Senior Moment Don Pooley held off Tom Watson to win a U.S. Senior Open that no one will soon forget

July 07, 2002

Tom Watson and his caddie, Bruce Edwards, walked up the long
slope to the landing area of the 18th fairway at Caves Valley
Golf Club in Owings Mills, Md., for the third time on a warm,
humid afternoon, too charged up to be tired. Watson's tee shot
on the first hole of sudden death at the U.S. Senior Open was in
the short grass, and long. "Here's your ticket to Olympia
Fields," said Edwards, knowing what to say and when to say it,
the way a good caddie does. The Senior Open title was at stake,
but almost as meaningful to Watson was the exemption into the
2003 U.S. Open that goes with it.

Watson didn't answer. "He kind of gave me a smirk," Edwards
said. After Don Pooley had hit his approach shot to within nine
feet of the flag on the difficult, 455-yard finishing hole,
drawing a roar from the appreciative gallery packed around the
green, Watson answered with an eight-iron to eight feet, getting
an even bigger response. When Pooley sank the potential winning
birdie putt a few minutes later, the decibel level reached new
heights, but when Watson poured in his do-or-die try on top of
Pooley's to prolong the playoff, well, they hadn't heard a noise
like that on the Senior tour for a long, long time.

Watson and Tom Kite, two friendly rivals, had a sizzling playoff
duel in the SBC Senior Classic in March, but that was nothing
like this. Jack Nicklaus was in the hunt on Sunday in the Senior
Open a year ago, but that was nothing like this, either. This
was the tournament that proved the Senior tour more than has a
pulse; it can still make the heart race.

In the end Watson, 52, failed to get his ticket to Olympic
Fields. Pooley, 50, dramatically ended an unforgettable
five-hole playoff--three holes of aggregate score, followed by
sudden death--by nailing another birdie putt of the same length
the fourth time that he and Watson played 18 that day. The win
was Pooley's first as a Senior.

With its aging superstars no longer competitive and the long
shadow of Tiger Woods making all other tournaments and tours
seem small, the Senior tour has been struggling to stay
relevant. The oft-asked question, What's wrong with the tour?
was answered at Caves Valley. First, the tournament mattered.
The Senior Open, which has been held for 23 years, and the
65-year-old Senior PGA are the only events on the over-50
circuit with history and prestige. Second, the Open was played
on an interesting and telegenic course. (One beef: Tom
Fazio-designed Caves Valley is littered with unnecessary
bunkers.) Third, at least one player that we've heard of played
a starring role. Fourth, Pooley and Watson put on the kind of
shotmaking display last seen on the Senior tour when Lee Trevino
was winning every other event in the early '90s. Watson birdied
six of the last 10 holes, while Pooley made remarkable par saves
on the last three holes of regulation when he appeared to be
ready to crack. Finally, throw in a touch of drama--those
matching birdies in overtime--and you've got a product that will
sell anywhere. "The enthusiasm was wonderful," Watson said. "You
could feel it. It was genuine. It was fresh. It was raw. This
championship had all of that."

Before Sunday's big finish, though, this Senior Open seemed to
have all the upside potential of WorldCom stock. The first-round
leader was R.W. Eaks, a journeyman of the highest order. Eaks's
rookie year on the PGA Tour was 1980 and his second was '81. His
third year was '98. In between he dined on a smorgasbord of
mini-tours and still ranks second in number of events played
(258) on the Buy.com tour and its predecessors, a record no pro
golfer aspires to. Eaks, a former high school basketball star in
Colorado Springs who turned 50 in May, was making his fifth
start as a Senior and surprisingly tied the Senior Open scoring
record with a seven-under 64 in the first round. He gamely held
on with a 73 on Friday, but--eeks, R.W.!--shot 78-77 on the
weekend and skidded to 37th.

Walter Hall, a former appliance salesman, was the star of the
second round. Although he has won only once, Hall, 55, has been
a steady performer on the Senior tour over the last three years,
always finishing among the top 20 money winners. His 65 on
Friday gave him a one-shot lead over Kite and Jose Maria
Canizares, but a bogey-bogey finish in his 72 on Saturday
dropped him out of Sunday's final pairing, and a closing 77 made
him invisible to NBC's cameras.

Sheldon George Pooley Jr., better known--but not by much--as
Don, came next. His third-round 63 erased Eaks and those he had
tied from the record books. Pooley joined Helen Alfredsson,
Johnny Miller, Jack Nicklaus and Tom Weiskopf as the only
players to shoot 63 in a U.S. Open. "I had no idea what the
record was," said Pooley, who hit 15 greens in regulation and
needed only 25 putts. "I'd rather not know that stuff when I'm
out there." Pooley had a nice regular Tour career, winning a
couple of tournaments, the 1980 B.C. Open and the '87 Memorial.
He made the Senior Open via qualifying, the first winner to do
so, thanks to a birdie on the final hole and then another birdie
on the first hole of a playoff.

