actually not. Jerry Barber played in the 1994 Buick Invitational at 77.
Eichelberger still has time.