Sammamish, Wash. – They shared the spotlight and submitted the same score, but their golf games were like ships passing in the night.
Tom Watson and Fred Couples, paired together in Thursday’s opening round of the 31st U.S. Senior Open, couldn’t have been farther apart emotionally after signing for identical even-par 70s on an overcast but calm morning at Sahalee Golf Club.
Watson, the eight-time major champion, struck the ball crisply most of the day, but physically ran out of gas over the closing stretch, bogeying three of his last four after sitting atop the leaderboard.
Couples, a Seattle native and the honorary chairman of the championship, used a late birdie barrage to square his scorecard after he struggled with the tight driving corridors and his achy back.
The duo, joined by 2008 U.S. Senior Open champion Eduardo Romero, drew by far the largest galleries, and they gave the fans
a show, even if they had to take turns doing it.
Big galleries followed Tom Watson (above) and Seattle native Fred Couples on Thursday. (John Mummert/USGA)
I could be better, Watson, 60, said, forcing a smile but looking weary after he asked how he was faring following a challenging tour of sylvan Sahalee. The morning started off good, but I wore out. The time change got me and I’m half asleep.
Watson, the 1982 U.S. Open champion but a three-time runner-up in the U.S. Senior Open, is one several players who last week competed in the Senior British Open in Carnoustie, Scotland, and the eight-hour time difference has been a difficult adjustment. Watson, who also played the British Open at St. Andrews two weeks ago, said he awoke at 1:45 a.m. PDT and couldn’t get back to sleep.
The body's hurtin’ and I'm worn out and I can’t make any putts, said the Kansas City native, who continually practiced his putting stroke throughout the round, even while standing on some teeing grounds. The front nine was great and the back nine I hit some shots I shouldn't have hit, iron shots I shouldn't have hit, and I didn't make any putts. When you wake up at 1 in the morning, it’s tough to play.
The trio began their round on No. 10 at 7:45 a.m., and Couples, the hometown hero, 1992 Masters champion and winner of three straight Champions Tour titles earlier this year, looked like he wasn’t quite awake. But in reality he just wasn’t loose, with his chronically bad back stiffening up in the cool morning air. He snap-hooked his first tee ball to make bogey, three-putted the par-5 11th for par, and then was forced to work hard to save par on the next three holes.
I’m just very stiff, and I’ve been like this for a long time, Couples said. I just don't feel good, but this is how it is, and I’ve played better than this feeling this way. I'm not, like, sore, I'm just … the longer I stand, and then go hit a shot, I don't have any chance.
Couples, 50, turned in one over par and then bogeyed Nos. 1 and 3, the latter with another three-putt. I was thinking if I make a couple more bogeys I'm going to shoot 75, and there were some [tough] holes out there, I was thinking, ‘75 that wouldn't be that bad.’ That's what I was thinking.
Instead, as Watson started to fade, Couples ran off three consecutive birdies, starting with a wedge to 3 feet at No. 4 and following with a 30-footer at the fifth. He capped the run with a 10-foot birdie at the 480-yard par-4 sixth, one of Sahalee’s toughest holes.
I got that stretch and that was really the whole round, said Couples, who couldn’t believe how large the crowds had grown by the time his group reached the par-3 ninth, their final hole of the round. He estimated that there were 12,000 or more.
There were big crowds, big crowds pulling for Freddy and that's to be expected, Watson said. Freddy made a good comeback today. He didn't play very well at all on the front nine; we should have switched nines.
Added Couples, whose gallery included his brother, sister, assorted nieces and nephews and assorted friends from his childhood: Would you have thought Tom and I would have shot the same score? Wow! He was awesome. And he didn't get many breaks and I was very mediocre and made a couple of great up and downs. The score I shot was phenomenal. I would have taken 70 before the round started. That was miraculous.
As much as the fans appeared to be enjoying the featured morning grouping, Couples admitted that he was getting caught up watching Watson.
He's one of my favorite all‑time players so I watch him; I could have been nine under or nine over, I still watch what he does, Couples said. He hits the ball really, really pure; there is a different sound. I do that sometimes. I haven't done it lately but he honestly never missed a shot. He may have made a couple of bogeys but it was because the course is so hard, but he plays really well, so it's fun to watch. It's a learning experience.
Romero, who made the first birdie in the group at the 10th hole with a 14-footer but didn’t make many others, agreed that there was more to the day than just playing golf.
You’re talking about two great guys to play with. They were fun, the crowd was fun. We all played pretty well. It felt like a special atmosphere out there, said the long-hitting Argentinean, who finished at 1-over 71. It was a good day all the way around on a really good golf course, and I think we are all going to be OK and around the lead if we can keep playing like that, keep it around par.
As Watson and Couples can attest, some par scores are better than others. But in a U.S. Open, no such effort is ever truly unwelcome. It usually keeps you in the spotlight.
Dave Shedloski is a freelance writer whose work has previously appeared on USGA websites.