- Associated Press - Thursday, March 22, 2012

SAUCIER, MISS. (AP) - Defending champion Tom Lehman, Fred Couples, Loren Roberts and Kenny Perry headline the field for the Mississippi Gulf Resort Classic at rain-soaked Fallen Oak.

The 81-man field includes 28 of the top 30 from last year’s Champions Tour money list and 16 players in the field who won at least one major championship on the regular tour. The 54-hole tournament begins Friday.

Last year, Lehman beat Jeff Sluman, Nick Price and David Frost by four strokes in nearly ideal conditions, finishing at a tournament-record 16 under. Lehman topped the Champions Tour money list last season at nearly $2.1 million.

The 53-year-old Lehman is winless in four events this season.

“When the season kicked off I don’t know that I was quite as ready and quite as prepared as a year ago,” Lehman said. “That’s really changing now. I’ve been working hard on my game and feel like I’m back on track.”

The pro-am was canceled Thursday after nearly 4 inches of rain hit the course.

“It’s a very challenging golf course,” Lehman said. “I think you need to take advantage of the par 5s, but there are also some short par-4 holes you need to take advantage of. There are also some difficult holes where you need to just hold on and not lose strokes.”

Perry said Fallen Oak reminds him of some of the more difficult PGA Tour courses because the penalty for missing the fairway is so severe. The 51-year-old Perry won the ACE Group Classic in Naples, Fla., in February.

“It’s a large golf course,” Perry said. “The worst, hardest bunkers I have ever seen, almost like hazards. Must stay out of the bunkers.”

Roberts is coming off a victory Sunday in the Toshiba Classic in Newport Beach, Calif. Roberts is from Memphis, Tenn., and said he hopes for a good showing close to home.

The weather is expected to improve over the weekend.

“This might be the toughest course on the Champions Tour,” Roberts said. “I really like this course for that reason.”

While Lehman has just one top 10 finish so far this season, he enters the tournament as one of the favorites. He said his play last year was a reflection of how comfortable he feels at tournaments along the Gulf Coast.

“For whatever reason, that’s how I feel down in that part of the world,” Lehman said. “The people are very friendly and it’s beautiful there with the lush topography and the huge trees. I just like it and feel good there. Usually when you feel good and are happy to be somewhere, your play reflects it.”

Couples is coming off an eighth-place tie in Newport Beach. He’s scheduled to play the PGA Tour’s Houston Open and the Masters the next two weeks.

Ian Woosnam received a sponsor exemption.

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