|Born and raised in Colorado Springs, Colo., R.W. Eaks chats with a young fan during Tuesday's practice round at The Broadmoor. (John Mummert/USGA)
Colorado Springs, Colo. – The altitude will be especially high at the base of Cheyenne Mountain this week for R.W. Eaks.
The Colorado Springs native is back in the town where he was born and reared. He is back at The Broadmoor, where he spent eight years as a youth, first a caddie, then a grounds keeper, then an assistant to Dow Finsterwald, the legendary director of golf at the resort for 28 years.
From the time he was 12 to the time he turned 19, Eaks sowed his golfing oats at this celebrated RockyMountrain resort. Now he is back to compete in the 29th U.S. Senior Open, a national championship that is as close as it ever will come to being in his own backyard.
"To me, it's the biggest tournament I've ever played in," said Eaks, 56, who has played in a ton of them over his long career around the Nationwide, PGA and Champions Tours. "I get to come home, hometown boy, playing in front of friends and family. It's awesome. I mean, it doesn't happen very often."
To suggest Eaks has a home-field advantage at The Broadmoor might be a stretch. After all, it has been 37 years since he worked at the club, 18 years since he moved his residence from Colorado Springs to Arizona so he could work on his game full time. But as he practiced on Monday, as he recognized familiar faces in the galleries and walked the fairways he looped as a young boy, it sure seemed like home.
"It just seems like yesterday that I was still here," Eaks said. "I've seen some of the old guys I used to caddie for. I have relatives here. I have friends flying in from as far away as South Carolina to come watch this week."
Even little kids seem to know who he is, although they needed a bit of prodding before he walked up to them just off the 17th green Tuesday. They pushed out their hats for an autograph as Eaks fingered a Sharpie.
"OK, Arnold Palmer," he quipped as he signed, drawing out the name. "Jaaaaack Nicklaus on this one."
Eaks has anticipated and prepared for this week for some time, perhaps to the detriment of his sore knees and his playing record. He has pushed himself to walk on his bad knees during tournaments this season, despite the discomfort.
He is much more likely to contend when he rides in a cart. In other words, no pain - big gain. The difference was clearly demonstrated two weeks ago when he chose to ride in the cart and blew the doors off the 3M Championship in Minneapolis. Eaks fired a final-round 65 to lap the field by six shots and earn his third Champions Tour victory over the past two seasons.
"By far that's the best I've played this year," said Eaks, "and it's because I rode in the cart. I've been walking, trying to get ready for this event. And I think I hurt myself more. I could have stayed in the cart, maybe made a little more money, probably had some better tournaments. But I was trying to get ready for this tournament."
Eaks needs replacement surgery on both of his aching knees. But he's not about to have it, not this week, not this year, not anytime soon. He is hoping to play three to four more years of competitive golf and surgery would mean taking at least a year off. At his age, the way he is playing, a year would be a terrible thing to waste.
"I'm not going to do it," said Eaks. "I already told my wife I'm not having it. I'd have to give up riding my Harley for a while, I'd have to give up a lot."
A motorcycle enthusiasts for many years, Eaks rides his Harley Davidson Road King at least three hours a day when he's home in Arizona. Away from the golf course, his knees aren't nearly as bothersome. On the flip side, he is never away from the golf course for a prolonged period of time.
Still ... "I think (having surgery) is a lifestyle decision to make and right now I'm OK," said Eaks.
What's more, he may have found some help. Over the weekend, Eaks took delivery on new therapeutic braces, which were just recently approved by the FDA. The braces provide electronic stimulation to the muscles and the joints. He wears the equipment at night and began using it two days ago. It may take a while for any dramatic effects to surface.
"It will take a little time for it to kick in maybe, but I've got some positive info on it," said Eaks. "It could two weeks to a couple of months. Kind of depends on how much the damage is in there. But even if they just help me sleep at night, that would be good enough for me."
When it is time to walk – or be carried – away from golf, Eaks will do so with no regrets. He's just not ready to do so. "It's been a nice career for me," said Eaks. "I don't want to quit or anything like that, but if it comes to that, shoot, I've had a great time out here."
One thing is certain, bad knees or not, R.W. Eaks will have a great time this week, back on his old stomping grounds.
Phillip Howley is a freelance writer whose work has previously appeared on www.ussenioropen.com.