EDMOND, Okla. – Never mistake a man who has been graced with a second chance at life as someone who accepts defeat without disappointment or regret. Especially a sportsman.
Gene Sauers could have won the U.S. Senior Open Sunday at Oak Tree National. But he didn’t. He had victory on his clubface, but fate figured Sauers already had enjoyed enough serendipity. The putt, the one he needed for his most meaningful victory, was just 6 feet, earned with a brilliant full stroke, the kind that was his trademark before burnout and then a burning illness sidetracked him. But the ball defied his hopes.
And when Sauers ran out of gas in a three-hole playoff against Colin Montgomerie, he accepted his silver medal and his moral victory with equanimity.
That didn’t mean he was OK with it.
Near misses might make you grateful for the little things, but they don’t make you content if you have a competitive disposition and the talent to achieve.
I think at this point, right this second, I'm disappointed of being so close, said Sauers, 51, of Savannah, Ga., who nearly authored one of the comeback stories of the decade. You know, I had a lot of opportunities out there today. I'm disappointed but I'm happy, also. What can I say? It builds a lot of confidence going into the rest of the year.
The dichotomy of emotions is to be expected. Sauers three years ago was given only a 25 percent chance of survival after developing Stevens-Johnson Syndrome, a potentially fatal skin disorder usually caused by an adverse reaction to medication. The illness struck when medication that Sauers was taking for rheumatoid arthritis – which he didn’t have – triggered the outbreak on his arms and thighs. He spent seven weeks in the hospital and eventually needed skin grafts on the affected areas.
At that point, Sauers didn’t know if he could ever play golf again. But this week, on a difficult Oak Tree layout, on a setup that was ineffably challenging and yielded just four scores under par for 72 holes, Sauers was a man proving himself very much alive – in mind and body and spirit and golf ability.
He began the day with a three-stroke lead over Bernhard Langer, and at the end of regulation, and even though he closed with a 2-over 73, it was just Sauers and Montgomerie at 5 under par 279. David Frost and Woody Austin were third, four strokes adrift.
Obviously, you reach this age and medically things start going a little bit awry at our age and all credit to him for the illness that he carries and to come back and do what he's doing. Fantastic effort, said Montgomerie, who closed with a 2-under 69 to catch Sauers and then played the three-hole aggregate playoff in 1 over par. And to start with the lead – I've had it myself, and it's not easy. I led the first couple of days. It's not easy to lead a championship and play with Bernhard Langer as well, the best player really that's playing out here. All credit to him for persevering through that illness and also coming up a hair's breadth short of victory here.
A four-time PGA Tour winner who last triumphed in 2002, Sauers appeared to hit the shot of the championship on the 72nd hole when he laced a 4-iron from 202 yards to within 6 feet of the hole at 18. But his winning putt veered a hair right at the start and lipped out, giving Montgomerie, a three-time runner-up in the U.S. Open, a chance for his own brand of redemptive victory.
Sauers, who earned his spot in the field via sectional qualifying, could take solace from the effort, even if satisfaction eluded him. He finished first, but didn’t win the championship. That will have to do.
You know, I haven't had a good year up to this point. I have been struggling a little bit, but, you know, came around, he said, weighing what his effort means against where he was three years ago when he couldn’t hit a wedge shot 10 yards. You know, knowing that I can do it, I know I can. It's just a matter of telling yourself, getting in this mind here. You know, I have been hard on myself throughout my whole career.
What happened to me, I don't take life for granted anymore, he added. I'm not going to take golf for granted. Just go do what I got to do and focus and go on from there. I feel good about my game right now, and I'm looking forward to the rest of the year.
That’s good. That’s living. Do not go gentle into that good night.
Dave Shedloski is an Ohio-based freelance writer whose work previously has appeared on USGA websites.