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News & Tours

Couples vs. Langer for U.S. Senior Open title

SAMMAMISH, Wash. - With one round to go in the U.S. Senior Open, it's hard to think of a better plot than the one that has emerged at Sahalee CC.

Fred Couples and Bernhard Langer have been the class of the Champions Tour in 2010, each with three victories and ranked first and second on the money list. After sterling play on a difficult course through 54 holes this week, the duo is tied for the lead at five-under 205, five strokes clear of their closest pursuers, Tom Kite and Chen Soon Lu, with four others six back.

While stranger things have happened, it looks like the outcome will come out of Sunday's final pairing at Sahalee, where Saturday Couples shot the week's low round, 65, and Langer made a birdie at the 18th hole to post a 68. All of it happened in front of a gallery of nearly 30,000 people - most of them there in vocal support of Seattle native Couples, for whom they no doubt will turn out in droves again Sunday.

For being contemporaries, Couples, 50, and Langer, 52, don't have much history of down-the-stretch duels - having never battled one another on the PGA Tour. The two were on opposing sides in the Ryder Cup five times (1989, 1991, 1993, 1995 and 1997) but were involved in only one match when Couples teamed with Raymond Floyd at Kiawah Island in 1991 for a 2-and-1 four-ball victory over Langer and Mark James. And, of course, as defending Masters champion, Couples helped Langer into his second green jacket at Augusta National in 1993.

On the surface there aren't a lot of similarities between the casual, long-hitting Couples and the meticulous, grind-out-a-score Langer, and Sunday's showdown indeed will be a study in contrasts - two winners who go about their work differently. Truth be told, Couples is a more intense competitor than some realize, while Langer is a friendly gentleman, quick with a smile.

Langer knows the vast majority of the gallery will be in Couples' corner Sunday, but he has been the underdog before. "He's a local boy and he has a lot of following no matter where we play in America," Langer said. "I'm sure there are many, many people rooting for him, but I've heard a few Germans out there, and I might have my own 12 people cheering for me."

The stage is set for a dramatic Sunday, regardless of one's rooting interest, because the large galleries have energized all the golfers, not only the hometown hero.

-- Bill Fields

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News & Tours

Will Seattle finally gets it champion?

Seattle has never been able to bill itself as the city of champions, given its anemic sports history, notwithstanding an NBA championship in 1979 that has become less a fond memory than a painful reminder. In 2008, the Sonics left town for Oklahoma City and became the Thunder, contributing to the city's athletic gloom.

Its baseball teams, first the Pilots and then the Mariners, have never played in a World Series and the Mariners have one of the worst records in the Major Leagues this year. Its football team, the Seahawks, has never won a Super Bowl, though it did play in one, in 2006 (the 2005 season), when it lost to Pittsburgh, 21-10. Meanwhile, the state's two NCAA Division I football teams, Washington and Washington State, were a collective 8-41 the last two seasons.

Then there's Fred Couples, favorite son, who grew up in the Beacon Hill neighborhood near downtown Seattle. Couples shot a five-under par 65 on Saturday to take a share of the lead in the U.S. Senior Open being played at Sahalee Country Club, on the outskirts of Seattle.

On Sunday, Couples has a chance to give the city something it longs for (though never expects). He can give them a champion.

-- John Strege

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News & Tours

U.S. Senior Open will elude Watson once more

SAMMAMISH, Wash. - Tom Watson's chances of snaring an elusive U.S. Senior Open appear to have slipped away during the third round at Sahalee CC.

While fellow competitor Fred Couples lit up the front nine with a four-under 31, Watson couldn't get anything going, with bogeys at Nos. 5 and 6 setting the tone for his round. The 60-year-old's frustration has continued on the back nine. He is five over for the round and the championship, and nine strokes off the lead, with three holes left in his third round.

It may be that the U.S. Senior Open will be for Watson's second act what the PGA Championship was to his prime. Watson's best chance of winning the U.S. Senior Open came in 2002, when he lost a playoff to red-hot Don Pooley. Watson also was second in 2003 and 2006.

-- Bill Fields

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News & Tours

U.S. Senior Open: Scoring remains difficult

SAMMAMISH, Wash. - If the play of Saturday's early starters is any indication, Sahalee CC won't be giving up much more than it did in a difficult first two rounds of the U.S. Senior Open.

