BLAINVILLE, Que. — Whether he was playing coy or his focus was more appropriately on the task at hand, defending champion Larry Mize was sending mixed signals in his pre-Montreal Championship press conference at Lefontainebleau Golf Club.
“I just have good memories,” Mize said Thursday in speaking of last year’s inaugural Champions Tour event here, which he won by a single stroke over John Cook. “I played really well, obviously, to win the golf tournament, and I feel like my game is starting to come around, so I’m excited about defending this week.”
A few moments later, when asked how his season has gone, Mize whistled a different tune.
“My game, the last few weeks, has not been what I would like,” he said. “Putting has been subpar and I feel like ball-striking has been, as well.”
Huh? So Larry, which is it? Will you be rolling or sputtering to the 10th tee (he starts on the back, in a group with Lonnie Nielsen and Jay Haas, at 11:30 a.m.) Friday morn?
Mize did go on to admit that he is coming off a couple of practice sessions that have been “very encouraging.”
Said the 52-year-old Georgian: “I think that the putter is starting to warm up a little bit. I made some minor adjustments, which I think are going to help, and same with the golf swing.”
Mize, a four-time winner on the PGA Tour who is best known for the approach shot he drained on the second extra playoff hole to defeat Greg Norman in the 1987 Masters, can’t be considered the favourite this weekend. Not the way Tom Edward Lehman is playing.
Lehman, the best golfer on the planet in 1996, is a dominant force on the Champions Tour. He has already won three times this year and has a comfortable lead atop the Charles Schwab Cup standings.
He’ll be playing in a much-watched threesome Friday with Cook and John Huston, two groups ahead of Mize, when the field heads out in pursuit of the $270,000 US first-place prize money.
“I’m confident,” said Lehman, a 52-year-old from Austin, Minn. “I think golf, like any other sport, is a game of momentum. You get the momentum going your way and you carry it through. It may last two months or it may last five months or it may last an entire year, but the idea is to keep the momentum going.
“I’ve had good momentum throughout the year. My game is good, but there are a lot of other players who are playing very well, so it should be a very competitive tournament.
“But I have high expectations, obviously.”
While Lehman stressed the importance of getting off to a good start in a three-day tournament, Mize won with a strong finish in 2010.
On the final day, he carded a sizzling 8-under 64 that gave him the title with a 17-under total.
“The biggest thing I remember is I had to continue to push to make birdies,” said Mize. “Everybody was playing well. You had to continue giving yourself birdie chances, because you knew they were.”
The sentimentalists in the crowd will be pulling for a strong showing from 66-year-old Hale Irwin, the Champions Tour’s all-time leader in wins.
Irwin, it seems, has been sipping from Le-fountain of youth recently. He has five top-10 finishes this season after having only three over the previous three years.
“Those young 50-year-olds we have seen (on the Champions Tour) over the last several years ... there’s a real influx of really good players,” the three-time U.S. Open champion said. “And so that raises the bar even higher. The older you get, you don’t get quite as high as you want to, and that bar may be out of reach, but it’s still within reach, just not like it once was.
“That doesn’t mean I can’t reach it every now and then.”
Don's top five favourites
1. Tom Lehman: Currently the best 50-plus-year-old golfer in North America, if not the world.
2. Larry Mize: Defending champ had seven birdies, an eagle and one bogey in a final-round 64 last year.
3. John Cook: Seven-time Champions Tour winner has two victories this season. Runner-up here last year.
4. Jay Haas: Was one of the top 20 players in the world when he was eligible to join the Champions Tour in 2004.
5. Tom Kite: He’s 61, but a proven winner, with 10 Champions Tour victories on the heels of nine PGA Tour titles.