TPC Sugarloaf just what players remember

DULUTH -- When Kenny Perry last left TPC Sugarloaf, he drove off one water ball away from a trophy.

In the final PGA event in the last iteration of the BellSouth Classic, Perry lost in a playoff to Georgia graduate Ruji Imada, rinsing his approach shot on the par-5 18th in a playoff against the younger Imada.

"To me, it's just a great golf course," Perry said Thursday before his final practice round for the inaugural Greater Gwinnett Championship. "It was one of the favorites on my schedule and I always made sure I came to play here."

Despite the runner-up finish, Perry rode the performance to a pair of tournament wins over the next five weeks and earned a spot on the U.S. Ryder Cup team. He won three tournaments that season and was a part of the last U.S. team to win the biennial event.

"(Losing) was bittersweet, but shoot, I love it here," Perry said. "It's a great golf course."

Five years later, not much has changed around Sugarloaf that Perry remembers.

"All the sight lines are the same," Perry said. "They do have us up on a couple of tee boxes, which is kind of nice. I think the golf course is in better shape now than it was when we were playing here on the PGA."

For the Champions Tour players, up on any tee box only helps at Sugarloaf, a course every player described as long. Former Masters champions Sandy Lyle, who played his second practice round at 2-under par Thursday, always thought of Sugarloaf as a course which favored long hitters.

"The lefty, (Phil) Mickelson made it look very easy that one year," Lyle said, referencing Mickelson's 2006 win at 26-under par. "It is possible, if you get the driver working well, you can really take the course to pieces."

Eight the of Champions Tour's top 10 in driving distance are in the field for this weekend's tournament which tees off today at 11 a.m., so even if it becomes a long drive contest it's a wide open event. The event also boasts four of the top 5 money leaders on the tour.

"This is one of the longest courses we ever played, walking and playing," said David Frost, No. 2 on the money list. "It's very challenging. The greens are big, but they have sections you have to go to, otherwise you have to defend yourself making a par. I think it's going to be a challenging golf course. I see the long hitters maybe having an advantage here."

Frost, who last played Sugarloaf in 2002, finishing in the top 25, has top 10 finishes, including a victory and a runner-up on a playoff, in all five Champions events this season.

"You have to hit solid tee shots all of the time, you have to hit solid shots into the green all of the time," Frost said. "There are not very many birdie holes out there. It's going to be tough."

Tougher still for Perry, who will play in his first event just two months after having knee surgery and comes to Sugarloaf with "no expectations." He did admit it's nice to return to competitive play on a course he knows and with the opportunity to ride in a cart.

"It's like putting an old shoe on," Perry said of his comfort with Sugarloaf. "I don't know if I am going to be able to place the golf ball in the positions I need to place it in to score very good here. It's a ball-strikers golf course. You have to place the ball in certain positions to be able to survive to be able to score. It's just a pretty place, this time of year, everything is blooming. Not sure I am much on this pollen, but other than that it's always been a great place to come and play golf."