Sammamish, Wash. – It was just a regular afternoon in the office for John Vaccaro when the phone rang at 3 p.m. EDT on Wednesday.
An ordinary day was about to turn chaotic.
On the line was the USGA, offering a spot in the U.S. Senior Open. But the invitation came with a caveat. Could Vaccaro get from his home in Albany, N.Y., to Seattle for an 8:45 a.m. PDT starting time the next morning?
If I have to hire a jet, I will be there, said Vaccaro, an amateur who was the first alternate at his sectional qualifier in Massachusetts.
No private aviation was required. Being a frequent flier, Vaccaro, the manager of a $100 million account for a Fortune
John Vaccaro answered the call to play the U.S. Senior Open, even if it meant a last-minute cross-country flight. (John Mummert/USGA)
Saving between $900 and $2,500 on airfare, the 53-year-old Vaccaro hastily packed clothes and his golf bag for the cross-country trek to Sahalee Country Club.
His 5:30 p.m. EDT flight to Chicago was delayed two hours and Vaccaro was worried he would miss his connection. We only had a [scheduled] 90-minute layover, said Vaccaro.
Fortunately, the Chicago-to-Seattle segment also was delayed and a weary Vaccaro finally checked into his Seattle hotel at 2 a.m. Thursday.
Vaccaro managed to make his tee time, despite just a few hours of sleep and zero knowledge of the tree-lined layout.
Fellow New Yorkers Jim Roy and Joey Sindelar, both of whom are on the Champions Tour, provided some assistance upon Vaccaro’s arrival at the course. Sindelar helped him procure a yardage book, but Vaccaro was a bit lost on the course.
I didn’t know which way the doglegs went, said Vaccaro, who posted a 10-over-par 80. I just knew it was narrow as heck.
The approach shots were challenging, too. If you get on the wrong side of the hole, you definitely have trouble getting it up and down. It’s probably the tightest tournament course I have ever played.
Growing up on a farm in Upstate New York, Vaccaro played on a rustic nine-hole layout that his parents built, called Brandy Brook. He played in high school, but basically put the clubs away once he enrolled at Cornell University.
But since he reached his late 40s and early 50s, Vaccaro’s game has gone through a renaissance of sorts. He has qualified for the last two U.S. Mid-Amateurs (missing the cut for match play) and he won the 2007 New York State Mid-Amateur. That year, he turned 50 and gave Champions Tour qualifying a shot. He missed the cut by one at the first stage in Orlando, Fla.
Vaccaro didn’t envision himself playing Sahalee this week after earning first-alternate status at his sectional. Then amateur William Hadden, who himself got into the field on Monday after Tom Pernice Jr. withdrew, suffered a shoulder injury on Wednesday and was forced to drop out.
So there was Vaccaro playing alongside professionals James Mason and Bruce Vaughan, who shot 66 for the first-round lead. Even Vaccaro’s stitched name on his brother’s caddie bib had different lettering due to the last-minute change in players.
For Vaccaro, it didn’t matter. He was in heaven.
[Playing the Senior Open], has been a lifelong dream, he said. It’s a fantastic experience. I’m enjoying the heck out of it.
Mark Calcavecchia is nothing if not brutally honest. He's also a darn fine golfer, and the Champions Tour rookie put both his honesty and talent on display on Thursday.
The 1989 British Open champion opened with a 1-under-par 69, one of two under-par rounds (with playing partner Bernhard Langer) in the afternoon wave as the greens got increasingly harder and faster, and the narrow driving corridors took their toll. Calcavecchia was pleased with his effort, but wasn't enamored with the examination he had just undertaken.
"I thought the pins today ... and we were talking about – me and Corey [Pavin] were saying earlier, they must have thought the top 100 in the world were here, not 156 old guys," Calcavecchia said. "Seriously, I think it was the hardest set of pin placements I've seen in years. I would anticipate the pins being easier tomorrow, seriously, it's impossible for them to get any tougher."
Given that up until last month Calcavecchia was still a member of the PGA Tour, where hole locations are significantly more challenging than on the Champions Tour, his assessment is worth noting.
When someone observed that he didn't seem happy with his round, which put him only three off the lead, Calcavecchia replied, "I'm happy, really happy ... [but] tired, back hurts, blister on my toe, ready to get the hell out of here, waking up every day at 3 (in the morning)."
Calcavecchia is among the players who came to Sahalee straight from the Senior British Open at Carnoustie, Scotland, and he admitted that he ran out of gas coming down the stretch with bogeys on two of the last six holes. "I got tired. I tried to take that pack of those electrolytes. And their motto on the package is 'Finish as strong as you started.' But I ran out of gas.
"Nice and early [tee time Friday morning], 7:45, so grab something quick to eat and a quick shower and I'll be hitting the sack," he added. "I'll be wide awake, I know that, early. I probably don't even have to set my alarm; you can call me at 3:30 [a.m.] if you want, I'll be up."
After cobbling together an even-par 70 in the afternoon wave, Jay Haas was asked if he found it fun to tackle a different kind of test of golf than the Champions Tour members see week-in and week-out. Apparently, he doesn't share the sentiments of Tom Watson, who on more than one occasion said that he enjoys putting his game to the ultimate test in majors.
"I think 'fun' might be a word ... there are other words we might use, maybe, but I think it's challenging and we're not challenged like this but once or twice a year. It's just very different," said Haas diplomatically. "Challenging is the word I might use. 'Fun' might be down on the list a little bit."
David Shefter is a USGA communications staff writer. Dave Shedloski is a freelance writer whose work has previously appeared on USGA websites. E-mail Shefter with questions or comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.