U.S. SENIOR OPEN
Strong Rookie Class Debuts in U.S. Senior Open July 6, 2014 By Dave Shedloski

Less than a month after competing in the U.S. Open at Pinehurst, Kevin Sutherland will make his U.S. Senior Open debut. (USGA/Michael Cohen)

EDMOND, Okla. – Kevin Sutherland hasn’t had the chance to play much golf in 2014 – except for a key 72-hole stretch in June.

That all changes for the PGA Tour veteran this week at the U.S. Senior Open at Oak Tree National, where Sutherland is among a handful of notable first-timers in the year’s fourth major championship on the Champions Tour. That list also includes Vijay Singh (a three-time major champion on the PGA Tour who bypassed the championship last year at age 50), 1984 U.S. Amateur champion Scott Verplank, and longtime tour stalwarts Billy Andrade, Woody Austin and Jeff Maggert.

I think it’s a pretty formidable group of rookies, if you call us that, said Andrade, who won four times on the PGA Tour. I mean, we are rookies, but I think we know what we’re doing at this stage of our careers.

Players 50 and over are eligible to compete in the U.S. Senior Open, and two men who will be making their senior golf debuts squeaked in with timely birthdays. Sutherland turned 50 on July 4, while Verplank might be the youngest man to ever tee it up in the U.S. Senior Open; he turns 50 on Wednesday, the eve of the 72-hole stroke play championship.

Sutherland, of Sacramento, Calif., lost his PGA Tour card in 2013 after battling back and neck injuries for two years. His only start this year was perhaps the most important anyone could ask for: the U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2. Sutherland shot 70-67-137 in the Daly City, Calif., sectional to win one of the five available spots among 110 players.

It marked the eighth time Sutherland advanced through the sectional. In 2013, he won the Memphis sectional.

I guess I’m able to raise my game in tough situations, which kind of gives me a sense of confidence going to Oklahoma, said Sutherland, who won once on the PGA Tour, the 2002 Accenture Match Play Championship. I really don’t know what to expect. I feel like my game is good, but how do you know unless you get in competition, and I haven’t had much, and I didn’t play that well at Pinehurst.

Sutherland, whose best U.S. Open finish was a tie for 28th in 2003, missed the cut at Pinehurst, shooting 75-75-150, but he was encouraged nonetheless.

I hit some good shots on a really hard golf course, he said. I’m sure Oak Tree is going to be tough, too, but how tough I’ll find out. It’s a Pete Dye course and I like what he’s done like TPC Sawgrass. Whatever happens, I think it’s going to be a really special week.

Verplank is inclined to think likewise – for very different reasons. Winner of five PGA Tour titles, the Dallas native has made his home at Oak Tree for years, and the former Oklahoma State All-American won his U.S. Amateur title there in 1984. Like Sutherland, his last few years have been stymied by injury. He underwent wrist surgery in 2012.

My game really hasn’t been the same since, said Verplank, who missed the cut at last week’s Greenbrier Classic, the 11th time, including one withdrawal, in 12 starts he hasn’t qualified for the weekend. But maybe becoming a rookie again will turn things around. I’m young again, I guess. I’m excited, but we’ll see how I play. Just because I know the course doesn’t mean anything if you can't hit the shots.

Andrade has been hitting shots just fine. His scoring, however, has disappointed him in his rookie Champions Tour season, which includes three top-10 finishes in 11 starts. His best outing was runner-up at the Mississippi Gulf Resort Classic in March.

Basically, I had four years off [because he wasn’t exempt on the PGA Tour], so I’m still getting my game back in shape, said the Rhode Island native. I feel like I’m hitting the ball well enough, but not getting a lot out of it. But I think it’s coming. I’m moving in a positive direction, and I think the tougher the course, the better my chances. It won’t be a shootout of birdies.

Though he turned 51 in February, Singh has only appeared in one Champions Tour event leading into his U.S. Senior Open debut. His best finish in the U.S. Open is a tie for third in 1999. In 2003, at Olympia Fields Country Club near Chicago, Singh tied the 18-hole U.S. Open record with a second-round 63 before fading to joint 20th place. He has competed in 21 events on the PGA Tour this season and made 12 cuts, and he proved he is still competitive with a runner-up finish at the Fry’s.com Open last October.

I feel like I can still win out here (on the PGA Tour), Singh said earlier this year at the Memorial Tournament, but I think it will be fun to see how my game stacks up in a senior major like the U.S. Senior Open. We’ll see what happens.

Indeed. It’s hard to know what to expect when you’re a rookie.

Dave Shedloski is an Ohio-based freelance writer whose work has appeared previously on USGA websites.