Outback Steakhouse Pro-Am: Seeking his first Champions Tour win, Nick Price aims to play smart with three-shot lead

Nick Price, who hasn’t won on the Champions Tour since joining in 2007, tips his cap to the crowd after sinking a par putt on the 18th hole.

BRIAN BLANCO | Special to the Times

Nick Price, who hasn’t won on the Champions Tour since joining in 2007, tips his cap to the crowd after sinking a par putt on the 18th hole.

LUTZ

Today could be the day Nick Price officially gets his game back. It could also be the day he puts to rest talk of why he hasn't won on the Champions Tour since joining in 2007. Price followed his opening 66 with 4-under 67 on Saturday at TPC Tampa Bay to separate himself from the Outback Steakhouse Pro-Am field. His three-shot lead was his largest on the tour heading into the final round. He has been the final-round leader three times but hasn't hung on. "Hopefully I can play smart," said Price, 52. "The golf course is not yielding low scores, so if you play conservatively and smart, it's going to be hard for people to catch you." Among those trying to is 64-year-old journeyman

Mike McCullough, who is winless on the PGA Tour and has won only twice on the Champions Tour, in 2001. He was tied for second with first-round leader Larry Nelson, whose 71 included bogeys at 17 and 18. And Jay Haas rallied on the back nine with birdies at Nos. 12, 15 and 18 to get to within three of Price. Haas, 55, has finished second in this event two straight years and never won in Florida (0-for-113).

But the tournament appears to be Price's to lose.

It is his 39th Champions Tour event, and his best finishes have been a pair of seconds in 2008. Dating to his PGA days, Price has gone 111 tournaments without a win. But 10 times on the PGA Tour, Price held a final-round lead and won seven.

The South African started his day with seven straight pars, then birdied Nos. 8 and 9. After bogey on 10, he birdied the relatively easy par-5 12th and the difficult 16th and 17th holes.

Price said he is in contention because he has taken the mystery out of his game.

"I think when you have fun in golf is when you don't have any surprises in your bag," Price said. "You play nice and consistent. I don't feel like I'm playing great golf; I'm just playing smart golf. I've been hitting the ball generally where I'm aiming, which is a good thing."

Nelson, 61, who led on the back nine before faltering on the final two holes, likes his odds, too.

"I'm happy," said Nelson, who won in 1999 in Lutz. "I think I have a chance to win. I think I've hit enough good shots and putts that I feel comfortable about (today)."

McCullough isn't as comfortable. He carded his 69 in the morning and knew it was going to be much harder being in one of the final groups.

"I'm finding it harder and harder to be mentally prepared to play golf every day," McCullough said. "I know that no matter what I do I'm going to shoot in a range of two or three strokes whether I'm concentrating super hard or not. It's hard to get up every time, and you waste shots you shouldn't have."

The only other player who appeared to be in striking range was Hal Sutton, who shot the day's low, 64, to get to 4 under.

This is the first time this season Price has been much of a factor, especially on Sunday. He has only one top 10 finish in five tournaments, a tie for seventh at the Ace Group Classic in February.

But he has won three majors in his professional career. He knows what he has to do today to raise his first Champions Tour trophy.

"I have to play the same way I played (Saturday)," Price said. "I'm not going at any pins unnecessarily. If someone starts playing well and I have to go at some pins, I will. But I've got to play smart."

Rodney Page can be reached at (727) 893-8810, page@sptimes.com or golf@sptimes.com.

Outback Steakhouse Pro-Am: Seeking his first Champions Tour win, Nick Price aims to play smart with three-shot lead 04/18/09 [Last modified: Sunday, April 19, 2009 7:09am]

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