Bernhard Langer had every intention of returning to TPC Tampa Bay last year to defend his Outback Steakhouse Pro-Am title. But his plans were thwarted when he tried to cross the street.
Langer reached out to push a traffic-signal button and aggravated a left thumb injury in South Florida. When the pain persisted and playing golf became too painful, he opted for surgery. He missed the Champions Tour event and had to sit out the Masters as well. Langer won green jackets in 1985 and 1993.
"It was disappointing, but I had to make that decision," Langer said. "It was tough to sit out the Masters and this tournament, some of my favorite events. But I had no other option.
"I had been hurting so bad for so long that I had to do it."
Langer missed four months. For someone who is used to playing between 20 and 30 tournaments a year, the layoff was frustrating.
He returned in time for the Senior Open Championship in mid July; he tied for 12th.
Since returning to the tour, Langer has not won.
"That's a long time for me," said Langer, 54, who returns to the Tampa Bay area's tour event, now called the Encompass Insurance Pro-Am, which begins today at TPC Tampa Bay.
Langer said he had lingering pain through the second half of last season. He continued to play, entering 14 tournaments. He didn't play after the Charles Schwab Cup Championship in early November, and the thumb started to get better.
"It only started to feel better in December," Langer said.
A healthy Langer automatically becomes a favorite to win any tour event. He has won 14 times in his five-plus years on the senior circuit. This season he has two second-place finishes and a third place. He sits atop the points list for the Charles Schwab Cup — a seasonlong competition to determine the tour's top player — despite not having a win.
And he returns to a course where he has won before.
"I really feel like I can win on most golf courses if I play well," Langer said. "But this is a course I really like. It's a shotmaker's golf course. It's not just the guy who can putt well that wins this tournament. You've got to hit some proper golf shots. All the winners lately have been great ball strikers."
Which brings us to John Cook.
Cook, 54, is the defending champion. He won in a playoff over Jay Don Blake to snap an 0 for 106 tournament drought in Florida.
Though his return to TPC Tampa Bay is filled mostly with good memories, Cook has thoughts of what might have been. He double-bogeyed the 18th hole on Sunday to force the playoff. He made birdie on the first playoff hole to win.
"If I would have not won that event, there's no telling how the rest of my year would have gone," Cook said. "It would have been a devastating loss for me."
He went on to win one more time in 2011 and a total of three tournaments in the season. This year he has two top-five finishes. He also has a history of repeating as champion. Cook won the 2009 and 2010 Charles Schwab Cup.
He's looking forward to the chance to repeat.
"It's all about winning out here and taking advantage of your opportunities, and I haven't done that this year," Cook said. "I'm still getting used to some new equipment, but that's really not the issue.
"I feel good about everything I'm doing. I'm excited to play. I know that it's hard to say that at 54 years old that you are excited, but I really am."