Haas leads Mitsubishi Electric Classic, faces a 36-hole finish Saturday

Around men of a certain age, you don’t want to employ the word “stroke” too liberally. But in this case, it’s a very good thing. Really.

On Friday, just one little stroke separated Jay Haas from that most excellent of golfing feats – shooting his age. Being that he’s 64, and being that this was the first round of the Mitsubishi Electric Classic, it all added up to one of his best days on the over-50 PGA Tour Champions in years.

Haas’ 65, 7 under over the long and lumpy TPC Sugarloaf course, placed him alone in the first-round lead of this very exclusive senior men’s league. One shot back is Steve Flesch, at 50 the whippersnapper in the group.

One more back at 5 under is, oh, here’s a big surprise, Bernhard Langer.      

Around this gated community, chasing Langer has become pretty much the routine. He’s like that neighbor with the immaculate yard and the well-mannered kids you’re always trying to keep up with. Even as he has turned 60 and has gotten off to his least auspicious start on this tour maybe ever, Langer always seems to get it right at Sugarloaf. With one victory and three runner-up finishes in the five years here, he is well positioned once more.

They all needed to take their tonics, put on the nightcaps and get to bed early Friday. Because Saturday promised to be a long one. Taking to heart the threat of heavy rain Sunday, tournament officials decided to play the final 36 holes Saturday and bug out before the wet stuff hits. It will be dawn-to-dark golf at Sugarloaf on Saturday.  

“It’s not great,” Haas said of the call to play 36 on Saturday, “but if it’s bad weather on Sunday, nobody’s going to come out and watch us anyway.

“It will be a long day. Thankfully we can get in carts (which should help speed up play). This is a long walking course, I’m pretty whipped today.”

Whether age will come into play Saturday will be something to watch. The age range at play will be well represented in the final threesome, between Flesh the virtual rookie, Langer the highly decorated vet who just crossed the big 6-oh threshold and Haas, the fourth oldest player in the field.

Advantage Flesch (while seeking his first victory on this tour)? “Maybe so,” he said. “You know, I’m glad we’re playing 36 because I played well today.” Played well as in hit 17 of 18 greens in regulation, going bogey free.

“It’s going to be tough,” Langer said, looking to Saturday. “We’re all old to some extent, and it’s going to be a very long day. This course is very demanding. It’s a lot of hills to walk. My knees were sore playing (Friday).”

Langer – who made the cut last week at the Masters, playing the weekend in 1 under – led a contingent of former Masters champions whose relative good play there carried over on the drive to Duluth. Among a group of seven players tied a 3 under were Jose Maria Olazabal and Sandy Lyle, who both missed the cut at the Masters by one stroke last week.

“No surprise. I mean, they’re Hall of Fame guys, so it’s not a surprise when they play well,” Haas said.  

Haas’ Friday round pretty much came out of nowhere, a moment of competitive clarity amid a lot of confusion. It was only his second round in the 60s through a dozen rounds this year, and his lowest round since his last of 18 PGA Tour Champions victories in October 2016. 

Haas is a credit to his doctors. He named a couple of them after his round, while extolling the virtues of simply feeling good again. “Just being able to work at (his game) because I feel a little better – that’s basically the difference,” he said.

“I did a lot of good things today – you have to in order to shoot 65.”

A scorecard with nothing higher on it that a four will make anyone feel young and fit again. And one last tricky 15-foot birdie putt on No. 18 puts a bounce in one’s step all the way back to the clubhouse.  

Age is just a number, they say. So is the final reckoning on a scorecard. When the two of those nearly match, it can be a wonderful feeling.

Whether Haas can hold onto the feeling through 36 holes Saturday is the test. “If I play well (age) doesn’t matter,” Haas said. “I don’t think I can use it as an excuse or should use it as an excuse.” 

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