Of the 27 players who have completed nine holes of the third round, only three are under par. Only eight sub-par scores were tallied on both Thursday and Friday. The third-round hole locations aren't quite as tucked as for the first two rounds - only three holes are cut four yards of less from the edge; on Thursday, eight were so positioned.

The scoring at Sahalee was nearly four strokes higher in relation to par for the first two rounds than at Crooked Stick last year (76.612 on par-70 Sahalee compared to 74.884 on par-72 Crooked Stick). Still, the weekend is set up with a number of marquee players in the mix, as was the case last year, when Fred Funk outdueled Greg Norman (absent this year) and others in a record low-scoring shootout.

It is has certainly felt like a major this week, with 26,173 spectators packing Sahalee for the second round - many watching the threesome of hometown hero Fred Couples, Tom Watson and Eduardo Romero. At even-par 140, three behind leader Bernhard Langer, Couples and Watson are paired again Saturday, in the third-to-last group, ensuring another lively atmosphere.

While Couples is shooting for his first senior major and Watson for an elusive U.S. Senior Open crown, Langer will be trying to be the first to win consecutive seniors majors since Watson won the Senior British Open and Jeld-Wen Tradition in 2003. However, in only six of the previous 30 U.S. Senior Opens has the halfway leader gone on to win. Peter Jacobsen, a co-leader in 2004, is the last to have walked away with the Francis Ouimet Trophy.

-- Bill Fields

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News & Tours

Jacobsen will have back surgery next week

SAMMAMISH, Wash. - Peter Jacobsen's 69-68 effort with a sore hip on a 36-hole Sunday at Bellerive to win the 2004 U.S. Senior Open is one of the championship's finest hours, but the 56-year-old isn't in action at Sahalee CC this weekend.

One of the game's most popular players, Jacobsen, in pain and seven over after nine holes Friday after an opening 74, had to withdraw from the 2010 U.S. Senior Open and is scheduled to have back surgery next Wednesday in an attempt to alleviate persistent pain in his left leg stemming from nerve damage in his L-3 and L-4 disks. He will need to rest for six weeks following the operation, then rehab for six weeks, effectively ending his season.

"I've dealt with it all year, and it isn't getting any better," Jacobsen said. "I need to get it fixed. I'm hoping this is the last time I have to have surgery. I'll be back."

Jacobsen has had multiple surgeries in recent years, including for a left-shoulder rotator cuff (2009), right-knee replacement (2008), lower-back micro surgery (2007), left-hip replacement (2006), right-knee cartilage surgery (2005) and torn labrum in his left hip (2004).

-- John Strege

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News & Tours

Report: Tiger commits to Dubai Desert Classic

Word out of the United Arab Emirates this morning is that Tiger Woods has committed to play in the Omega Dubai Desert Classic in February, his first appearance there since winning the event in 2008, the Emirates News Agency is reporting.

There is no confirmation on Woods' website of his agreeing to return to Dubai, nor is there any mention on the Omega Dubai Desert Classic website.

However, Woods has played the European Tour event on five occasions, winning twice. He missed 2009 while recovering from reconstructive knee surgery and did not play in 2010 for personal reasons.

Woods' first golf course design, the Tiger Woods Dubai, is under construction there.

-- John Strege

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Courses & Travel

Timeline Of Erin Hills, Which Reopens July 31

On Saturday, Erin Hills reopens to the public ($160). Here’s a link to an update written by Gary D’Amato of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. D’Amato loved Erin Hills when Bob Lang was the owner. Now that Andy Ziegler bought the course and is making significant improvements, D’Amato really loves it.

Here’s a link to some current photos, shot by Rick Wood, also of the MJS. I must admit, it looks a lot better than it did last summer.

Here’s a summary of changes, clipped from D’Amato’s article:

-- “The biggest change was to No. 10, once a 600-yard par-5 with a huge Biarritz green. Now it's a brilliantly designed par-4 that can play as long as 525 yards and offers two options on the tee.”

--“Seas of 18-inch golden fescue wave in the ever-present breeze.” (The fescue is new.)

--“Some bunkers were filled in and a few were added.”

--“The greens are, in a word, perfect. The best in Wisconsin? With apologies to Milwaukee Country Club, perhaps.”

--“Some 300 trees have been removed; it’s the perfect example of why less is more, because 20 specimen oaks now stand out on the horizon.” 

