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Thursday at the U.S. Senior Open
Editor's Note: Cybergolf's Tony Dear reports on the opening round of the U.S. Senior Open from Sahalee Country Club. The championship site proved to a tough nut to crack for the best over-50 golfers in the world, as Tony notes below.
Leading Lights and Poisonous Pins
It's said (and there might actually be some truth to the saying) that you can assess the quality of a course by the quality of its winners. We're only at the end of Day 1 at the U.S. Senior Open, but with only 10 senior and regular tour major champions inside the top 10 (and ties), the suggestion is that Sahalee is rather good.
Out in the lead after an excellent 4-under 66 is Bruce Vaughn who surprised everyone by winning the 2008 Senior British Open at Royal Troon and who surprised slightly fewer people, presumably, with his stellar performance on Thursday. The 53-year-old from Western Kansas, a former fireman, describes himself as "just a country boy." He isn't quite the round-bellied cigar chomping senior golfer from days gone by, but nor is he the svelte, 160-pound fitness fanatic that's becoming ever more evident on the senior tour.
Only seven other players broke 70 on a day when the all too familiar USGA "brown spot" began appearing on the greens. The grounds crew wasn't called in to hand-water the greens at any point, but it was obvious most of the putting surfaces were getting awfully thirsty.
That alone was reason enough for scores to skyrocket, but on top of Stimpmeter readings of 13 feet or thereabouts, some of the holes were cut alarmingly close to the edges of the greens. The farthest any pin was from the nearest edge, in fact, was seven yards, while the hole at the second was just three yards from longer grass. While watching Bernhard Langer, Corey Pavin and Mark Calcavecchia's tee shots at the 17th, I did a double-take when I looked toward the green and couldn't see the flag.
I felt sure one of the caddies in the preceding group had simply forgotten to replace it (this doesn't happen very often in the pro game I know), but then the guy standing in front of me moved a smidge and the flag appeared, tucked over a bunker and hard against the left side of the green. "I'm just aiming at the middle of the green on that hole," said Jay Haas who was one of four players to finish the round at even-par. "And to be honest, that's how it was on most holes."
The combination of green speeds and pin placements resulted in a first-round scoring average of 76.727 which, believe it or not, is not the highest first-round average at the U.S. Senior Open this century; that somewhat dubious distinction belongs to Inverness in Ohio where a 77.961 average was recorded in the first round in 2003.
Mark Calcavecchia expects some respite in Round 2, however. "I would anticipate the pins being easier tomorrow," he said following his round of 69. "Seriously, it's impossible for them to get any tougher."
Seattle's own Fred Couples was out at 7.45 Thursday morning, playing alongside Tom Watson and Eduardo Romero. And while the gallery first thing wasn't massive by any means, it certainly grew as the round went on. Couples's appearance this week is undoubtedly helping to attract more spectators to Sahalee than might otherwise come. But don't assume that as soon as he finished his round, everyone behind the ropes went home. In fact, 20,021 golf fans filed through the gates Thursday, an impressive number by anyone's standards (except perhaps the Phoenix Open which, during tournament week, typically copes with over 600,000 people). "I can't believe the crowds," USGA official Tim Flaherty said as he whizzed by on a cart. "And it's only Thursday!"
Sixty-year-old Tom Watson is currently playing his third major championship in consecutive weeks, as are Tom Lehman, Calcavechhia and Loren Roberts, who all played in the Open Championship at St. Andrews and the Senior British Open at Carnoustie before flying to Seattle. Mark O'Meara would have too had he not been forced to withdraw from the Senior British Open in order to be with his family following the death of his father last week.
As a result of this scheduling snafu, it was a succession of dazed and confused players that came to the flash interview area following their rounds Thursday, each of them estimating what time they had been waking up since arriving back in the U.S. For Calcavecchia, it was 3.30 a.m., Langer 2 a.m. and Watson the earliest of all at 1 a.m.
Tournaments of this magnitude don't appear on the schedule by chance (do any tournaments get scheduled using that method?). People have to make conscious decisions when they will hold their event. So you have to wonder what the thinking is behind asking 50- to 60-year-old men to play two major championships one after the other, when other times of the year are available.
On Wednesday, the usually sedate and soft-spoken Langer, sounded off at no one in particular (although several USGA officials were within earshot) on the controversial subject. "It's a terrible schedule," he said. "I think it's terrible that 50-year-old guys have to play back-to-back majors. The young guys on the regular tour don't have to do it. Something should be done to separate these two events."
Langer's reaction was a little strong perhaps, given that there could be worse things in life than having the opportunity to play for hundreds of thousands of dollars in two of the most beautiful places in the game, but if the USGA wants the world's best senior golfers to be in tip-top shape for their national championship, as one assumes they do, it surely couldn't hurt to move the championship to another date.
A quick look at the Champions Tour schedule reveals a few gaps, even in summer, into which the U.S. Senior Open might have fit better. There was no tournament the week following the Montreal Championship in Canada. Insert the U.S. Senior then and the players could still have a week off before flying to Scotland. Alternatively, there's a spare week following the 3M Championship in Minnesota which starts August 6th. No doubt there are 'unavoidable' obstacles preventing the change in dates.
Tony Dear is an Englishman living in Bellingham, Wash. In the early 1990s he was a member of the Liverpool University golf team which played its home matches at Royal Liverpool GC. Easy access to Hoylake made it increasingly difficult for him to focus on Politics (his chosen major) and, after dropping out, he ended up teaching golf at a club just south of London where he also made a futile attempt at becoming a "player." He moved into writing when it became abundantly clear he had no business playing the game for a living. A one-time golf correspondent of the New York Sun, Tony is a member of the Golf Writers Association of America, the Pacific Northwest Golf Media Association and the Golf Travel Writers Association. In 2009, Tony won first place for Editorial/Opinion in the ING Media Awards for Cybergolf. The article (http://www.cybergolf.com/golf_newsa_euros_take_on_the_2008_ryder_cup_matches) that impressed the judges was the one about Europe's Ryder Cup team and Captain Nick Faldo's decision to pick Paul Casey and Ian Poulter rather than Darren Clarke.