Olin Browne, who didn't take up the game until the advanced age of 19, has often been described as pro golf's ultimate journeyman. Now he can also be called a national champion
The U.S. Senior Open isn't the U.S. Open, and that's as it should be. Still, the Senior Open is a national championship and the winner is a USGA titleholder, and rightfully proud as heck.
On Sunday evening at the Inverness Club in Toledo, Olin Browne sat with his hands carefully resting on the Francis Ouimet Trophy, the Senior Open champion's prize. He looked as if he were handling precious gemstones, yet he couldn't stop grinning because as the new Senior Open champion, his name may now be spoken in the same sentence as Ouimet's. "That's kind of ridiculous, really," Browne admitted.
Not in the world of senior golf it isn't. It's what separates the Senior Open from the U.S. Open. For flat-bellied golfers, the putter is the game's great equalizer. On this side of 50, time and age even the field. Good things may come to those who wait, especially if they don't blow out a disk or catch terminal yips along the way. As odd as it may sound, there is hope in the Senior Open, something usually absent from the regular Open.
August 7, 2011
Browne, 52, is Exhibit A. He didn't begin to play the game until he was 19 and didn't get to the PGA Tour until his early 30s. He's a late starter and a late bloomer. He didn't exactly chase Jack Nicklaus into the record books. Nicklaus won 18 major championships. Browne has played in only 19. He wasn't so much a journeyman on Tour as he was a slowly improving craftsman. He won three times, including once at Colonial, in 1999, when that event still ranked among the Tour's most prominent stops, and once near Boston at the 2005 Deutsche Bank Championship, during which he fended off the likes of Tiger Woods and Vijay Singh.
"He's a tough competitor," said 2009 PGA Senior champion Michael Allen, who tied for seventh at the Senior Open. "When he grabs the lead, he doesn't let it go very easily."
Browne is not the kind of player one expects to win a major championship, much less lead the Senior Open wire to wire (the only player to do so besides Dale Douglass, in 1986), much less rewrite the tournament's record book. Yet that is exactly what Browne did on a soft and vulnerable Inverness course during a humid, sweltering week.
After he set the Senior Open's 18-, 36- and 54-hole scoring records (64, 133 and 198, respectively) and became the first to shoot 29 for nine holes (back nine in the third round), Browne played solid, smart golf in a final-round showdown with Mark O'Meara. Two late bogeys by O'Meara gave Browne some breathing room, and when he rolled in a 25-foot birdie putt to clinch the title on the final green, he raised his arms in triumph, turned his back on the hole and walked away a few steps before turning and flashing a huge smile of relief.
If that wasn't this Open's signature moment, it was close. There was Hale Irwin shooting his age—66—in the third round and continuing on to tie for fourth, the 204th top 10 finish of his senior career, breaking the record held by Bob Charles. There was Damon Green, normally the caddie for Zach Johnson, completing a role reversal by shooting an opening 67. Green finished 13th and won some followers with his Chicken Walk—he flaps his arms while doing a two-step anytime he makes a birdie. He also was seen on NBC's telecast raking a bunker at the 14th green for his playing partner, Jeff Roth. "Just trying to speed up play," Green said. Once a caddie, always a caddie. Thirty-six players finished 72 holes under par, a Senior Open record. The USGA's website best summarized the scoring blitz with the headline: RED ALERT!
Mostly, though, Browne was the show. After his opening 64, which featured two eagles, he joked that nobody was going to hand him the trophy on Thursday. It turns out they could have. Before last week the closest Browne had come to major glory was on the regular Tour in 2005, when he was paired with Michael Campbell in the final round of the U.S. Open and watched him win. As for Browne, "I butchered Pinehurst on Sunday," he said of his 80. Browne's best major finish was a tie for fifth at Congressional in the 1997 Open.
So Sunday, when he finished with his only birdie of the day, was something special for Browne, who had been winless in his young—pardon the expression—senior tour career. "This is very satisfying for me," he said.
It couldn't have happened to a less likely guy. When he tried out for the Division III Occidental College team as a freshman, he shot 88 and 89 yet still made that shorthanded squad. He worked in the bag room at New Seabury Resort, a course on Cape Cod, that summer and decided then that he would become a professional golfer, leading to a long and determined road that featured only one successful try in his first 10 trips to Q school. Back in '05, at the Pinehurst Open, Browne's father, Luis, recalled those long-gone days when he said, "I really questioned that decision. He couldn't beat me at the time."
Of course, his father's doubts had been erased by then. Browne memorably made it into that Open by shooting 73 in the first round of sectional qualifying. Then, after nearly withdrawing, he fired a 59 in the second round.
Browne has never played in the British Open. "I regret that every day," he says. Oh, he's been to the British Open. He worked as a roving reporter for ESPN at Royal St. George's only a few weeks ago. He followed Tom Watson's group early, Dustin Johnson on the back nine on Saturday and the Phil Mickelson--Anthony Kim pairing on Sunday, when Mickelson raced up the leader board. "That," Brown says, "was exciting."
Browne's most memorable comment on the broadcast came when he saw a pin placement on the 9th green and quipped, "The last time I saw movement like this, I was bobbing in my boat in the middle of the Gulfstream."
He was, he said, "very distressed" not to be a British Open participant, and "maybe that fed into this week."
Browne stayed on in England for the British Senior Open, during which he struck the ball well but putted poorly and finished 23rd. A tip from Allen about his posture at address—to simply stand a little taller—helped his swing and his putting, normally the weakest part of his game. Can it be that simple? "I really rolled my ball well this week," Browne said.
Another friend, Paul Azinger, said he has never seen anyone hit more iron shots right at the flag than David Toms, but second on the list is Browne, who served as one of Azinger's co-captains when the U.S. won the 2008 Ryder Cup. "He hits it as straight as anybody," Azinger says. "He also loves to fish, he's an accomplished fly fisherman, and as a wine drinker he's kind of a connoisseur."
Browne's real secret may simply be his enthusiasm for the game. "I got on Tour in my early 30s instead of my late 20s or even teens, like some of these kids who get fried from being in the spotlight," Browne says. "I'm kind of an immature 52-year-old. You know what? I have a great job. How many people would love to do this for a living?"
At home in Jupiter, Fla., Browne plays at the Medalist Club, usually with his 23-year-old son, Olin Jr., or with daughter Alexandra's boyfriend, Tour pro Rickie Fowler. Alexandra and Fowler have been dating since they met in Hartford two years ago, which is why it wasn't a coincidence that Fowler, a Californian, moved to Jupiter last year.
"I love having the kids over, and I love playing golf with Rickie," Browne says. "That's one thing I miss about the regular Tour, playing with the guys. These kids have skills I can't imagine. I mean, I outweigh Rickie by 30 pounds and I'm a couple of inches taller, yet he can outdrive me by 80 yards. It's ridiculous."
Now that he had won the Senior Open and was a reigning national champion, someone suggested to Browne he might finally be known for something other than being the father of Rickie Fowler's girlfriend.
Browne curled his arm around the Francis Ouimet Trophy and laughed. "Temporarily," he said.
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"I LOVE HAVING THE KIDS OVER, AND I LOVE PLAYING GOLF WITH RICKIE [FOWLER]," SAYS BROWNE.