KA’UPULEHU-KONA, HAWAII » Russ Cochran "slumped" to a 7-under-par 65 yesterday and still leads the Champions Tour’s season-opening assault in the Mitsubishi Electric Championship at Hualalai.
Defending champion Tom Watson knows precisely how well Cochran, now at 17-under 127 for the tournament, is playing. Watson goes into the final day with the same score he had last year, when he led by two. He starts today trailing by two, with Cochran tying Don Pooley’s 36-hole record at Hualalai Golf Club.
Watson birdied the final hole to shoot a 65 and pull into second alone. He is a shot ahead of John Cook, who had the day’s low round of 64. Cook birdied half the holes and barely made a dent in his deficit.
"Everyone is shooting the grass off the golf course out there, and that’s what’s fun," Cook said, "This is the Champions Tour, not a bunch of Schmos out here trying to play golf."
Cook, 53, won the last event of the year the last two seasons and has five victories in his three-plus senior seasons. Cochran’s only two senior victories came in September. They were his first since 1991.
Somehow, both stayed hot through this cold offseason on the mainland.
"It was a weird feeling today," said Cochran, 52. "I started off hitting it pretty good and missing some shorter putts, and then it seemed like everything bounced my way — off the tee and a couple iron shots that I wasn’t sure how they’d turn out turned out great. It was a good day filled with some good bounces."
After his 62 Friday, in his first competitive round at Hualalai, anything might have felt a bit weird. Cochran does not have a bogey here. He drained a pair of 20-foot-plus birdie putts in the space of five holes yesterday, but missed a 5-footer for eagle.
He played with Ben Crenshaw — "a really cool guy" — yesterday and will tee it up with Watson, another World Golf Hall of Famer, today at 1:10 p.m. Cochran is admittedly out of his element and loving it, despite an early-round twitch in his left arm that affects his putting.
"I talked this over with my boys," Cochran said. "I played almost 600 events on the regular tour, and … I certainly know what not winning is all about. I’m just trying to put myself into position and try to keep that left arm a little steadier and go for it more. I think that’s the thing.
"I see guys out here like Tom, some of these great guys, who say they are going to cut back some. I know they cherish the moment. I know my career hasn’t been anywhere near theirs. I would still like to play and enjoy it and enjoy it with the kids."
Watson had a 34-hole bogey-free streak at Hualalai end at the third hole, but he kept his mind-boggling run on the back nine alive. The 61-year-old has more birdies than anyone here (16), and all but five have come on the back, where he is 28 under here the past two years.
Last year’s victory at Hualalai came after he purchased a home here, and ended an 0-for-33 tour streak in Hawaii.
Asked if the familiarity bred success, Watson grinned. "I had to pay for the house," he said.
He has won about 60 tournaments and $25 million playing golf. What he would really like to do now, today in front of his new home, is win again.
"I hit the ball better today but didn’t putt as well as yesterday," he said. "If I can hit the ball the way I did today and putt like I did yesterday, I might have a chance to catch Russ. He’s in a sprint right now. He’s going to be tough to catch."
Of Watson’s eight birdies, only one came on a putt outside 10 feet. Cook also was hitting it close, also had a bogey and is having no problem with Hualalai’s bunkers: He has four sand saves in four attempts this week.
According to Cook, Hualalai’s low-stress layout is what this week is all about. The average score yesterday was 69.095, up some from the opening round, and the 42 players in this tournament of champions have combined for 18 eagles already.
"It’s a reward for last year or the last couple of years," Cook says. "It’s a great place to start the year. Every year would be nice.
"You’ve got to go around and make a lot of birdies to keep up. It’s been in the 20-unders every year that I’ve played here to win. You know what you’ve got to do. Seven birdies a day for the first rounds of the year… guys are ready to play."
Leader Russ Cochran turned pro and joined the PGA Tour in 1979. His only win on the regular tour came in 1991.
"When my kids were young, they had those golf cards and on the back they had your bio," Cochran recalled. "They gave you a bunch of cards and it would say ‘Wins,’ none or whatever. I won the Western Open and came home, and they had all the cards out and they were flipping them over, striking ‘none’ out and putting ‘one.’ They care a little more about it than you think."
Sons Ryan and Reed now caddie for Cochran, who has won twice on the senior tour in two years.
» John Cook finished sixth in his first two visits, but slipped to 22nd last year with a final-round 72. That is his worst score in 11 rounds here, by four shots.
» Four golfers had two eagles apiece yesterday. That included Fred Couples, who shot 69, and Mark O’Meara, who had a 68 with five bogeys.
» The top 15 includes five Hawaii Open winners — Cook, Jeff Sluman, O’Meara, Corey Pavin and Ben Crenshaw. Tom Lehman, tied for fifth with Mark McNulty, has six top-10s at Waialae Country Club.
» McNulty is playing his first tour event since March. He had knee replacement surgery in May.
» Hualalai has been the easiest course on the Champions Tour seven of the past eight years and is on its way to making it eight out of nine. The tournament record is 25 under, shot by Loren Roberts in 2006. It is the tour’s all-time low. Roberts is the last golfer to win at Hualalai in his first appearance.