After a record-setting third round, Don Pooley was asked how he would sleep with a three-shot lead heading into the final round.
Pooley’s response? Not a lot of rest was needed.
Coming off as a fortune teller, Pooley patched together four hours’ worth before going out Sunday and outlasting Tom Watson in a captivating five-hole playoff for the U.S. Senior Open victory at Caves Valley Golf Club.
Draining a 9-footer on the 18th hole, he smiled and raised his putter skyward with his left hand. Soon after, he hugged his wife Margaret.
“To win the U.S. Senior Open as my first senior event, it doesn’t get any better than that. That is the top,” said Pooley, who credited a doctor who assisted him with his mental game.
A playoff qualifier at Hillwood C.C. in Nashville, Pooley earned $450,000 for his first win on the Senior PGA Tour. He became the first qualifier to ever win a Senior Open. What’s more, he joins Roberto Devicenzo, Arnold Palmer, Dale Douglass, Lee Trevino and Larry Laoretti as players who have won the event on their first try.
In regulation, Pooley shot a 1-under 70 and 10-under 274 for the championship. Watson, who birdied five holes on the back nine, was 4-under 67 for the round and also 274 entering the playoff. Tom Kite finished third with a 3-under 68 and 7-under 277 overall.
“Don Pooley did an awful lot for senior golf today,” said a disappointed Watson.
“I’m finishing second way too many times. I feel like Lighthorse Harry Cooper. … I feel like Phil Mickelson to Tiger Woods. It’s not a lot of fun to finish second.”
Admittedly nervous, Pooley looked nothing of the sort when he began his round. He birdied the first hole to fall 10-under and, while walking to the second teeing ground, he stopped to sign an autograph. He got to 11 under with a birdie on the third hole before making his first and only bogey on No. 4.
“I wasn’t nervous when I went to sleep and I got to sleep with no problem at all last night,” said Pooley. “But old people, they wake up at night. I woke up and the butterflies immediately hit. And I started thinking about a three-shot lead in the U.S. Senior Open and, dang, I could not get back to sleep.”
Pooley had put himself in the final group by scoring an 8-under 63 in the third round, a record. He was trying to stay in the present, and not look too far hard ahead.
On the front nine, he was the conservative tactician, racking up two birdies, a bogey and six pars. From the fifth through the 18th holes, he was as methodical as methodical can be, making par 14 consecutive times. Still, it wasn’t enough to hold off Watson’s barrage.
After bogeying No. 8 to fall five strokes back, Watson birdied the par-4 9th when he stuck his approach 3 feet from the hole and then tapped in.
Taking honors for the first time in the round, Watson birdied the next hole, too. He ran off three more in a row on No. 13, 14 and 15, finally pulling even.
However, it was the birdie putt on the 330-yard par-4 14th that set up the stalemate on No. 15. A slight change for the better that Watson kind of discovered.
On the 14th, Watson grabbed a sand wedge and lofted the ball within 3 feet of the hole. He sank the putt easily, but didn’t like his stroke. While Pooley made his way to the 15th, Watson lagged behind taking five practice putts.
To the delight of the gallery, he buried a side-sloping grainy 22-footer on the 215-yard par-3 15th.
“I had just practiced on the 14th green just a little bit after I made the birdie putt just to get a feel for a little bit different stroke, and I used that stroke at 15,” said Watson. “And the darn thing went in.”
Said Pooley, asked what about his thoughts at that time, “We’ve got a brand new tournament, that’s what I was thinking.”
After trading strokes on the next two holes, both made 3-foot putts for pars to extend the match.
A playoff was on. The players were whisked to the 16th, pre-determined to be the first playoff hole. There, they matched pars. It was to the 17th. They again swapped pars.
Watson could have won in epic fashion after drilling his approach out of a left bunker roughly 185 yards to 10 feet of the hole. He had a chance to win outright, but his left-to-right putt 10 feet away broke right too early.
On to the 18th. Settling nothing, they would play the 18th three straight times. Fatigue was not a factor.
“The adrenalin is still pumping through my body,” said Watson immediately afterward. “I could still go another 18 holes again. I might limp in, but I could still go under the adrenalin.”
The first occasion at 18, Pooley could have won. Watson guided in a 12-footer, but Pooley had a stroke to give. Seven feet left of the hole, Pooley stood over the ball. He locked in, delicately tapping it. It rolled straight for the hole, then took a sharp left.
Pooley turned and stared at no one in particular in the gallery. Golden opportunity missed.
“I kept telling myself, ‘He’s going to make this; don’t think about having to two-putt to win. I’ve got to keep my head in this, because I’m going to have to make this.’ And, of course, [I] was hoping that he would miss it so I could two-putt it to win. But that didn’t happen,” said Pooley.
The second series on the 18th, the fourth playoff hole, was classic. Both drove onto the fairway and sent their approaches under 15 feet to the hole. Pooley went first and hit from left to right. He pumped his right fist.
With the championship on the line, Watson calmly addressed his 14-footer. And sank it, from right to left, for birdie. Watson smiled.
“Obviously we were both nervous to a degree,” said Watson.
Off they went again to the teeing ground. Except this would be the last time they would be carted back.
Watson’s drive was errant, landing in the left rough. In the meantime, Pooley stayed straight. Watson then placed his approach in deep rough beyond the hole. Pooley stuck his to about 9 feet. Did Watson have another miracle in him like the 1982 U.S. Open when he willed in his chip shot on No. 17?
It wasn’t meant to be. Watson put a flop shot to 6 feet away. Pooley, 9 feet from victory, took his time. So much that he backed off the ball to collect his thoughts, as he had done a half-dozen times during the round.
“It wasn’t because I was nervous,” said Pooley. “I backed away because my thoughts weren’t where I wanted them. … I felt like I wasn’t quite lined up right and so I was trying to get set up better and I’m thinking, ‘No, this isn’t working, back away and start over; don’t try to fight this.’”
Said his wife, who had walked the whole way: “I was just very excited. To birdie that last hole was fantastic.”
The last time Pooley won a tournament was the 1987 Memorial. For now, maybe he can rest easier knowing he has a major championship under his belt.