What a Grind

June 02, 2008
June 02, 2008

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June 2, 2008

SI Bonus Section: Golf Plus

What a Grind

You won't hear Jay Haas, the Senior PGA Championship winner, complaining, but just about everyone else who showed up at Oak Hill (and plenty took a pass) probably wanted to be somewhere else

THE DEBATE about whether the term senior major is an oxymoron is hereby over. The 69th Senior PGA Championship, the first senior major of the year, began with 28 players withdrawing before the tournament even started, and things went downhill from there. ¶ Twenty-eight? That's not a major championship, that's a work stoppage. Most Masters invitees would sooner give up a family member than turn down a chance to play Augusta National. Real majors don't have multiple dropouts. (And they don't have pro-ams, either. Especially on a Tuesday, as the Senior PGA did.) ¶ The mass exodus from Oak Hill Country Club was unprecedented but not totally unexpected. After all, there was the weather forecast for Rochester, N.Y., that called for temperatures in the 40s with rain and wind. There was the agronomic forecast that predicted thick, deep, extra-juicy spring rough. And there was the certain knowledge that under any conditions mighty Oak Hill is an equal opportunity butt-kicker. ¶ Somewhat surprisingly, those missing in action included Hall of Famers such as Ben Crenshaw, Ray Floyd, Hubert Green, Larry Nelson, Gary Player and even Curtis Strange, who won the U.S. Open at Oak Hill in 1989. All cited illness, injury or personal reasons. Like what? Being allergic to five-inch rough and numbers in the 80s? "You have to question that," Champions tour rookie John Cook said of those who WD'd without a medical excuse. "This is a major. I guess they felt as if they had paid their dues and didn't want to do that anymore." ¶ The result was a major with a black eye, although Jay Haas was a worthy champion, outlasting Bernhard Langer to win the title for the second time in three years and taste sweet redemption. Cook's comment notwithstanding, once play got under way, those who skipped the event for the most part were quickly forgotten. Former U.S. Open and Masters champ Fuzzy Zoeller got a call from his absent pal Green after Zoeller slogged through a brutal opening round in which the average score was nearly seven over par (76.8), and the number of bogeys or worse was higher than birdies by a 5-to-1 margin. Thirty players failed to break 80, 10 over par.

This is an article from the June 2, 2008 issue

"Did I make a good decision?" Green asked smugly. Zoeller answered by laughing.

Oak Hill won the Senior PGA by a knockout: There were boatloads of bogeys and only three rounds in the 60s, and the final threesome on Sunday went a combined 18 over. "The course is unrelenting," said David Eger, whose closing 70 lifted him from 24th to 16th. "It's simply a difficult golf course for old men."

The PGA of America didn't learn anything from its previous visit to Oak Hill, for the '03 PGA Championship, which featured folded-over eight-inch rough that proved to be an equalizer. The rough last week was fresh and springy and somewhere between four and five inches in height. If you think the pitchout back to the fairway is an exciting shot, you probably also watch hockey for the icing calls, look forward to TV timeouts and enjoyed the heck out of the Senior PGA.

Never have so many pro golfers been made to look so stupid by missing so many greens with stubbed chips, pitches and flops. On Sunday, Langer, the meticulous (and in these conditions slow-playing) German, hit his drive into the rough a few paces short of the 14th green. The pin was five steps onto the green. It might've been a relatively easy flop shot from a normal lie, but Langer's best effort left him just in the edge of the deep cut. So much for a birdie opportunity. Langer got up and down to save his par.

"They said the rough was 3 1/2 inches long. It looked more like five to me," Langer said. "It was very juicy, dark green, like fertilized rough. Chipping was extremely difficult out of that thick grass."

Players gave the setup mixed reviews. It's a major championship, some said, so it's supposed to be difficult. Second-round leader Tom Purtzer called it "borderline too hard" before he plummeted with a third-round 81.

The numbers don't lie. Haas won with a seven-over 287, the highest winning score in relation to par in Senior PGA history and the second highest on the Champions tour. (Arnold Palmer was nine over when he won the 1981 U.S. Senior Open at Oakland Hills.) The cut, which was made at 12 over, was a stroke lower than the tour record set at the '90 Senior PGA at PGA National.

