Consistent Calc? Despite a volatile game, Calcavecchia carved out a mostly steady career

Mark Calcavecchia ended his PGA Tour career at the Memorial last week by making a 2 and a 7 on his last two holes, a birdie followed by a triple bogey. Perhaps it was an appropriate way to go out.

Calc was always a volatile player, capable of birdie streaks but prone to the occasional big number. His emotions could be up and down, too. The ideal temperament for a pro golfer is staying on an even keel. That wasn’t Calcavecchia’s personality, but, on the plus side, he could ride the wave when things were going well.

But in looking back on Calcavecchia’s career (he turns 50 this week and will be joining the Champions Tour full-time), the surprising thing is his consistency. Yes, there was drop-off after his glory years of 1987 to 1990, when he was one of the best players in the world. But he never had a truly bad year where he fell off the earth due to either injury or a long slump.

For 17 straight years, from 1986 to 2002, Calcavecchia finished in the top 60 on the money list. That’s longer than such players as Tom Watson (16), Hale Irwin (16), Lee Trevino (15), and Greg Norman (14) and way more than Ben Crenshaw (9) or Fred Couples (8). It matches Jack Nicklaus.

Among players who joined the Tour in 1955 or later, only Gary Player (23), Tom Kite (22), Craig Stadler (20), Arnold Palmer (19), Nick Price (18), and Davis Love III (18) have had longer streaks. (By the way, who would have expected South Africa’s Player, who played a limited PGA Tour schedule to top this list? Impressive.)

Another surprise is that Calcavecchia’s aggressive style of play didn’t yield more victories. He had 13 wins, including one major, the 1989 British Open. But he was a runner-up 27 times.

That’s a lot of seconds. In fact, it ranks 24th all-time for second-place finishes on the PGA Tour. Among those 24 players, the only other ones with more than twice as many runner-up finishes as wins were Dow Finsterwald (11 wins, 30 seconds) and Art Wall (14 and 29).

Calcavecchia himself has said that he considers himself an underachiever because of all those runner-up finishes. Maybe that’s true, maybe he didn’t make the most of his opportunities. Normally, you would expect an “all-or-nothing” type of player to be pretty good at finding the winner’s circle because he has a higher upside.

But the post-1990 Calcavecchia might have been too aggressive for the type of abilities he possessed at that point of his career. He came onto the Tour as a very long hitter. During his prime years, he was an excellent putter.

As he reached his 30s, Calcavecchia’s length was no longer awesome; by his late 30s he was pretty average in driving distance. Also, his putting went south. Both of those factors render an all-out attacking style a liability at times. Firing at the pin results in missing more greens than you would by playing safer. That’s fine if you’re a wizard at getting the ball up and down, but if you’re not putting well it results in too many bogeys. And if you’re not driving it as far, you’ll be missing the green more often with longer approach shots.

Calcavecchia’s major championship record is indicative of his aggressive style. At those events, where the courses are tougher and the winning score is closer to par, patience is a virtue. In his prime years, Calc finished second at the 1988 Masters and won the 1989 British Open—but he then went the next 42 majors without a top-10 finish. For his career, he had only five top-10s in 82 majors. At the U.S. Open, he never bettered the 14th-place finish in his 1986 debut.

Though he was never known for his physical conditioning, Calcavecchia proved to be a durable player, remaining very competitive until the age of 47 and dropping out of the top 125 only the last couple of years. Since he joined the Tour young, it made for a long career.

In fact, Calcavecchia’s career started so long ago that it pre-dates the start of the all-exempt Tour in 1983. Calcavecchia made it through the last “spring school” at Q-School, joining the Tour in June of 1981 having just turned 21, skipping his senior season at the University of Florida.

Though he didn’t gain a firm foothold on the Tour until 1986, he maintained at least partially exempt status in those early years and played in at least 15 events every year from 1982 onwards. While he is retiring as a Tour player, he has a lifetime exemption into the British Open until age 60. He says he’s playing at St. Andrews this year, which will be his 15th PGA Tour event of 2010, extending his streak to 29 straight years playing in at least 15 tournaments.

Among players joining the PGA Tour since 1955, only Ray Floyd’s streak of 30 years of competing in at least 15 events is longer. Jay Haas matches Calcavecchia with 29, followed by Irwin, Peter Jacobsen, Kite, and Watson with 27.

Calcavecchia has played in 737 PGA Tour events. That ties him for seventh all-time. The leaders in that longevity/grinding category are Doug Ford 814, Haas 806, Dave Eichelberger 786, Mark Brooks 780, Floyd 769, George Archer 739, Calcavecchia and Palmer 737. (The numbers are from Sal Johnson and Dave Seanor’s Golfer’s Encyclopedia. They are more accurate than the PGA Tour figures, which do not count missed cuts from several years in the early 1960s.)

Calcavecchia’s legacy goes beyond the numbers. He might not have been a straight hitter, but he was a straight shooter, always willing to tell exactly what he thought. He did so in his own expressive language—a three-putt was always a “three-jack,” for example.

A couple of his quotes from the Memorial are classic Calc.

Asked if he must be feeling good physically to be taking on a schedule of 11 tournaments in 12 weeks as he embarks on the Champions Tour, Calcavecchia said, “No, I’m feeling horrible. But I’ve got to find a way to make money or the house is going up for sale.”

Was he excited about joining the Champions Tour? “I would be excited if the hole was bigger,” he said. “But I think it’s the same size out there, so I’m not that excited. I can miss ’em out there same as I can miss ’em out here.”

In truth, Calcavecchia will be a welcome addition on the Champions Tour, both as a player and a personality. That will only increase the buzz on a revived Champions Tour where there hasn’t been so much interest since the early- to mid-1990s (thank you, Fred Couples). Whereas players like Tom Lehman and Corey Pavin, who have also turned 50 recently, are keeping one foot on the PGA Tour, Calcavecchia is unabashedly heading to the senior circuit. The regular Tour will miss him.

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