Kohler, Wis. - With only eight rounds under par Saturday in the 28
thU.S. Senior Open, golf's traditional moving day translated into an exercise in unleashing primal instincts.
Hopes were either preserved or dashed, depending on a player's ability to simply tread water on the difficult links-style layout along the shores of Lake Michigan. Keeping one's head above water, and his wits about him, meant that he still had a shot to win the most prestigious senior title in golf.
How much of a chance remains to be seen. When the dust settled - um, scratch that - with the winds increasing as the day wore on, the dust never settled. But as the sun began to set over the Straits Course at Whistling Straits, there were plenty of contenders for the title, but they all were chasing the clear favorite.
Tom Watson, he of the five British Open titles and two Senior British Open titles, thrives on links layouts, and he did just enough running in place to scratch out a three stroke lead after his 1-over-par 73 left him at 7-under 209, three ahead of Loren Roberts and four in front of three others - Sam Torrance, Vicente Fernandez and journeyman and sometime club pro John Ross. Watson must sleep on fescue at home because he seems so at peace on fescue-laden courses such as those found in Scotland - and at Whistling Straits.
Just 14 men remain under par and somewhat within the same zip code. Of course, not without a lot of expended energy, much trying, a few errors and a lot of scratching and clawing just to keep their hopes alive. In other words, a typical U.S. Open test, where par has value, both numerically and psychologically.
"Par is always going to mean something in a U.S. Open, and guys that did that are probably still around with a chance," D.A. Weibring said.
|Sam Torrance moved into contention with a 1-under 71 Saturday. (John Mummert/USGA)
Only two of the eight sub-par scores were in the 60s and both were shot early in the day. David Eger bogeyed three of the final four for a 69. Denis Watson, who won the Senior PGA Championship two months ago, fired a bogey-free 67.
"There was no way to really attack this golf course [Saturday]," said Brad Bryant, who shot 71 with a bogey at the last to come in at 2-under 214. "It was just too tough. Staying around par is always a great score in the U.S. Open. It's what gives you chance, and at least I have a chance."
A chance is there because the forecast for Sunday is dry, hot and even more blustery. So it was crucial for the contenders to not blow themselves out off the leaderboard Saturday, as some did, like Curtis Strange, Lonnie Nielsen, Des Smyth, Donnie Hammond and Gil Morgan. Strange shot 79, Nielsen 77 and Smyth had 78. Hammond and Morgan shot 80s.
Tom Purtzer moved in both directions, getting to five under par and then giving back three shots in the last four holes for a 74 and 214 total.
"It was a very good test today, really good test of golf," said former Masters champion Ben Crenshaw, who fell back six shots after a 76. "You had to play some shots today. I just did the stupidest stuff; just eats at me. I played enough good golf today, but did some squirrely stuff."
That was going around.
"I'm a traditional golf course guy; I'm not a disaster golf course guy at all," Bob Gilder said after carding a well-earned 70 that featured the lone eagle on the par-5 16
thhole. "This is gimmicky stuff."
Gimmick or not, it's still the U.S. Senior Open, and the rules never change. Good, solid shots are a requirement in the national championship of any variety. Using your head doesn't hurt. Denis Watson got rolling once he got a bit of a slap in the face on the second hole and escaped with a par after hitting a wedge over the green.
"I was thinking, whip this in at the flag and let's get going, and I got a wake-up call," he said. "You can't just whip it in at the flag. This is a U.S. Open. I set about grinding my way, hit a couple of great shots when I needed to, and got away with a few. You have to have some slightly good breaks."
More than that, you have to tell yourself not to break. The players who did that Saturday can still catch Tom Watson. But with higher winds expected and the pressure of the Open upon them, it's likely to be a similar shootout to Saturday's fare.
Forget about going low. Just don't go high.
"If it's like this (Sunday)," Sam Torrance said, "it could get smelly. We best be ready for anything."
Dave Shedloski is a freelance writer whose work has appeared previously on www.ussenioropen.com.