Jim Woodward, whose closing 79 left him in 46th place (at 20 over), spoke for many. "If I ever come back to Oak Hill again, it will be too soon. I give. [Oak Hill] wins. Here's the good news: Anywhere I go from here is going to be easier."

The course's difficulty made for a close but ugly finish. The final threesome—Haas, Langer and Jeff Sluman, Rochester's favorite son—combined for two birdies and 18 bogeys or double bogeys in the final round.

At the end, the scene on Oak Hill's 18th green was remarkably familiar. Langer, holding his visor in one hand and his long putter in the other, greeted Haas with a warm smile and a hug. It was like the hug they shared 13 years earlier in the Ryder Cup at Oak Hill, when the Europeans upset the Americans. Haas had just lost his singles match to Philip Walton, the match that clinched the Cup for the Euros. Langer, who had missed a putt that would've earned Europe a tie in '91 at Kiawah Island, understood how Haas felt.

"The crowd was cheering, and the Euros came on the green, and there was one guy who came up and gave me a hug, not a handshake," Haas said. "I didn't really know Bernhard that well at that time, but he was the only guy who really showed compassion."

Sunday's hug was eerily appropriate. Langer came to the 72nd green trailing by a shot. He two-putted for par from 50 feet, and Haas two-putted for par from 17. When Langer came forward to offer congratulations, Haas told him, "You know, there was only one guy after the Ryder Cup who came over and said some nice words to me, and you know that guy."

Much about Haas's winning the Senior PGA had a hauntingly retro feel. In his Ryder Cup loss to Walton, Haas stormed back from three down with three to play by holing a bunker shot at the 16th and winning the 17th after an amazing recovery from the rough. Last Saturday he holed an even more improbable eight-iron shot from the rough at 17, his ball bouncing through the fringe, onto the green and into the cup for an eagle to catapult him into a tie for the lead. "That shot will definitely go down in the Hall of Jay," Haas said, laughing.

Haas popped up a weak drive on the 18th hole of that fateful Ryder Cup match and was closed out when he missed his par putt for a halve. On Sunday he found himself back on the 18th tee in a similar pressure situation, one ahead of Langer.

"I had to chuckle," Haas said. "It was like, well, you've been talking about this. It's time to put up or shut up. You talk a good game, how about getting up there and ripping it. Damn if I didn't."

What Haas did on the 18th was hit a perfect drive down the left side of the fairway, about to the spot from which Shaun Micheel played his winning seven-iron shot in the '03 PGA. Then Haas deposited an excellent six-iron shot to 17 feet. Haas needed a two-putt for the win, and he got it, along with a sense of atonement. "If I could've played those two shots in '95," he said, "maybe I wouldn't have played them today."

It was a special week for Haas. The head pro at Oak Hill is Craig Harmon, son of former Winged Foot pro Claude Harmon and the brother of Billy, Haas's former Tour caddie, and Butch, the famous swing coach. The Harmon boys are family to Haas. "Almost every day this week, if I had a chance to get lunch, I would get a plate and go up to Craig's office and sit there and talk about nothing and just laugh," Haas said. "That's a great memory to have here."

Haas will leave his mark at Oak Hill. There is a wall of champions on the front of the clubhouse, plaques for all the players who have won championships at the club. Haas will join the likes of Jack Nicklaus (1980 PGA), Lee Trevino ('68 Open), Cary Middlecoff ('56 Open), Strange and the rest. Haas noticed the plaques for the first time on Sunday morning and tried not to think about what it would be like to have one of his own. On Sunday evening, when Haas emerged from the clubhouse after signing his scorecard, he was escorted toward the 18th green for the award ceremony. Several fans on a clubhouse balcony cheered as he walked below and shouted, "Jay, you made the wall!"

Haas looked up, raised his left arm and pointed toward the plaques as he walked by. "Wall, baby!" he answered. Then again, he and everyone else had been up against it all week.

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"IF I EVER COME BACK TO OAK HILL AGAIN, IT WILL BE TOO SOON," said Woodward. "I give. [Oak Hill] wins."
On 18, Haas said he was thinking, "You talk a good game, how about getting up there and RIPPING IT? Damn if I didn't."