--“On the par-5 first hole, a 122-year-old oak on the corner of the sweeping dogleg left was removed, exposing the green complex and tempting big hitters to go for it in two. Architecturally, that was a good change. So, too, was the removal of bunkers on the over-bunkered 18th.”

--“The practice area, still under construction, will be among the nation's finest, highlighted by an enormous 360-degree range with bentgrass and fescue tees and a short-game area on which a golfer will be able to practice any shot he would face on the course, up to 80 yards.”

--“Construction is just starting on a second clubhouse and three cottages, and Ziegler is at least contemplating a second 18-hole course.”

In addition:

--Total par has gone from 73 back to 72. 
--Cartpaths have been removed and it’s now walking only.
--Caddies are available ($50, plus gratuity), but they’re not mandatory.
--The green fee is back up to $160 (due to course condition, it was $95 last summer).

On the subject of the 2017 Open, would you believe Rich Tock, the director of operations at Erin Hills, told D’Amato that he’s predicting record-breaking attendance in seven years? “This has the potential to be the No. 1 spectator course in the 117-year history of the U.S. Open,” Tock said. “There's no other course that has the ease of moving people around and the natural amphitheaters for viewing. We could accommodate 65,000 to 75,000 spectators here.”

Personally, I hope the biggest change at Erin Hills is the feeling I get when I walk off the 18th green. I don’t know about you, but when I think "U.S. Open," I think: Winged Foot, Bethpage Black, Shinnecock, Pebble Beach or Oakmont. I hope the next time I play Erin Hills I leave with the sense that I just finished a course worthy of an Open—not the sense that the USGA picked a place where they will have plenty of room to put the corporate tents and a big gallery.

I put together a rough timeline of the land that became Erin Hills. The evolution of the relatively new course has so many ups and downs, it's like an EKG reading. A big, long EKG reading:

1945-'95: The land that becomes Erin Hills is a Charolais cattle farm. (A Charolais bull is pictured above.) Earl Millikin was a 10-time Wisconsin Breeder of the Year.

1995: Earl Millikin died and his wife, Bernice Millikin, looks to turn the property into a golf course.

1996: Tom Doak is commissioned to produce a routing of a nine-hole course. The course is never built, but it would’ve been called Charolais Hills. 

1997: Bob Lang, a local businessman, but not a golfer, buys the first of nine plots of land that eventually totals 650 acres.

1999: Lang requests proposals for a golf course from eight builders. Among the bidders: Nicklaus, Palmer, Doak and the design team of Mike Hurdzan and Dana Fry. Lang picks Hurdzan and Fry, who add Golf Digest architecture editor Ron Whitten. "We wanted to build a nice, inexpensive, lay-of-the-land style course," Hurdzan told me in a Golf World story I wrote about Erin Hills earlier this year.

2003: The layout is finalized and there are poles in place indicating where the tees, fairways and greens would be. Whitten sends Mike Davis of the USGA an e-mail letting him know that if he is ever in the area, he should stop by and take a look at what he considers a special place, potentially worthy of an Open.

2004: Lang goes to the U.S. Open at Shinnecock and meets several members of the USGA, including Mike Davis, David Fay and Jim Reinhart. After the Open, Davis stops by the site of Erin Hills and instantly falls in love with the topography.

Davis told me in November of last year: "From a championship standpoint, Erin Hills is truly one of the most fabulous sites I've ever seen. What is really interesting about it, one of the things that grabs you right from the get-go, is it has a really neat routing for championship golf that allows a lot of room between holes. To get operational things and viewing areas, you could really utilize the dunes. When I was driving out there from the Milwaukee airport, through this [flat] farmland, I was thinking to myself: 'How can there be this type of property out here?' But then you get closer and you start to see a little more movement to the land. And then, all of a sudden, I thought, Wow, this looks like Shinnecock on steroids."

2005: David Fay, the USGA’s executive director, visits Erin Hills. Not long after his visit, Erin Hills is awarded the 2008 U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links.

2006: Erin Hills opens in August to rave reviews. 

In November, Jim Reinhart, vice president of the USGA, resigns and tells the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, “My priorities had become golf-related and I just felt at this point I needed to refocus my priorities and energies on family and business." Reinhart’s business is president and CEO of Reinhart & Mahoney Capital Management Inc., which is based in Milwaukee. 

