PITTSFORD, N.Y. – Scott McCarron knew what was coming when Jack Nicklaus asked to have a word with him after dinner one evening two years ago.
He figured that Nicklaus wanted to congratulate him for winning the Allianz Championship on the previous weekend, the second stop on the Champions Tour schedule, or thank him for taking part in Nicklaus’ pro-am earlier that day at Lost Tree Golf Club in North Palm Beach, Fla.
But that’s not what happened, McCarron recalled: “He pulled me aside and said, ‘I just want to let you know, I wish I would’ve played more on the PGA Tour Champions. I had so much fun; I loved it. Don’t make the same mistake I did. I wish I would’ve played more.’
“Can you believe that? The best player who ever played the game wishes he would’ve played more? Because he knows now that when it’s over, it’s over. You don’t get to do this anymore.”
Maybe you remember McCarron, 53, as a big-hitting, fast-talking, sometimes hot-tempered, long-putter-wielding player of promise who won three times on the PGA Tour but never quite rose to elite status.
That was then, and this is now. McCarron ranks No. 1 on the money list and is arguably the senior king of the hill. He was No. 1 in the Power Performance Rankings, a website that ranks senior pros akin to the Official World Golf Ranking, until Steve Stricker won the Regions Tradition two weeks ago and inched past McCarron into the top spot.
McCarron has won 10 times in four full seasons on the Champions Tour, including one senior major title. He has won $7.5 million and captured two of the past four events.
McCarron is one of the guys to beat most weeks. He got off to a slow start here Thursday at the Senior PGA Championship, the year’s second senior major. He posted a 2-over 72 at Oak Hill Country Club. Scott Parel shot 66 for the first-round lead (scores).
McCarron’s approach to senior golf has been simple. He played every event but one during the past two seasons – the advice that came straight from Mount Olympus via the Golden Bear.
“I took what Jack said to heart,” McCarron said. “I want to play as much as I can.”
It’s hard to imagine going from a talented middle-of-the-pack player to becoming a force after turning 50. I tried to pry a deep, meaningful answer from McCarron about what that transformation feels like. All he came up with was, “It’s a lot of fun.”
“Look, it’s a numbers game,” McCarron said. “There are 156 players on the regular tour; 125 of them can win any week. We have 78 senior guys out here; maybe only 30 to 35 can win. On the PGA Tour, I might get in position to win a tournament four or five times a year. Out here, I can get in position 12 or 15 times.”
If all of the success isn’t a validation for McCarron, it’s at least satisfying.
“I didn’t feel I got as much out of my PGA Tour career as I would have liked,” said McCarron, a native of Sacramento, Calif., who won twice in Atlanta and once in New Orleans. “I felt I should have won more. I put myself in position to win and didn’t get the job done numerous times. So, I came out here very hungry. I wanted to win. I needed to win.”
His first senior victory, at the 2016 Principal Charity Classic in Des Moines, Iowa, was a confidence boost. McCarron birdied the last three holes, including a 10-footer at 18 that he knew probably would clinch it, and it did.
“Then I knew I could do it,” McCarron said.
That victory was nearly as important as his PGA Tour breakthrough in 1996 at English Turn in New Orleans. It was his second year on tour, he was struggling financially and he outdistanced Tom Watson to get the victory, which qualified him for the Masters two weeks later. He finished 10th in Augusta. He won in Atlanta the next year.
“I thought I was going to win a lot more after that, and I didn’t,” McCarron said. “I lost a couple of playoffs. I gave away the L.A. Open to Len Mattiace one year . I gave the World Match Play Championship to Kevin Sutherland [also in 2002]. Looking back, there would have been different outcomes if I had the attitude I have now.”
When he was in his 40s, McCarron endured elbow and thumb issues that held him back. He did TV commentary for Golf Channel and Fox Sports for a few years to see whether he might have a future in the medium, just in case. What he saw surprised him: the winners seldom played perfect golf, and if they did hit a poor shot or make a bogey, they shrugged it off.
McCarron didn’t have the temperament to do that then. He also suffered from Tiger-itis, as did most of the generation who played against Tiger Woods.
“If I was playing against Tiger Woods, I always felt I had to play my absolute best and he had to have an off day,” McCarron said. “That thinking caused me, and a lot of us, like Ernie Els, to get in our own way. His ability intimidated us. When I was paired with Tiger and saw him play a shot, I’d think, I can’t do that. So I just stopped watching him. It’s sort of like watching Brooks Koepka now.”
Thirty years ago, McCarron didn’t suspect he’d still be playing pro golf in 2019. He struggled with putting during his college career at UCLA, so much so that his golf scholarship was revoked. He tried out and made UCLA’s junior varsity tennis team. After school, he went into the golf-apparel business with his father, once a minor-league shortstop in the St. Louis Cardinals’ organization, but that venture suffered a blow when a rainstorm destroyed a warehouse holding $1 million in inventory.
McCarron had a career-changing idea in 1991 while watching a Senior Tour event at his home course in Rancho Murieta, Calif.: the long-shafted putter. He snapped the head off a 3-wood, filled the shaft with sand and glued a putter head onto it. His homemade long putter helped him reach the U.S. Mid-Amateur Championship quarterfinals. “It was like magic,” he said then. His newfound prowess on the greens led him to give professional golf a try.
“The best thing that ever happened was not knowing what I was doing in the clothing business,” McCarron later said. “Otherwise, I’d still be selling shirts.”
He’s still a big hitter. His 343-yard blast at the Mitsubishi Electric Classic is the tour’s longest drive this year. This week’s Senior PGA is his 11th event of the season, and he plans to keep piling them. He knows that the clock is ticking.
“When I was 28 or 29, I really never thought about the end,” McCarron said. “Out here at 50, I see that there is a finite end at some point. Whether it’s 60, 62, 65, whatever, but I think I can be competitive for a long time if I stay in shape like Bernhard Langer does.”
Langer has been senior golf’s unquestioned top gun. Langer has won 10 senior majors and four of the past five Charles Schwab Cups (think FedEx Cup for seniors). “I’m not trying to dethrone Bernhard,” said McCarron, who was the runner-up to Langer last year. “I just want to be the best out here on the PGA Tour Champions.”
What’s it like to finally be No. 1? McCarron would love to find out. Or he could just ask a guy he knows, a fellow whose first name is Jack.
Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980 for Sports Illustrated and Golf.com, Golf World and The Milwaukee Journal. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @GaryVanSickle