Weekend Warrior

Though he contended in a senior major, Greg Norman says there's no way he'll become a regular on the Champions tour

AT 53 GREG NORMAN is the Great White Mirage. Oh, he still looks like the Shark of old—lean, fit and hungry, ready to play 36 holes for any sum you name. And he still lashes at the ball with the same fury, driving it almost as long and straight as he did while winning two British Opens. But it's all a mirage.

Playing tournament golf, even on the Champions tour, is less about physical skills than it is about mental ones, and Norman doesn't have his head in the game anymore. These days his mind is on business—his Great White Shark Enterprises has been conservatively estimated to be worth $350 million, more than 25 times the $14 million he won on the PGA Tour—and on tennis and his fiancée, Chris Evert.

The Champions tour needs Norman, but Norman doesn't need the Champions tour. He still has star power. The galleries at Oak Hill were drawn to him, his magnetism unmistakable. But last week's Senior PGA Championship—run by the PGA of America, not the PGA Tour, with which Norman has had his differences—was his first senior start in almost three years and only his fourth tournament of any kind in the last two.

The fact is, his interests lie elsewhere. Last week he became energized when he described his interview for a seat on the board of directors of the H.J. Heinz Company and when he was asked a question about branding. ("I am the brand," said an animated Norman. "I live the brand.")

Tennis excites him. He plays three or four times a week with Evert, who says his athleticism is wasted on golf, and now he wishes that he had taken up that sport instead of golf when he was a child. "I move across the court pretty well," Norman says.

And he is sparked by Evert, who was part of his gallery at Oak Hill, discreetly outfitted in sunglasses, baseball cap and sweater. He likes that, as a winner of 18 major titles, she can relate to being the No. 1 player in a sport, as he was for 331 weeks in the 1990s. Last Friday she gave him a brief shoulder rub as he walked to the 16th tee after a bogey.

Norman was only five strokes off the pace after two rounds, yet he seemed spent on Friday evening. Then on Saturday he appeared all but defeated when, after rising all the way to third place, he finished the day by slashing three shots from the rough en route to a dispiriting double bogey on the 54th hole that dropped him to seven over and a tie for sixth. Asked if being in the hunt stoked his competitive fires, Norman quickly replied, "Not really. Fuzzy Zoeller asked me about that, and my answer was simply, 'No.' I'm enjoying it. I still get intense about wanting to do well, which is a good sign. It's just tough to get back into it."

But on the final nine on Sunday, when everyone else was backing up, there was Norman on the attack, making four birdies to move within a shot of the leader and eventual winner, Jay Haas. Then disaster struck again. Norman Sharked his tee shot at 17 into the trees right of the fairway and took three more shots from the rough while making a killer double bogey. He bogeyed the 18th after an errant drive and finished where he had started the day, in a tie for sixth, at 10 over par.

His performance was impressive for a guy who has basically given up the game, yet at the same time disappointing. Asked if his brush with success might encourage him to play more, Norman was blunt. "It might make me go the other way," he said.

Norman's next start isn't until July, in the British Open at Royal Birkdale, and he might also play the following week, in the Senior British Open at Royal Troon. On the Champions tour, he won't even be a mirage.

PHOTOPhotograph by Richard MacksonBAGGAGE CLAIM Haas overcame some unpleasant Oak Hill memories to hoist the trophy on Sunday.PHOTOPhotograph by Richard Mackson[See caption above]PHOTOPhotograph by Richard MacksonNO PEEKING Despite stumbling to a six-over 41 on the front side on Sunday, Langer righted himself on the back and had a chance to tie on the 72nd hole.PHOTODAVID DUPREY/AP (NORMAN)NEW LOVES Norman is totally focused on business, tennis and his fiancée, Evert (below).PHOTODAVID DUPREY/AP (EVERT)[See caption above]PHOTOPhotograph by Richard MacksonANGER MANAGEMENT Oak Hill even got the best of the normally placid Scott Simpson, who tied for third.PHOTOPhotograph by Richard Mackson[See caption above]