Kevin Sutherland grew up 300 yards from Del Paso Country Club, site of this week’s U.S. Senior Open. He wasn’t a member then, which was OK by him.
“I grew up playing at Haggin Oaks, a public facility, 36 holes,” Sutherland said. “It’s maybe a mile from here, and there were a lot of other kids there kind of like a bunch of rats hanging out playing golf. It was a lot of fun, and that’s where I grew up playing golf, and that’s where I grew up loving to play golf. It's a special place for me.”
Sutherland’s parents still live in that house, but he’s come a long way since then, so to speak. The longtime PGA Tour player now holds a membership at Del Paso, and when the 36th U.S. Senior Open begins Thursday on this verdant golfing oasis in the heart of the state capital, Sutherland will be the de facto host of the championship.
That doesn’t mean you can pencil Sutherland in as the favorite to win. In fact, the pressures of playing at home can work against a player. Scott Verplank found himself in a similar role last year at Oak Tree National in Edmond, Okla., but was not a factor as Colin Montgomerie defeated Gene Sauers in a playoff.
Nevertheless, Sutherland, 50, is embracing the charms of being among family and friends and on familiar turf.
“It’s been a total treat,” said the affable pro, whose one PGA Tour victory was a big one – the 2002 WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship. “To play a course I’ve played about every day when I’m at home, it’s been a great experience, something that not all Tour players get a chance to do.”
Sutherland, who turned professional in 1987, finished tied for 38th place last year at Oak tree in what was his Champions Tour debut. Eight starts later he made history when he fired a 13-under 59 at the Dick’s Sporting Goods Open, the first sub-60 round in Champions Tour history.
He still seeks his first win on the 50-and-over circuit, but his performance in senior majors this year suggests he’s ready for a breakthrough.
He lost in a playoff to Jeff Maggert at the Regions Tradition and followed up with a tie for 13th at the Senior PGA Championship and a tie for 10th at the Constellation Senior Players two weeks ago.
You wouldn’t blame him for licking his chops at the chance to win the game’s most prestigious senior major when it’s practically in his backyard. And he’ll enjoy the added bonus of employing his brother David, also a former tour player, as his caddie this week.
“I bandied this about for the last year … and if I should have my brother,” Sutherland admitted. “It’s going to be a great experience for the two of us. He caddied for me at Merion in the  U.S. Open, and he caddied for me the week before that, and we just had a great time. We played a lot of practice rounds together and played a lot of tournament rounds together, but it was also a lot fun to be on the same team, for lack of a better word. It was a lot of fun then, and I’m sure it’s going to be the same way this week.”
Sutherland is a realist when it comes to expectations, however. He’s playing a familiar layout, but one with an unfamiliar setup. “You can have all the course knowledge in the world, but if you’re not hitting it where you want to hit it, it doesn’t really matter,” he said.
“One big difference between today and what we normally see is the greens aren’t normally this quick. They’re probably a good two or three feet faster than normal. For me that’s a big adjustment,” he added. “I’m going to have to make sure that I just don’t fall back on what I’ve done in the past here.”
Sutherland, who goes off the No. 1 tee at 1:37 p.m. PDT with Duffy Waldorf and Paul Goydos, couldn’t hide his excitement for what lies ahead, mostly because he’s playing so well to complement all the intangibles that appear to be in his favor.
Just what would it mean to him to win here?
“It would be incredibly special,” he said with a huge, toothy smile. “I won the world match play in 2002, and in the golf world that would be a bigger win, theoretically, than this. But I don’t think I would have it at the top of my list if I win this week. Winning a national championship on your home course in front of your friends and family would be the highlight of my career.”
A career that started here, in fact, one solid drive away.
Dave Shedloski is an Ohio-based freelance writer whose work regularly appears on USGA websites.