McCarron makes his first major title defense at Exmoor

Scott McCarron may be a battled-hardened mainstay on PGA Tour Champions, but he anticipates a unique feeling when he opens play in the Constellation Senior Players Championship at Exmoor Country Club in Highland Park.

“It’ll be the first time I’ve defended a title in a major,’’ said McCarron, looking ahead to the July 12-15 tournament – the first senior major played in the Chicago area since Olympia Fields hosted the U.S. Senior Open in 1997. “I’m sure there’ll be a few more butterflies on the first tee. This will be our best field of the year.’’

McCarron, 52, was no slouch on the PGA Tour. He won three times, two coming in the BellSouth Classic in Atlanta in 1997 and 2001. He lost three other titles in playoffs, had top-10 finishes in the Masters (1996), U.S. Open (1997) and PGA Championship (1997) and compiled $12.6 million in winnings.

Like so many players, however, he found his comfort zone on the circuit for players after they turned 50.

“I was competitive for a long time on the PGA Tour, but I was playing in the Tiger Woods era, and Phil Mickelson was winning a lot, too,’’ said McCarron. “Here (on PGA Tour Champions) it fits my game better. I come out to make birdies starting on the very first hole. I wish I had that attitude when I was on the PGA Tour.’’

Another factor is what McCarron calls “the numbers deal….on the PGA Tour there were 156-player fields. It’s 81 now.’’

That made a big difference once McCarron turned 50 in 2015. He won his first two titles on PGA Tour Champions the following year.

That was a good season, but nothing like the one he experienced in 2017. He started that year by winning the Allianz Championship in Boca Raton, Fla., in spectacular fashion. Needing a birdie to force a playoff on the par-5 finishing hole at the Broken Sound North course, McCarron went for the green with a 7-iron second shot from 186 yards.

“Normally my 7-iron is for 170, but I was pumped,’’ he said. The approach stopped six feet from the cup, and McCarron rolled in the eagle putt to claim the first of his four wins of that season. He went on to lead PGA Tour Champions in both birdies and eagles for the season.

“I was having such a blast,’’ he said. “I never realized how good golf could be until I got here. It’s been so much fun. Jack Nicklaus told me he made a mistake by not playing more on our tour.’’

While McCarron also would win the Dick’s Sports Goods Open and Shaw Charity Classic last year, his crowning moment came in the Constellation Senior Players at Caves Valley in Maryland when he overcame a six-stroke deficit in the final 18 holes to edge Brandt Jobe and Bernhard Langer by one shot. Posting an 18-under-par 270 total for the 72 holes, McCarron claimed his first win in a major on any tour.

“I tried a lot on the regular tour,’’ he said, “but this one feels the same, even if the accolades aren’t the same. To us it’s a big deal because it gets you into The Players Championship.’’

McCarron was looking forward to his appearance at the PGA Tour stop at Florida’s TPC Sawgrass last month (MAY), calling it “a special perk,’’ but he didn’t plan on testing himself against the game’s top young stars any other time.

“I don’t want to play on the regular tour if it conflicts with our (Champions) tour. I want to support PGA Tour Champions,’’ he said.

That sentiment is understandable, especially given McCarron’s background. He didn’t jump into right into professional golf after attending college at UCLA. He worked with his father in a family clothing business for four years first. Then he attended an event for the 50-and-older tour, the Raley’s Senior Gold Rush in his native California, in 1991.

That triggered his return to golf. McCarron decided to build a long putter in his garage and he was a serious contender in the U.S. Mid Amateur that year using the putter that he built. He went on to win his three PGA Tour titles with a more sophisticated version of the same club, and his career grew from there.

Last year was his best yet. He compiled 14 top-10 finishes, finished second in the Charles Schwab Cup standings and earned $2,674,195.

Though McCarron was without a win through April in 2018 he did come close. His best was a tie for second in the Toshiba Classic, which was one of his four top-10 finishes in the first eight tournaments. After the runner-up showing in the Toshiba Classic McCarron signed on with Tour Edge, the Batavia-based club manufacturer, as one of its hybrid staff players.

As good as McCarron has been in recent years on PGA Tour Champions, his most noteworthy round was one that came 24 years ago and can’t go unmentioned. Then 28, t McCarron made two holes-in-one in a seven-hole stretch at Alameda Country Club in California. They were also his first two career aces.