Sammamish, Wash. – The two players who this week have dominated all discussions – albeit for different reasons – will share the ultimate stage during the final round of the 31st U.S. Senior Open at Sahalee Country Club.
Bernhard Langer, who has been the talk of the town for his play this week and last, when he won the Senior British Open, will be in the final group Sunday with Fred Couples, who is just the talk of the town in Seattle, period.
Langer fired his third consecutive under-par round with a 68 on the 6,866-yard tree-lined Sahalee layout. He needed a 20-foot birdie putt on the final hole, however, just to tie Couples for the 54-holelead because the legend surrounding the Seattle native grew even larger with a championship-low 5-under 65, to the delight of his thousands of fans.
They both are at 5-under 205 for the championship, five shots ahead of the rest of the field, which is led by Tom Kite (69) and Chien Soon Lu (68) at even-par 210.
That sets up virtually a Ryder Cup-style singles match Sunday. The Saturday crowd of 28,900 was definitely pro-Couples, and even more tickets will be available Sunday.
There were some great cheers today. It sounded a bit like Augusta on the back nine, honestly, Langer said.
He’s a local boy and he has a lot of following no matter where we play in America, but especially from here, Langer added. I’m sure there are many, many people newsContenting for him, but I’ve heard a few Germans out there and I might have my own 12 people cheering for me.
The cheers for Couples started early when he made birdies on the second and fifth holes, but the key might have been the par on the 467-yard, par-4 sixth when he holed out from a greenside bunker.
Instead of blasting it out 4 or 5 feet and missing it for double [bogey], I made it for par, which, as they say, kept the round going and kept me feeling comfortable about my game, Couples said.
Theh hits kept right on coming when Couples nailed his approach to a foot on No. 7 for birdie.
After that, he finished off the only bogey-free round of the championship by coaxing in birdie putts from above the hole – 20 feet on No. 9 and 12 feet on No. 16 – that rolled almost as soft, sweet and slow as his backswing.
Besides his closing-hole effort, Langer’s birdies came on the par-4 fourth and the par-5 11th holes. His only setback was the 12th when a bit of tree trouble kept him short of the green on his approach and he made bogey.
As with Couples, Langer’s most impressive hole might have been a par-save. He suffered the intricacies of Sahalee when his drive found the fairway on the 375-yard, par-4 16th hole, but ended up smack dab behind a tree that blocked him from going for the green.
You feel stupid when you chip it 10 yards, he said. You’re in the fairway and you’ve got to chip it 10 yards when you have 150 to the hole.
But after chipping it 10 yards, Langer hit a great approach to 3 feet and saved par.
Couples was impressed with Langer’s three consecutive under-par rounds, as well as his own effort.
I’m not saying if there was a U.S. Open [here] today we would be leading, but we would be very good right now and that makes me feel good because this course is brutal, not very easy at all.
And Langer was certainly impressed.
It’s a great round from Freddie, absolutely, 65 is a fantastic score.
Saturday was the easiest of the three days so far because hole locations were definitely more accessible, as evidenced by the five eagles on the day, three of which were hole-outs on par-4s. The most impressive was by Jeff Hart of Solano Beach, Calif., who posted a 2 on the 455-yard 18th, which plays as a par 5 for the club members. Mark Calcavecchia holed out on the 10th hole and Javier Sanchez did it on the fourth.
Michael Allen, tied for fifth at 1-over 211 with Peter Senior, John Cook and Tommy Armour III, noticed the difference Saturday.
There are certain pins that I can’t hit within 20 feet, Allen said. Today, there were only two or three like that where you’re not going to challenge it at all.
The biggest challenge Sunday might be for fans trying to catch a glimpse of Couples.
They were 10 deep like they were yesterday, said Tom Watson, who played all three days with Couples, but fell off the pace with a 75 Saturday. It was high energy.
Watson wasn’t the only player to falter Saturday. J.R. (Jeff) Roth was in the last group with Langer, but also struggled with a 75.
While the crowds will be pulling for Couples on Sunday, Langer has a few things going for him. He will be going for back-to-back major victories on the senior circuit, which hasn’t been done since Watson pulled it off in 2003.
I came in with confidence, which is always good, Langer said. The best thing, I think, you can have in golf is confidence.
The 52-year-old tends to play well back-to-back, thanks in part to his even-keel lifestyle and personality. When he won the Masters title in 1985, he wasn’t hampered by too much celebrating, as he went on to win the Heritage Classic the following week at Hilton Head Island.
Sahalee is building a history of creating two-man races in its major championships. In the 1998 PGA Championship, Vijay Singh and Steve Stricker were tied for the third-round lead, four strokes ahead of the field, before Singh went on to post a two-shot victory.
If I don’t win, it will be disappointing, but it’s going to be a great week either way, Couples said.
The organizers of the championship are just as thrilled with Couples.
This is so amazing, we are ecstatic, said Chris Falco, the championship’s general chairman for Sahalee Country Club. The hope was he would first make the cut, then maybe be in contention. We never thought he’d be in the final group, so this is a dream come true for us.
The same can be said for the legion of fans following the 50-year-old, who grew up working the range at Jefferson Park public golf course near downtown Seattle. And those numbers could be growing even larger come Sunday. Couples and Langer will start that final round at 11:55 a.m. PDT.
We’ve had a ton of people call. They’ve been watching coverage, and they’re asking about single-day tickets. We have plenty of tickets. If people want to come out we welcome them to come out, Falco said. There’s plenty of room out here, contrary to what some people think, there’s a lot of room out here.
Paul Ramsdell is a Seattle-based freelance writer who is providing articles this week for the U.S. Senior Open website.