Woody Austin was among the players starting their round on the 10th tee Friday in the 3M Championship. The event is annually a birdie fest, and particularly so on the TPC Twin Cities’ back nine.
Austin put up a 5-under 31 and was tied for the lead for a hunk of the early afternoon.
“I made a couple of 20-footers for birdie,” Austin said. “I was making putts again. Then, I went back to the same terrible putting that I’ve done all summer. I’ve felt like a 15-handicapper for the past 3½ months.”
Austin turned 52 on Jan. 27. That is prime time for the seniors on the Champions Tour.
“Age is more important on this tour than it is on the regular tour,” said Jeff Sluman, who turns 59 on Sept. 11. “Those first years after you turn 50 … for most of us, those will be your best years.”
Austin played in 25 Champions events total in 2014 and 2015, and had a second, a third and a total of 16 top-10s. Still, it was not until the start of this season that Woody took full advantage of his “youth” on the Champions Tour.
He won three times in a stretch of four tournaments: in Tucson, in Duluth, Ga., and in the Legends event in Ridgedale, Mo., with partner Michael Allen.
All that winning has Austin still in third place in Schwab Cup points, even with those 3½ months of feeling like a high handicapper.
“The good thing is I know the reason I’ve played so poorly,” Austin said.
“If you’re going to compete with these players, you have to work on your game continually. When I’m back home these days, I’m not working on golf at all.”
Austin comes from Tampa. His home is in Derby, Kan., a suburb of Wichita. How does a Florida guy wind up in Kansas?
“Take a guess,” he said. “My wife [Shannon] is from Wichita.”
The Austins have two sons — one headed for college, the other nearing the end of high school.
“I actually played a couple of rounds with my sons when I was home last week,” Austin said. “Maybe that’s why I played better today.”
Austin wound up with a 5-under 67 that put him in an eight-way tie for fifth after Friday’s first round. That’s two strokes behind leader Glen Day.
Two off the lead — that’s strong contention — but Woody wasn’t exactly oozing confidence.
“I rolled in some putts early and then stopped making anything,” Austin said. “The guys I was playing with, Bart Bryant and Scott Dunlap, they kept rolling them, so the problem was me.”
The idea of Austin going home and setting the clubs aside for a week, and talking in negative terms about the state of the game, is quite a contrast to media members who last talked to Woody during the 2007 PGA Championship at Southern Hills in Tulsa, Okla.
He was a 43-year-old grinder trying to take away a 13th major victory from Tiger Woods.
“You were at that one, huh?” Austin said. “I upset a lot of people in the media that week. I was speaking what I knew was the truth, and the media didn’t want to hear it … not the way Tiger [Woods] was dominating then.”
The truth as Woody saw it was that he was hitting the ball better than Tiger for most of those four days in Oklahoma’s summer steam. After Saturday’s third round, Woods had a three-stroke lead and many players were conceding.
“Tiger knows he’s going to win, and he knows you know he’s going to win,” Arron Oberholser said.
Austin refused to join that chorus. He insisted that he had hit the ball better tee to green than Woods on Friday, even though Tiger shot a 63, Woody a 70.
On Saturday, Stephen Ames made a putt on the 18th hole to knock Austin out of Sunday’s final pairing with Woods.
In the media tent, Woody said: “Did Ames make that putt? Well, that stinks.”
Austin with his three PGA Tour victories wanted Woods, 12 years younger and with 58 PGA Tour victories.
“I almost got him, too,” Austin said Friday. “I had a putt that should have dropped to get even. That would’ve ruined the story line for the media.”
As a witness to those events at Southern Hills, I’m not sure about that.
The new, calm, 50-plus Woody is an affable sort, but I do miss the Woody who nearly turned his crazy talk into one of the greatest upsets in major golf history.
Remember how it was down there, Woody? “I’m a Florida boy,’’ he said. “I can take the heat.”
Yes, he could.