Raves at Caves

Sometimes the problem with the U.S. Senior Open – with senior golf, in fact – is that word: senior.

It’s as though the quality of play comes with a ready-made excuse. It’s okay if they’ve lost their putting touch or they can’t see where their drives land. Those constant clicking noises you hear at the practice range aren’t crisply struck shots; they’re creaky joints.

Should the historical annals of championship golf, however, record the final two hours of the 23rd U.S. Senior Open at Caves Valley Golf Club near Baltimore, Md., with such a qualification – “It was pretty good considering it was senior golf”- it would be a terrible injustice.

For it was unquestionably the most scintillating golf played during the first half of the year. End of discussion.  One  columnist, Thomas Boswell of The Washington Post, claimed it was among “the most exciting, dramatic clutch matches at any level of golf over the past 25 years.”

Had the events involved Annika Sorenstam or Phil Mickelson or, heaven forbid, Tiger Woods, golf as we know it would cease to exist at Caves Valley because the impeccably manicured landscape would be overwrought with plaques and statues commemorating the wondrous feats that would, in time, become legendary.

On that final Sunday in June, 50-year-old Don Pooley penned the signature moment of his career and Tom Watson raised the memories of the towering talent that won him eight major titles. But it was more than that.

thIs was the epitome of athletic competition. Their shots over the final eight holes were the equivalent of daggers to each other’s heart, but Pooley and Watson took turns taking the other’s best shot and, without blinking, upping the ante. I’ll see the best bunker shot of your career, and I’ll raise you this all-world up-and-down. On and on they went, the momentum visiting each player at times through the final three suspenseful holes of regulation play, which they both finished at 10-under-par 274, and five scintillating playoff holes. “I can’t imagine anything better,” said Pooley after his first senior victory. “It doesn’t get any better than that.”

Pooley won with a seven-foot birdie at the second sudden-death hole following a three-hole playoff, but that wasn’t his only great shot at the end.

“That was a phenomenal stretch, especially those up-and-downs – those pars I made on 16, 17 and 18 in regulation,” noted Pooley. “I’m very, very proud of that.”

Watson, a runner-up for the fourth time this year, added his compliments. “I had my opportunities today,” he said, “The credit goes to Don, to what he did. Don Pooley did an awful lot for senior golf today.”

To get into the playoff, the 52-year-old Watson played as if he was 20 years younger. But that’s the joy – or curse, depending on your point of view – of senior golf. In 1982, the sixth straight season in which Watson had at least three PGA Tour victories, the matchup with Pooley would have been declared no contest. But this was.

Granted a reprieve from the putting problems that have plagued him for much of the last decade, Watson ripped off six final-round birdies in a span of nine holes beginning at the ninth. In the playoff, he kept the eight-deep ring of spectators in a frenzy with two more rousing putts of 12 and eight feet. Had Watson emerged victorious, his shot from the fairway bunker at the second playoff hole would have become only slightly less revered than his Open-winning pitch from the Pebble Beach rough in ‘82.

“That’s when you get light on your feet,” he said. “You can just skate up the fairways when you’re like that. … I did what I had to do to catch him. In the end, it wasn’t enough.”

This Senior Open, played over 7,005 hilly yards but with generous landing areas and a fair number of short holes, was largely a tussle between the haves and the have-nots. Though Pooley held on to his PGA Tour card for 25 years beginning in 1976, he was probably closer to being one of the latter than the former. He won just twice – the B.C. Open in 1980 and a four-stroke comeback victory at the Memorial Tournament in 1987. But, Pooley insisted, there was “not a chance” he could have held himself together in such a pressure situation in his pre-senior years.

“I’ve been in contention in the majors on the regular tour a few times,” he explained, “and I didn’t handle it as well as I handled it today. This is as well as I’ve played under this kind of pressure.”

Between 1981 and ‘97, Pooley cashed in 15 majors and was in the top 30 each time. His best showings were ties for fifth at the 1987 PGA, when he was two behind winner Larry Nelson, and the ‘88 Masters, when he was only a stroke behind with six to play Sunday afternoon.

“But,” Pooley conceded at Caves Valley late Saturday after charging into the lead with a record 8-under-par 63, “I haven’t had opportunities like this. I’ve never been leading after three rounds of a major championship, so this is new territory for me.”

