U.S. SENIOR OPEN
Mountain Golf is About Altitude – and Attitude June 26, 2018 | Colorado Springs, Colo. By Dave Shedloski

David Toms won The International, outside of Denver, in 1999, and is familiar with playing golf in high altitude. (USGA/Chris Keane)

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John Cook has had a few close calls in the U.S. Senior Open Championship, but not lately, having missed the cut each of the last three years. And at 60 years old, he wonders how many realistic chances he has left.

“I’m not sure if I haven’t missed my window,” he mused on Tuesday outside the clubhouse at The Broadmoor, where he will make his 11th start in the championship. “But I can tell you this much – it would mean a lot. It would be a big deal.”

Indeed. Forty years ago, Cook won the 1978 U.S. Amateur at Plainfield Country Club in New Jersey. If he were to win this week, he would join a select group of men who have won the U.S. Amateur and the U.S. Senior Open. The others: Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Bruce Fleisher. (Four other men also could achieve the feat here: Mark O’Meara, Billy Mayfair, Scott Verplank and Chris Patton.)

A part-time TV broadcaster for Golf Channel, Cook might have a slight edge on most of the field this week – at least he hopes so. He is one of seven entrants in the 39th U.S. Senior Open who won the now-defunct PGA Tour event in nearby Castle Rock, Colo., which, like Colorado Springs, is more than 6,000 feet above sea level.

Cook’s victory in The International in 1987 was one of his 11 titles on the regular tour. Interestingly, his last was the Reno-Tahoe Open, which also is located well above sea level, at more than 5,000 feet.

“I hope it helps me. I have always enjoyed the challenge of playing at altitude,” said Cook, who, should he win, would surpass Vinny Giles for the longest span between USGA victories in men’s competitions. Giles won the U.S. Amateur and U.S. Senior Amateur 37 years apart.

In addition to Cook, other players in this week’s field who know the Rocky Mountain high feeling of winning at Castle Pines Golf Club in Castle Rock are Davis Love III, Vijay Singh, David Toms, Lee Janzen, Joey Sindelar and Tom Pernice. They would be players worth watching as the championship unfolds.

“I’m not sure there is an advantage. It’s all about execution,” said Pernice, 58, who won only twice on the PGA Tour, one being The International in 2001. “The key is distance control, and my distance control was spot-on that week. My ball-striking hasn’t been good of late, but I think I am dialed in here.”

Pernice said the challenge of playing golf at altitudes well above sea level go beyond merely calculating yardage based on the ball flying roughly 10 percent farther than at sea level.

“There are all sorts of factors,” he pointed out. “If you play early in the morning and it’s cooler it could be less. Later and warmer it might be a little bit more. It’s feel, really. It’s not always about just playing the number. There’s a lot more that goes into it, like what club you’re hitting. The adjustment between a 4-iron and a wedge is not the same. You have to think things through. It’s not all mathematical.”

Cook agreed. “I’m comfortable playing at altitude because I have always had a good feel for yardages,” he said. “I’ve always been an average-length player, but I can control my distances. So I felt comfortable with my numbers and maybe that gave me an edge over a lot of other guys. I’ve just had fun playing the different clubs and shots that you have to play.”

David Toms, who won The International in 1999, got good vibes on Tuesday from his first practice round at The Broadmoor, as if recalling his winning effort from nearly two decades ago.

“I didn’t have a whole lot of trouble clubbing myself today,” said the 2001 PGA champion, who is making his second start in the U.S. Senior Open.

Growing up in Louisiana, Toms didn’t have much experience playing at altitude, but like Cook, his precision with his irons became a greater weapon. “I think if you know your game and you take the time to go through each shot, work well with your caddie and you understand how your shot can be affected, then you’re probably going to be OK,” he said.

“The important thing is to get a feel for your ball flight. How much is it? How much of an adjustment is there? Is it 10 percent? Probably in most instances,” added Toms, 51. “High-ball, high-spin golfers are going to be different from low-ball, low-spin players. There are all sorts of factors that can play into it. Today’s golf balls are low spin, so even if you launch it high in the air, if you don’t get enough spin on it then it’s going to fall out of the sky. So that’s an adjustment you have to factor in.”

So it seems experience does help.

“Yeah, but I think most guys can figure it out in a few days,” Toms said. “But we’ll see. Everyone is different.”

“This week will be interesting,” said Cook. “Maybe the experience of having played well over the years in the higher altitudes gives me a little bit of a boost. I’ve played decently when I have played this year. I don’t practice at all. So each day is a new day. But you never know what can happen, especially at a place like this. It’ll be fun.”

Dave Shedloski is an Ohio-based freelance writer who frequently contributes to USGA websites.