EDMOND, Okla. – Three players in this week’s U.S. Senior Open field can claim previous success at Oak Tree National. All of them are realistic about what kind of an advantage their victories will provide when play begins on Thursday.
Jay Haas, who won at Oak Tree most recently, defeating Brad Bryant on the third playoff hole of the 2006 Senior PGA Championship, sized up the course after a Tuesday practice round.
There’s a little more rough, more consistent rough than last time, because we played in May, said Haas. So you’re probably going to have to drive it better than I did that week. What I remember is hitting good shots and playing a lot of good golf.
Haas believes that his good memories will help him – to a point.
Golf changes from day to day and week to week, never mind what happened eight years ago, said Haas. From age 52 to age 60, that’s a big difference. The fact that that I did well and won the tournament is a huge boost to me, but does it help me hit good shots this week? No.
Jeff Sluman won the 1988 PGA Championship by two strokes over Paul Azinger, for his first PGA Tour victory as well as his only major win on the regular tour. He played Oak Tree on Monday evening in his first trip back, barring a one-day visit.
I remember that I got off to a very good start and then holed a sand wedge on the par-5, which was my fifth hole, said Sluman of his final-round 65 in 1988, highlighted by that memorable eagle. You know, that was 26 years ago, and I still remember most of the shots.
Sluman’s more recent history includes a playoff defeat to Bernhard Langer in the Constellation Senior Players Championship, which he nearly won one hole earlier when his birdie putt scared the hole. He thinks Oak Tree will provide a test unlike the typical Champions Tour stop.
This golf course just sets up for a lot of shaping of the ball off the tee, and you'd really better be able to control your distance, said Sluman. I think that's probably the biggest thing. There’s going to be a lot of thought. You’re just not going to get up, tee it up high and let it rip and chase it down and hit it again. Sunday, you’re going to have a worthy champion, whoever that might be.
Scott Verplank knows Oak Tree as well as anyone in the field – anyone who is a member of the Oak Tree Gang, that is. He is a member of that group, which includes fellow Oak Tree residents Bob Tway, Gil Morgan and Willie Wood. A former Oklahoma State standout, Verplank has lived here since 1989, and won the 1984 U.S. Amateur on this course by defeating Sam Randolph, also in the field this week, in the final match.
Any time you get to play a major tournament on the golf course that you live on, that I practice at every day, that I love, it’s a great deal, said Verplank. Oak Tree has never been better than it is right now. The only time I can remember the conditions being close to this was the 1984 U.S. Amateur. That’s the last time the USGA was here.
Verplank has struggled with injuries in recent years, particularly a wrist that required surgery in 2011. Health notwithstanding, he knows what is required to win here.
You’ve got to drive the ball in the fairway regularly and hit a lot of greens, said Verplank, who turns 50 on the eve of the championship. The one thing that made Oak Tree really hard from the beginning was that it’s not like a lot of other golf courses in this part of the country, where you can roll the ball onto the green. This is one of Pete Dye's first ‘play-it-in-the-air-all-the-time’ golf courses, and the locals know how hard the wind can blow around here. Putting the ball up in the air brings in a lot of risk.
What would be Verplank’s winning formula?
It would be nice to be hitting out of the fairway and hitting nice solid irons and getting them onto the greens because that'll be paramount this week, he said. If I hit the ball solid this week, I would expect to be somewhere in the mix.
Senior Open Qualifier Decides Pro Is The Way To Go
On June 18, a 72 in U.S. Senior Open sectional qualifying at Old Waverly Country Club in West Point, Miss., earned Bryan Askew one of two available spots in the field at Oak Tree National. Having turned 50 just a month earlier, Askew decided just before his arrival this week to take the plunge and turn professional, fulfilling a lifelong dream for the Decatur, Ala., resident.
After college I got married and had a family, that’s what I wanted to do, and I always thought when I got to 50, we’d give it a try, said Askew, who was a four-year letter-winner in golf at the University of North Alabama before starting his career as a sales manager at Acme Brick Company, where he has worked for 24 years. My game is in pretty good shape, and hopefully I’ll do well this week.
Throughout his post-collegiate career, Askew has mostly competed in local and regional events – Thursday will mark his debut in a USGA championship. A six-time runner-up in his club championship at Burningtree Country Club, he has set high expectations this week.
Shoot, the ultimate goal is to win. I want to make the cut and make a good showing and play well, but you’ve got to set high goals and high expectations, and hopefully we’ll reach them.
Ron Driscoll is the manager of editorial services for the USGA. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Scott Lipsky contributed.