He began the 1990s with back and neck injuries and ended the decade with his sights firmly fixed on the senior tour. In a two-year span beginning in 1997, Pooley went from 78th in tour earnings to 260th. Last year, in the eight months before he turned 50, he played in only three events and made not one thin dime.

“I had nothing to think that I could even make it on the tour, let alone have a successful career and win,” Pooley said. “I never won a college tournament. I never won a junior tournament. I had never even won an amateur tournament.”

After turning 50 last August, Pooley hoped to win a tournament in order to avoid Q-School; that didn’t happen either. “When I joined the senior tour, I was trying hard to win a tournament,” he explained. “I didn’t do it, although I had some good tournaments. Having had a good start last year in those six or seven tournaments, I thought, Well, I can get off to a good start this year, but it didn’t happen.”

In 14 starts heading into Caves Valley, Pooley had only three top-10 finishes. “It snowballed,” he admitted, “and my game was going in the wrong direction.”

Still, Pooley was the picture of success compared to some of the players who took their shots at the Senior Open scoring record early in the week.

The first-round leader was R.W. Eaks of Scottsdale, Ariz., who turned 50 just five weeks before the Senior Open and only surfaces in the back pages of the golf record books. While most players hope the buy.com Tour is just a temporary layover on their way to the varsity tour, Eaks spent nine years there and made 258 career starts, second on the all-time list behind 43-year-old Steve Haskins.

Eaks played on the PGA Tour in 1998, a year derailed when he took a misstep, fell into a bunker at the Quad City Classic and severely damaged his right hip. “I waited three years to turn 50,” he said after an opening 7-under 64 that tied the Senior Open record. “I’m one of these guys, I don’t like to go in and get opened up, and I figured that I had a couple of years to get ready for this.”

When Eaks started to slip down the leader board – he eventually tied for 37th after unbalanced 36s of 137-155 – another member of the have-nots, Walter Hall, stepped forward. Hall, 55, turned professional in 1971 and had four unsuccessful ventures at gaining his PGA Tour playing privileges. So he regained his amateur status, winning the 1985 Carolinas Mid-Amateur and advancing to the third round of the 1991 U.S. Amateur. Then, in 1994, he became a professional again.

With a 6-under-par 65 in the second round – part of a streak in which he went 40 holes without a bogey – Hall assumed the lead at the halfway point with 7-under 135, one stroke better than Jose Maria Canizares and Tom Kite. But he spoke with little hope of contending over the weekend.

“I probably won’t ever do this again,” Hall said. “But I sure had my day in the sun today. This was my Tom Kite imitation today.

“I don’t ever tee it up, especially in an Open, and say, ‘Hey, I’m the guy here.’ You’ve got some of the greatest players that have ever played the game I’m contending with … and I’m fortunate to be playing with them.”

Eaks’s share of the Senior Open scoring record lasted two days and change, until Pooley’s 63 – which tied the record for the low score in any USGA Open. After a birdie-bogey start, he made eight birdies over the next 15 holes to lead by three. “A lot of great things happened today,” said Pooley, who one-putted 11 greens. “I hit good shots at times. I got some good bounces at times and putted very well. You don’t go out and say, ‘I’m going to shoot a 63 today.’ Those rounds just kind of happen.”

It even stirred Watson’s memory. “I can remember those days,” he said. “I can resemble it a little bit, 30, 25 years ago.”

That Pooley posted that score was not entirely shocking. In 1985, in a tight race against major champion winners Raymond Floyd, Lanny Wadkins and John Mahaffey, he won the Vardon Trophy for the lowest scoring average on tour. “To them, it would be just another feather in their cap,” he said. “For me, it would be the only feather.”

pooley also led the PGA TOUR in putting twice, in 1988 and ‘97. “I’ve been a good putter my whole career,” he said. “But I didn’t feel like I had week after week after week of good putting rounds like I used to. Certainly, the beginning of this year on the senior tour my putting hasn’t been up to the standard I was looking for until recently.”

Pooley knew it wouldn’t be easy to follow his 63 or to sleep on the 54-hole lead. And he was right. He finally dozed off at 11 o’clock Saturday night, then got up at 2 a.m. and didn’t get back to sleep until 4.

But that’s what seniors do.