Jim Furyk knows where he stands in the galaxy of golf. He’s a singles hitter in a game obsessed by the long ball, where the venues keep getting bigger and longer and friendlier to Dustin Johnson, Jon Rahm and their power-hitting cohorts.
But not to Furyk.
<p>He’s 50 years old, a winner in his only PGA Tour Champions start and back on the “big tour” for this week’s <a href="https://www.sfchronicle.com/sports/golf/article/Golfer-Shane-Lowry-arrives-in-Napa-with-cachet-as-15551151.php">Safeway Open</a> in Napa. Furyk returned to play with the young guys mostly because he can compete on Silverado Resort’s North Course, a modest track (7,166 yards) by modern standards.</p> <p><a href="https://www.sfchronicle.com/sports/kroichick/article/Mickelson-squanders-chance-to-win-Pebble-Beach-15042933.php">Phil Mickelson</a> also is 50, also won his only event among the “old guys” and also found his way back to Napa this week. Mickelson returned to play with the youngsters mostly because he wants to prepare for next week’s U.S. Open, and he thinks he can compete anywhere, anytime, against anyone.</p> <p>That’s reasonable given his 44 career victories, including five majors. But is it realistic at this stage of Mickelson’s career? Probably not.</p> <!-- hearst/article/content/relatedStories.tpl --> <!-- e hearst/article/content/relatedStories.tpl --><p>Furyk and Mickelson offer interesting and contrasting studies on how to handle an accomplished tour pro’s twilight years at the highest level. Furyk sounds eager to devote most of his time to the 50-and-older circuit, saying he plans to make 80% of his starts there next year.</p> <p>Don’t expect a similar pledge from Mickelson anytime soon.</p> <p>“I play this game because I enjoy getting in contention,” Furyk said Wednesday. “I enjoy waking up nervous on Sunday morning and having a chance to win. And right now I feel like I’m going to have more opportunities, if I’m playing well and firing on all cylinders, on the Champions Tour.”</p> <p>Furyk understands the steep challenge, for him, of climbing into contention on most PGA Tour courses. He’s won 17 times on the big tour in his career but only once in the past 10 years, and not at all in the past five.</p> <!-- Missed: ad --> <p>He ranked 192nd this past season in driving distance (280.2-yard average); not coincidentally, he posted just two top-25 finishes, and none since November.</p> <p>Then, in his debut with the 50-and-older crowd, Furyk abruptly rediscovered the old magic — he shot 68-66-68 to win the event in Grand Blanc, Mich. Funny how that happened once he stayed away from the biggest ballparks.</p> <p>“It’s always been a power-driven game, but it’s becoming more of a power-driven game,” Furyk said of the PGA Tour. “Being 50 years old and a guy who was really never that long, I find myself giving up a lot of yardage off the tee.”</p> <p>Mickelson, at 59th in driving distance, remains seduced by smacking tee shots into distant frontiers. He had his moments during the 2019-20 season, with a third-place finish at Pebble Beach in February and a tie for second at the World Golf Championship event in Memphis last month.</p> <!-- hearst/article/content/factbox.tpl --> <p>What: PGA Tour event to open 2020-21 season</p> <p>When: Thursday through Sunday</p> <p>Where: Silverado Resort (North Course), Napa</p> <p>TV: Golf Channel, 1-4 p.m. Thursday and Friday; 3-6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday</p> <p>Spectators: Not allowed because of coronavirus pandemic</p> <button type="button">See MoreCollapse</button> <!-- e hearst/article/content/factbox.tpl --><p>Even so, Mickelson really isn’t a threat in majors anymore (except maybe at the Masters). He tied for 71st in the <a href="https://www.sfchronicle.com/sports/golf/article/Tiger-Woods-Phil-Mickelson-play-out-the-string-15469608.php">PGA Championship at Harding Park</a> and missed the cut in the first playoff event outside Boston.</p> <p>And in his 50-and-over debut, Mickelson shot 61-64-66 to steam to victory in Ridgedale, Mo. He raved about the experience, while also carefully avoiding future PGA Tour Champions commitments. (Mickelson, who wasn’t available for interviews Wednesday, suggested he may play in the Schwab Cup in Phoenix in November, the week before the Masters.)</p> <p>There’s no formula for this transition, of course. Mickelson became the second-best golfer of his generation, and one of the top 15 ever, by playing boldly. Hit shots off the pine needles at Augusta National. Try flop shots to tucked pins.</p> <!-- Missed: ad --> <p>So staying on the big tour into his 50s is not surprising. Mickelson could contend this week at Silverado, too, against a mediocre field missing most of the world’s top players. But it’s a daunting proposition week after week.</p> <p>That’s why even accomplished players such as Sergio Garcia, when asked to peer into the future, often view the PGA Tour Champions as an inviting escape route. Garcia, 40, used to think he might not ever join the 50-and-older circuit.</p> <p>His thinking has changed as he inches closer.</p> <p>“Now I’m looking at it in a different way,” Garcia said. “When I turn 50, I kind of become the young gun again on the Champions Tour. … If you feel like you’re playing great on the PGA Tour and you finish 15th or 20th, it’s probably time to go somewhere you have a chance of winning almost every week.”</p> <p>Furyk reached that point. Mickelson might not.</p> <em><p>Ron Kroichick covers golf for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: <a href="mailto:email@example.com">firstname.lastname@example.org</a> Twitter: <a href="https://twitter.com/ronkroichick">@ronkroichick</a></p></em>