The only sure thing about this week's Ford Senior Players
Championship in Dearborn, Mich., is that you won't hear many
players grousing about the drain of playing back-to-back majors.
Only Dave Stockton, and maybe Hale Irwin, should be tired after
the U.S. Senior Open at Canterbury Golf Club outside Cleveland.
Heck, Stockton seemed to be just about the only one expending
any energy for the first three rounds, dominating so completely
that on Saturday night the thing appeared to be over. But since
the Senior majors are four rounds, not the three the older folks
normally play, Stockton was required to go out on Sunday and see
if anybody could make a run at his record seven-shot lead.
One player did. "Realistically, we were all playing for second
place," said Irwin, who injected some genuine suspense into what
for the better part of four hours seemed a foregone conclusion.
Slowly, Irwin chipped away at Stockton's huge lead until a
birdie, Irwin's seventh of the day, at the par-5 16th whittled
it down to a single stroke. Waiting in the fairway in the group
behind, Stockton responded by chunking a sand-wedge shot.
So there he sat, still 10 yards short of the green, lying three
and wondering what Greg Norman would do in a situation like
this. But unlike the Shark, spitting the bit was not an option.
"I've always played pretty well as a front-runner," said
Stockton. His fourth shot, another sand wedge, was a beauty, the
ball stopping two feet from the hole for a kick-in par that
allowed Stockton to stay a step ahead.
"That wedge was one of the shots--maybe the shot--that enabled
me to win," Stockton said later. Up ahead, Irwin's bid came to
an end with a bogey at the par-3 17th, which Stockton parred.
Both players made meaningless bogeys at the 72nd hole, and
Stockton, with an 11-under total of 277 (70-67-67-73) had his
first national championship in 22 starts in USGA events, going
all the way back to the mid-'50s. The victory was Stockton's
third in a Senior major--he won the 1992 and '94 Senior Players.
Of the 60 players who made the cut at Canterbury, only eight
wound up breaking par. "I felt like a player out there,"
Stockton said afterward. "If anybody needs a demonstration that
Dave Stockton's game has improved on the Senior tour, he should
go to NBC and get a tape of this tournament. This was, tee to
green, as flawless as I've ever played in a major."
For the rest of the field the thrills were few and far between.
Sixty-year-old Bob Charles opened with a 66 that got everyone's
attention--he eventually drifted to a seventh-place finish--but
after the first two rounds, all anyone wanted to talk about was
Jim Stahl and the dressing down he received from Tom Weiskopf.
Stahl, 57, the president of Cincinnati Belting and Transmission
and the Senior Amateur champion, was paired with Weiskopf, the
Senior Open defender, as per USGA tradition. On Thursday,
Weiskopf got into an argument with an official over a ruling
made after Stahl had hit into a creek on the 10th hole.
Weiskopf felt the official had allowed Stahl to take an improper
drop. "I don't know why [Weiskopf] even got into it," Stahl
said. "I deferred to the referee. If I thought I had done
anything wrong, I would have disqualified myself."
After the round Weiskopf took David Graham, the third member of
the group, and an official back out to 10. "It was agreed at
that time, by the official, that the ruling given earlier was
in fact incorrect," Weiskopf said.
On Friday, after shooting a second straight 75 to make the cut
by one stroke, Weiskopf still had Stahl on his mind. Calling
Stahl "a major distraction," Weiskopf ripped him for marking his
ball with a quarter on the 11th green. "When you are three feet
or less from the hole and near someone's line," Weiskopf said,
"you don't mark the ball with a quarter, you mark it with a
nonreflective penny." Weiskopf also said Stahl played so slowly
that it was "absurd" and criticized him for hitting out of turn
on the 17th tee. "There never should have been a pairing like
this," Weiskopf said. "He was out there trying to break 80 and
playing with two guys who came here thinking they had a chance
to win the tournament."
Stahl, who shot 80-80 and failed to make the cut, was
devastated. "I have never been treated like this in my life," he
told the Cleveland Plain Dealer. "I have more eligibility to
play in this event, but I don't know if I will ever do it
again." USGA officials said they do not plan to stop pairing the
Open and Amateur champs, a practice that received a vote of
support from Jack Nicklaus, who in the past has been on the
receiving end of Weiskopf tirades about slow play. "It's a great
tradition, and I've never had a problem," Nicklaus said. He then
added, pointedly, "I've played a lot of golf with Jim Stahl, and
he's a wonderful guy who really knows the game."
Even if he marks his ball with a quarter? "That's just silly,"
The fireworks over, the only thing left to discuss was Stockton.
He topped the Senior money list in 1993 and '94 and was third in
'95, but 1996 had been a disappointment. Stockton had not won a
tournament since the Quicksilver Classic in May 1995 and was an
unacceptable, for him, 13th in earnings. Then in early June
during the Pittsburgh Senior Classic, his back went out. His
injury, though, was not as serious as the degenerative condition
in the left knee of his wife, Cathy, who learned the same week
that she may need replacement surgery. "It was a total shock to
find out that she was the one in trouble," Stockton said. "I had
intended to play at Cincinnati [in the June 28-30 Kroger Senior
Classic], but with her laid up, that was the last thing on my
When Stockton arrived in Cleveland, he hadn't played in three
weeks, but he did have a secret weapon: a ladies' putter with a
resplendent blue-and-yellow grip that he had been given by
former LPGA player Donna Caponi, who had given it to him five
minutes before his final round in Pittsburgh. "I was so
embarrassed walking up to the greens," he said. "The people in
Pittsburgh were giggling and pointing at the grip. But the putts
were going in. It felt good."
The magic was still there at Canterbury. Stockton drained 17
birdie putts in the first three rounds. The seven-shot spread he
put between himself and Charles was a Senior Open record for
largest lead through 54 holes and enough to get his son, Dave
Jr., who was playing in the Western Open, to telephone Dad with
marching orders for Sunday: "Go out there tomorrow and kick some
butt." What he did instead was save some.
Stockton played well from tee to green, but he had used up all
his putts. A steady stream of pars had him treading water while
Irwin kept creeping closer. In the end, though, the huge lead
Stockton had built proved insurmountable. "Dave did what he had
to do," Irwin said. "I went out there and put some pressure on
him, but he didn't make any mistakes. I made four straight
birdies on the front nine. That should have got his attention.
But Dave had to make some mistakes, which he didn't do."
Irwin was anything but discouraged afterward. Who would be, with
his record in the Senior majors this year? He won the PGA
Seniors and was second in the Tradition as well as in the Senior
Open. In addition, his earnings climbed to $1,045,725 in 13
starts, and no one on the Senior tour has ever made $1 million
faster. "Had I putted just a fraction better," Irwin said, "it
would have been different, but I didn't. Now we have our fourth
major coming up, and I think I'm in a good position to make a
run at that."
Does that sound as if he's tired? The only thing Irwin's wearing
out is the Senior tour, so the rest of the fellows need to put
the U.S. (Unstoppable Stockton) Senior Open behind them and get
ready for a Hale-storm in Dearborn.