Sammamish, Wash. – A transition of eight time zones and what seems like 8,000 trees is working well for Bruce Vaughan at the 31st U.S. Senior Open, but not so well for Tom Watson.
Vaughan opened play Thursday at Sahalee Country Club with a 4-under-par 66 on the 6,866-yard layout that is dominated by towering Douglas firs, Western red cedars and Western hemlocks.
The 53-year-old from Hutchinson, Kan., has a two-stroke lead on the field, and is four strokes ahead of Watson, who had bogeys on three of his last four holes as jet lag hit him hard down the stretch for a disappointing 70. Watson’s fellow competitor, hometown favorite Fred Couples, also had a 70, but was ecstatic with the result because he was thinking he deserved a score a lot worse than that.
Tied for second at 68 are Loren Roberts, who once got it to three under, and career amateur Tim Jackson of Memphis, Tenn. The top three scores came in the morning when a marine layer of clouds kept at least a little dampness in the air.
In a large group at 1-under-par 69 were Mark Calcavecchia, Bernhard Langer, Joe Ozaki, Michael Allen and Tom Lehman. Calcavecchia and Langer were the only two golfers to break par in the afternoon wave.
Back-to-back majors were bound to be a key topic this week among the best senior players in the world, and that issue was magnified by the fact the Senior British Open was held last week eight time zones away at Carnoustie in Scotland. Toss in the fact Carnoustie is virtually barren of trees, and the contrast is considerable.
For Vaughan, the Sahalee fairways that have been compared to bowling alleys actually helped him off the tee compared to Carnoustie.
The one thing about tree-lined courses, it gives you definition of where you’re going and you can carve it off one side or the other, Vaughan said. Over there, you didn’t have that luxury, you’re just trying to avoid all the pot bunkers and stuff like that.
And that didn’t work so well for Vaughan.
I either drove it perfect or off the world. I had 15 birdies last week and shot five over par (tied for 22nd) for the tournament, so it was either feast or famine, he said.
And Vaughan discovered early that the trees at Sahalee can actually be your friend. Starting on No. 10, Vaughan flared his driver toward the trees on the 545-yard, par-5 11th hole.
I thought I’d be punching out, he said. I got down there and it hit the trees and bounced back in the fairway. I was able to lay it up perfectly from there, wedged up and made birdie.
After a pulled 2-iron off the tee on No. 14 led to a bogey, Vaughan settled down and missed just one fairway over his last 13 holes. He finished with 12 of 14 fairways hit, which no other player topped Thursday.
Vaughan, the 2008 Senior British Open champion but a conditional player on the Champions Tour this year, vaulted up the leaderboard with birdies on the two holes at Sahalee that have been converted from par-5s to par-4s for this week.
He hit 5-iron into the 465-yard 18th and made a 30-footer after benefitting from a read off the putt of fellow competitor James Mason. He hit another 5-iron into the 475-yard sixth hole, and he successfully negotiated the 12 inches of break on his 11-foot birdie putt.
That was probably two of the hardest holes on the golf course, and I make birdie on them, Vaughan said. So that’s like picking up three or four shots on everybody.
And a lot more on some. Besides the tight and intimidating trees, Sahalee was playing hard and firm with a perfect stretch of course-preparation weather prior to the championship. There were three scores in the 90s Thursday and 38 in the 80s. One other player, South Smith, withdrew after nine holes due to injury.
While Watson’s score wasn’t near 80, his frustration level was when he finished his morning round.
I’m just tired, tired and hurting, said the man who lost the 2009 British Open in a playoff to Stewart Cink. When you wake up at 1 in the morning and can’t go back to sleep, it’s kind of tough to play.
Watson had four birdies and one bogey in his first 12 holes, but then hit the wall.
The morning started off good, but I wore out, he said. The time change got me and I’m half asleep.
Couples, who missed the cut at the Canadian Open last week (he chose to skip the Senior British Open), couldn’t believe he tied Watson based on the pair’s ball-striking.
You watched it, would you have thought Tom and I would have shot the same score? Couples said. Wow, he was awesome. And he didn’t get any breaks and I was very mediocre and made a couple of great up-and-downs.
Despite the 7:45 a.m. starting time, some of the day’s largest galleries out of the estimated first-day crowd of 22,000 watched Couples and Watson. But Couples wasn’t thinking about his return to his hometown or his honorary chairman role.
No, I was thinking if I make a couple more bogeys, I’m going to shoot 75, he said. I was thinking 75 wouldn’t be that bad. That’s what I was thinking.
With the average first-round score of 76.7, he’s right.
You know, it’s a tough golf course, said Roberts, who reached three under until a bogey on No. 6, his 15th hole of the day. It doesn’t have the length, but definitely you’ve got to hit it straight and all the greens have a lot of movement.
Roberts, who will defend his Champions Tour title in the Boeing Classic in nearby Snoqualmie next month, said he played conservatively, aiming at the middle of greens.
You’re looking to put the ball in the first 15 feet of the green and then you just putt up into the pockets where the pins are, he said, That was my strategy all day. That’s how you’re going to have to play the golf course, irregardless of how firm it is.
Jackson, who tied for 11th in last year’s Senior Open and has played on two USA Walker Cup Teams and won two U.S. Mid-Amateurs, agreed that the hole locations were challenging.
Even par around here is going to be a good score, he said. I don’t know how the hole locations could get more difficult than they were today.
Calcavecchia chimed in on the topic after he finished his afternoon round.
They must have thought the top 100 in the world were here, not 156 old guys, he said. Seriously, I think it was the hardest set of pin placements I’ve seen in years.
Calcavecchia also was bothered with jet lag, and faces a 7:45 a.m. starting time Friday.
I’ll be wide awake, I know that, he said. I probably don’t even have to set my alarm. You can call me at 3:30 if you want, I’ll be up.
Vaughan didn’t have many complaints, but with his background that might even have been the case if he shot in the 80s. He didn’t start playing golf until age 20 when he was working as a fireman, working 2½ days a week, albeit 24-hour shifts.
I had to find something to do, so I started playing golf, he said. I started to get a little bit better and better.
As he was improving, he was getting help from Ralph Terry, the former New York Yankees pitcher and Champions Tour player who also is from Kansas.
Vaughan played one year on the PGA Tour (1995), but toiled mostly on the Nationwide Tour and posted two victories in four years.
As a senior, though, he seems to play his best when things get demanding. His only victory is the 2008 Senior British Open, and his two previous attempts at the U.S. Senior Open have to be considered successful with a pair of 16th-place finishes in 2007 and 2009.
And leading the 2010 U.S. Senior Open after the first day is not bad either.
I’m just a country boy from western Kansas and proud of it.
Paul Ramsdell is a Seattle-based freelance writer who is contributing articles to the U.S. Senior Open website this week.