U.S. SENIOR OPEN
Second Effort: 2014 Runner-up Sauers Finishes With a Flourish
August 15, 2016 | Columbus, Ohio
By Ron Driscoll, USGA
In 2014, Gene Sauers came within a sliver of capturing the U.S. Senior Open Championship. This time, his putt to win on the 72nd green found the heart of the hole.
“Everybody tells me – the players, my wife, my friends – you’ve just got to get there,” said Sauers, who made the 37th Senior Open at Scioto Country Club his first victory as an over-50 player. “The more times you’re there, the easier it’s going to be. I’m not saying it was easy today, but I got it done.”
Getting there was much more than half the battle for Sauers. The native of Savannah, Ga., will turn 54 on Aug. 22, but there was a time in 2011 when he was not expected to see his next birthday. Suffering from a rare, horrific skin disease, he was given a 25 percent chance of survival. After a month in the hospital, the four-time winner on the PGA Tour who had given up golf out of frustration a few years earlier told his wife, Tammy, that if he was ever able to, he wanted to return to the game he once loved.
Sauers fought his way back to play on the PGA Tour Champions, and nearly capped his comeback in the 2014 U.S. Senior Open at Oak Tree National in Edmond, Okla. He led for much of the final day, then lipped out a winning birdie putt on the 72nd hole before falling to Colin Montgomerie in a three-hole aggregate playoff. On Monday, Sauers found himself in another near match-play scenario with another European star, Miguel Angel Jimenez.
This time, on the 72nd hole, Sauers converted a par-saving putt from 5 feet for the victory, after Jimenez had narrowly missed his 12-foot par attempt to drop into a tie for second place with Billy Mayfair, who turned 50 five days before the championship and closed with a round of 3-under-par 67. Sauers shot 1-under 69, Jimenez 1-over 71.
“I love Gene Sauers,” said 1993 PGA champion and Fox Sports analyst Paul Azinger. “It’s not what you achieve; it’s what you overcome. He’s overcome so much. He rebuilt his game, his life, his body.”
Sauers also overcame the frustration of holding, then losing the lead on the incoming nine holes on Monday, just as he had in 2014. He started the final round – which had been delayed a full day by 3 inches of rain that inundated Scioto between Saturday afternoon and Monday morning – one stroke behind Jimenez, 52, but took advantage of an early double bogey by the Spaniard and two birdies of his own to forge a two-stroke advantage.
That lead slipped to one, then Jimenez turned the tables on Sauers. He birdied the par-4 15th while Sauers blocked his approach shot, skittered his third into a bunker, then salvaged a one-putt bogey to stay within one stroke with three holes to play.
“I knew it was [Jimenez] and I for the most part, but then I looked at the board maybe on 14, and I saw Billy [Mayfair] coming up 1 under, 2 under,” said Sauers. “So I said, OK, I’ve got another one to contend with now. Just keep yourself in it and try not to make too many stupid mistakes.”
Jimenez made the next mistake, knocking a 6-iron over the green on the 198-yard, par-3 17th hole, then failing to get up and down from the bunker. Sauers left a 12-foot birdie try dead-in short, and they were deadlocked going to No. 18. When Mayfair narrowly missed a trio of birdie efforts on the closing holes to finish with 67, he could only hope that both players bogeyed the difficult 454-yard finishing hole to create a three-man playoff.
“We saw Scioto four different ways on four different days,” said Mayfair, the 1987 U.S. Amateur champion. “I had gone three years without being that competitive, and I proved that I could hit good shots under the gun and under a lot of pressure.”
He nearly got the playoff. Both Sauers and Jimenez badly missed the fairway to the left, and Sauers bounded his approach shot onto the front fringe of the green, while Jimenez found the right-front bunker, setting up their closing par attempts.
For Jimenez, it was the third consecutive event that he led entering the final round but failed to close out the victory. He finished tied for third two weeks ago at the Senior Open Championship at Carnoustie, runner-up last week in a playoff at the 3M Championship and tied for second at Scioto.
“I’m trying; I’m human, you know,” said Jimenez, a 21-time winner on the PGA European Tour who has three wins on the PGA Tour Champions. “I’m going to make bogeys. I’m going to make birdies. That moment is not on my side. It’s golf.”
Ian Woosnam, of Wales, the third member of the final grouping, closed with a 68 to finish alone in fourth. Michael Allen closed with a 69 and was solo fifth at even-par 280.
Despite the soft conditions and the shortened course (it played 6,809 yards with a drivable par 4 and a 491-yard par 5), no one roared from the back of the pack to challenge the leaders. The scoring was lower, as 19 players broke par, only three fewer than in the first three rounds combined, and the stroke average was 70.7, more than three strokes lower than the next-best average, on Saturday (73.9). The best rounds were a pair of 66s by Tom Lehman and Michael Bradley, with Lehman climbing into tie for 11th place.
2015 U.S. Senior Amateur champion Chip Lutz, of Reading, Pa., the lone amateur to make the cut, shot an even-par 70 to finish in a tie for 37th place at 10-over 290.
After his clinching putt, Sauers discussed his comeback from years of frustration on the course, and excruciating pain off it.
“I played on the PGA Tour in 2003 and 2004, and I got to really just hitting it awful, driving myself crazy, missing putts,” he said. “I was really fed up with the game. I was about to pull my hair out of my head. After I didn't finish in the top 125, I said, well, I think this is it. I’m done.”
He wasn’t nearly done. The game that had been such a source of frustration would end up being his salvation.
Ron Driscoll is the manager of editorial services for the USGA. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.