Solid Putting Has Roberts Rolling Into Valencia

Times Staff Writer

The greens at Valencia Country Club are fast and hilly, which means the course plays right into the hands of Loren Roberts.

Then again, any course is right up your alley when you putt the way Roberts has this season.

The so-called "boss of the moss" has used his putter to produce the hottest start in Champions Tour history and he looks to continue his torrid pace in the AT&T; Classic beginning today in Valencia.

Roberts won the first three Champions Tour events and leads the tour with averages of 1.649 putts per green in regulation and 27.92 putts per round.

Never before had a player on the PGA, Champions or Nationwide tour won the first three tournaments. His streak ended with a fifth-place finish two weeks ago in Tampa, Fla., but he still leads the tour with a 67.00 scoring average and tops the money list with $813,880.

"The first three weeks out here, I was running the table with my putter," Roberts said. "I had a really hot putter."

Now, though, Roberts is torn.

It's difficult to walk away from so much success, but Roberts is an assistant captain for the Ryder Cup team and says he feels obligated to play eight or 10 events on the PGA Tour so he can be more informed and helpful to captain Tom Lehman.

"I still want to play out there and stay in touch with what's going on a little bit, stay in touch with the players," Roberts said.

Complicating matters is that Lehman has been playing so well lately that he's 11th on the Ryder Cup points list and closing fast on one of the automatic berths given to the top 10. Lehman has said he probably won't be a playing captain, so that would make Roberts or Corey Pavin, the other assistant, the captain.

"We'll deal with that when we get to it," Roberts said. "But I know Tom, as competitive as he is, would like to make it. I know he would."

It should come as no surprise that putting has propelled Roberts' fast start. He earned his sobriquet during the 1994 U.S. Open, when he shot a third-round 64 and finished second, losing a playoff to Ernie Els. He led the tour in putting that year, was among the top-10 four times from 1994 to 1999 and has not been lower than 37th since 1996.

It's a skill he said he developed while working in the pro shop at San Luis Obispo during the late 1970s. Members would rarely play after 2 p.m., so Roberts said he'd spend most of his afternoons on the putting green near the shop.

"If you don't make putts, I don't care what tour you play on, it's just tough to be competitive," said the eight-time PGA Tour winner.

Should he win this week, he'll reach the $1-million mark in fewer events than anyone in Champions Tour history. Hale Irwin reached $1 million in eight events in 1998.

His almost instant success -- Roberts turned 50 last June, won in his third Champions Tour event and has four victories and nine top-10s in 11 events -- isn't much of a surprise to Roberts.

He had played well into his late 40s, finishing 28th on the PGA money list at 47 in 2002 when he won the Valero Texas Open and has placed among the top 100 money leaders every year since 1988.

Still, Roberts realizes his window of opportunity is small on the Champions Tour.

"I felt like I was going to play well out here on the Champions Tour, but you never know if you're going to be able to get it done," he said. "I knew I was playing well going into those three events, but to win the first three was more than I expected."

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