E.A. Sports Today

Howard, Evans set to defend

[corner-ad id=2]Sunny King defending champions still think they have something to prove after winning last year’s playoff

Ryan Howard is all smiles after pulling his playoff-winning birdie putt out of the hole at the end of last year's Sunny King Charity Classic.

Ryan Howard is all smiles after pulling his playoff-winning birdie putt out of the hole at the end of last year’s Sunny King Charity Classic.

By Al Muskewitz
East Alabama Sports Today

The way Ryan Howard and Lance Evans see it, they flew way under the radar on the way to winning last year’s Sunny King Charity Classic.

Not many people gave them much of a chance going into the tournament. Those people still discounted them on Championship Sunday even though they went into their home course just two shots off the lead. Even the media ignored them in favor of more traditional contenders while they played “three steady rounds” of golf throughout the weekend.

Then Howard dropped a 25-foot birdie putt on the first playoff hole and all of a sudden the overlooked team was hoisting the winner’s trophy on the patio.

Now, with the 37th annual Classic about to get underway, they still aren’t certain they’re the first team people think of when it comes to favorites.

“I kind of get the feeling we’re still under the radar even though we’re defending champions because I think we kind of surprised a lot of people last year,” Howard said. “I get the feeling people don’t think we can defend, but we’ve got as good a chance as anybody.”

It won’t be easy. The Classic has produced a different winner each of the last five years and there hasn’t been a back-to-back champion since Ott Chandler and Gary Wilborn did it in 2004-2005.

“If you asked 100 people last year, 90 said we didn’t have a chance,” Howard said. “We’d never been in that situation before. People don’t know us; don’t expect us to really be there. The ones I talked to, they’re not necessarily rooting against you, but it’s like there’s no way you’re going to win.”

This year’s Classic starts Friday with the accepted-or-not defending champions and the rest of the 39-team Ford Mustang championship flight opening in the scramble on Silver Lakes’ Heartbreaker and Backbreaker nines. Another third of the 175-plus-team field will be playing a best-ball round at Anniston Country Club and the remaining third will play a modified scramble at Oxford’s Cider Ridge Golf Club.

They’ll all rotate throughout the weekend, with the championship flight closing at ACC on Sunday. In an attempt to speed up the rounds, tournament officials will employ two-tee starts in two waves at Silver Lakes and, for the first time, Cider Ridge.

Of course, the ultimate goal of the tournament is to raise as much as possible for the nearly three dozen charities it benefits. Last year’s event missed the traditional goal of $100,000 and there are fewer teams entered this year, but tournament officials are confident the funding to the charities will be in “good shape.”

“Our sponsors have been very generous,” tee time chairman Keith Howell said. “We’ve gotten some good sponsorship, more so than we have before.”

Once again numerous teams are expected to contend for the crown. Evans estimates there are “probably 15 to 20 teams” that could unseat them as champions.

Gary Wigington once again will be seeking a record-tying sixth King crown. He and Freeman Fite carried a two-shot lead over the eventual champions into the final round and the teams fought it throughout the day. They both finished regulation in 38-under-par, the winning score each of the last three years.

The two big momentum swings came on the back nine when Evans made a 30-foot birdie from off the green on the short par-4 13th after topping his drive off the tee and two holes later when Wigington-Fite made bogey from the middle of the fairway.

“They really played good that day,” Wigington said. “I thought if we shot what we did we’d have won anyway … but they had several good things happen that have to happen to win and we really didn’t.

“Freeman was a little disappointed in the way he played, that being his home course and all. We both were very disappointed with last year’s finish and how we played. I think it lit a fire under both of us to do better and not be in that position again.”

Among other teams anticipated to contend are 2013 champs Garrett Burgess-Cypress Hathorn, Jeremy McGatha-Brennan Clay, Jaylon Ellison-P.J. Shields, Ty Cole-Matt Rogers, Scott and Blake Smith, Chad Calvert-Chad Reavis and Randy Lipscomb-Jake Nichols.

But as last year proved, any team that stays steady throughout the weekend has a chance to win.

“Defending is harder than winning it,” Evans said. “We’ve talked about it and we’re going into it not expecting to win it, but wanting to win it. Last year we just thought we’d play as best we could and try to stay within a couple shots of the lead going into the Country Club and that’s the same mentality we’ll go into it with this year.

“There’s no doubt we can compete again. We’ll just try to stay close until we get to the Country Club and maybe we can do something good there. We’re not thinking to do anything other than play solid golf and let the chips fall where they may.”

While many of the players in the field were trying to cram as much golf as possible in the run-up to the tournament, Howard spent two of the last three weeks on a European vacation, hitting all the hot spots – Dublin, London, Paris, Barcelona.

He did squeeze in one round of golf, which was more relaxation than Sunny King practice, playing the Irish classic Portmarnock Golf Club on the recommendation of his teacher, Wayne Flint. The only equipment he took on the trip was a sleeve of balls – and he didn’t lose one in the round.

“I considered that a success,” he said.

So was the round. Playing through a set of rental clubs and some serious jetlag, he shot 2-over-par 74 with two birdies on a cloudless 70-degree day more fitting of Dublin, Ohio, than Dublin, Ireland. The venerable old links gave him a greater appreciation for the game and golf in the United States.

“That’s what I told my caddy,” Howard said. “He just came back from New York and the first thing he said was how much easier it is to play in the U.S. than here. It’s definitely a different game, for sure. I couldn’t imagine playing in actually what (the weather) was intended for it to be. If we had gotten traditional weather, I can’t imagine what I’d shot.”

Not to worry about getting in his work for the Sunny King. He promised his partner he’d be hard at it when they returned and true to his word from the day they landed back in the States he was on the Classic courses every day reacquainting himself with his clubs, American-style golf and the two courses he played only once last year – Silver Lakes and Cider Ridge — and those just during the run toward the crown.


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