Eaks, Hall and Pooley? They're hardly the Big Three. But then
golf's old Big Three aren't really the Big Three anymore; they're
simply old. Gary Player, 66, shot 79-75-154 to miss the cut. Jack
Nicklaus, 62, didn't even play, pulling out early in the week due
to continuing back problems. "I'm not surprised," said Watson,
who had played with Nicklaus the previous week in an exhibition
in Kansas City. "Jack was really suffering. He can play one day,
but not five or six." (Nicklaus's WD fueled speculation that the
2001 Masters was his last and that he might be done playing
Senior golf, too.)

Arnold Palmer, 72, gamely soldiered on. He parred the first six
holes in the first round before going double bogey, quad. Then
on Friday he parred the first five holes before reality set in
with three bogeys and a triple. Palmer shot 82-85 and looked
like a beaten man. He ingloriously three-putted his final hole,
wagging a finger at the disobedient ball after the second miss,
histrionics that drew chuckles from the fans but sent the
message that, uh-oh, his time as even a ceremonial golfer is
about up. Palmer may sense it, too. He has committed to play
three more Senior events this year, but, he said, "that will be
it, I'm afraid, unless something strikes." Presumably he didn't
mean the employees of a major airline.

Pooley's regular Tour career was interrupted by neck and back
surgeries, but even so, he never showed the steely resolve he
displayed in beating Watson. At least, not on the golf course:
Don't bet against him at a shooting range. He is an expert
marksman.

"He's as good a shooter as he is a putter," says PGA Tour player
Brandel Chamblee. "He invited me to go shooting once. He pulls a
rifle, handguns and a musket out of his truck and has an
ear-to-ear grin on his face. Then he asks, 'Do you really want to
have some fun?' He hauls out a semiautomatic. He's been in some
competitions and can draw and empty 19 shots on target in, like,
six seconds. Trust me, you don't want to break into his house."

The victory, worth $450,000, was a big day for Pooley's caddie,
too. Cliff Moore, 64, is a retired club pro who has coached
Pooley since Pooley was 16. Last year, when Moore heard that
Pooley hadn't lined up a caddie for the Senior tour, he
volunteered. "Don said, 'You're kidding me. Really?'" Moore
recalled. "I said, 'In a heartbeat.' This isn't work, it's fun.
I consider it a privilege."

Pooley beat Watson at his own game on the final three holes of
regulation, making what used to be known as Watson pars. At the
16th hole Pooley played a second shot from an awkward sidehill
lie in the rough, threading his ball between two bunkers and
onto the green. At 17 he pulled off a delicate flop shot, and at
18 he got up and down from a bunker after short-siding himself.
"He has a great touch, that man," Watson said. "His short game
is a wonderful weapon. Mine resembled that 25 years ago."

Except for a shaky putting stroke from close range, Watson is as
good as ever. His swing, controlled and taut, looks great. "He
has a knack for turning back the clock," Edwards said after the
loss. "If he had putted at Colonial like he putted today"--Watson
needed only 27 putts on Sunday--"we'd have given Nick Price a run
for the money. Only six guys on the regular Tour beat him [at the
Colonial], that's how well he still hits the ball."

Imagine this: An over-50, five-time British Open champion returns
to Muirfield, where he has already won once before. He's on his
game and knows it. The wind howls off the Firth of Forth. "If he
gets the right wind, he can contend," Edwards says. "There's a
certain quartering wind that makes most of the approach shots
very difficult. Tiger is going to have to look out for it."

Imagine a major championship, two diverse contenders (Watson, the
best player of his generation, versus Tiger Woods, perhaps the
best player of all time) and a close finish, even another
playoff. "It's a great course for Tom," Edwards says. "He's
ready."

Too much to ask? Probably. Would you pay to see it, though? As
Pooley's man Moore would say: In a heartbeat.

Read the latest installment of Gary Van Sickle's Underground
Golfer every Monday on golfonline.com.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY DAMIAN STROHMEYER Major Boost Don Pooley Wins a Sizzling U.S. Senior Open [Inside T of C] COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY DAMIAN STROHMEYER TAKING THE FIFTH Watson (right) could only watch in frustration as Pooley ended OT with a birdie on the fifth extra hole. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAMIAN STROHMEYER PUCKER UP Kite, who came in third, was nine under for three of his rounds, but he couldn't make up for a two-over 73 on Saturday.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAMIAN STROHMEYER MESSY BUSINESS Palmer, who shot 82-85 and missed the cut by 18 strokes, may pack it in after three more events this season.

"[Pooley's] short game is a wonderful weapon," said Watson. "Mine
resembled that 25 years ago."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)