Reinhart's hobby becomes helping Lang cultivate a relationship with the USGA and with all matters that pertain to golf at Erin Hills.

2007: Bob Lang starts looking for a buyer; Reinhart is especially helpful in introducing Lang to interested parties. One of which is Andy Ziegler, a Milwaukee-based businessman, avid golfer and friend of Reinhart’s, who ultimately passes on Erin Hills because he thinks the price is too high. All interested parties pass and Lang remains the owner. 

After the U.S. Senior Open, which was played at Whistling Straits in nearby Kohler, Wis., the USGA conducts another extensive site visit.

2008: The USGA announces Erin Hills will host the 2011 U.S. Amateur. Davis calls Lang to tell him the good news. "Mike said, and I quote, 'We only award an Amateur where we plan on bringing the Open,'" says Lang. 

In June they played the Women’s Amateur Pub Links. It rained a lot; there were some drainage issues and the USGA made some suggested changes. 

Between June and the end of the season Lang, with the help of Hurdzan and Fry but not Whitten, makes significant changes to the course. Lang added somewhere between 50 to 103 bunkers. The second green got bigger. The fourth green was moved back 40 yards. Lang eliminated the Dell Hole (blind approach shot) and converted the par-4 seventh hole to a par 5, making the total par 73.

2009: Going against the advice of his management team (and Reinhart), Lang decides to reopen Erin Hills in July, when the course is in bad shape. Lang offers a reduced green fee ($95) and a letter to anyone who books a tee time that explains the changes and course conditions. 

In August, Lang calls Ziegler and makes him another offer to buy the course. 

On Oct. 24, Ziegler buys Erin Hills for a reported $10.5 million. Ziegler, who retains Reinhart as special counsel, immediately goes to work with the goal of getting the course ready for the 2011 U.S. Amateur. 

Hurdzan and Fry bring Whitten back to the design team.

2010: During the week of the U.S. Open in June at Pebble Beach, the USGA announces Erin Hills will host the 2017 U.S. Open. 

Erin Hills reopens on July 31.

2011: U.S. Amateur.

2017: U.S. Open.

One more note: I spoke to Bob Lang a few days before the USGA made the official announcement at Pebble Beach. He told me, “If Erin Hills receives the U.S. Open it will be one of the most gratifying days of my life.” He also told me, “It’s not my story now. Mr. Ziegler has the resources and the vision to make Erin Hills a public golf course. I sincerely wish him all the success in the world.” 

Shortly after we spoke, I received an e-mail from Lang detailing what I could use from our conversation. He ended the e-mail with his signature: “Golf is a Journey, Bob Lang.”

--Matty G.

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News & Tours

Fog delays second round of Senior Open

SAMMAMISH, Wash. -- Not heavy rain, not outrageous winds, but a thick fog suspended play at the U.S. Senior Open at Sahalee CC for more than two hours this morning.

Play was stopped at 7:48 a.m. PDT and resumed at 10 a.m. The last afternoon tee time had been scheduled at 2:30; sunset here is 8:45 p.m., The afternoon wave now will go off from 2:10 to 4:10 p.m.

-- Bill Fields

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News & Tours

Sahalee performs to Open expectations

SAMMAMISH, Wash. - The U.S. Senior Open is supposed to be harder than your week-to-week Champions Tour event. In Thursday's first round, it sure was.

"It's challenging and we're not challenged like this but once or twice a year," said Jay Haas, who shot a 70 at Sahalee CC in the afternoon, when one caddie described the greens as "spooky."

Mark Calcavecchia, Joe Ozaki and Bernhard Langer fared best among the p.m. starters, shooting one-under 69s to trail leader Bruce Vaughan by three shots after the first round. Not only were the greens extremely firm, causing approaches to frequently carom long, the hole locations were tucked - eight were positioned four yards or less from the edge.

"Corey [Pavin] and I were saying they must have thought the top 100 in the world were here not 156 old guys," Calcavecchia said. "Seriously, I think it was the hardest set of pin placements I've seen in years. If you got your tee ball out of position, you're pretty much screwed."

With a field scoring average of slightly less than 77, it was the toughest opening round at a U.S. Senior Open since 2003 at Inverness Club.

"Couple of [the holes] are borderline unfair," Langer said when asked if any were over the top. "[On No. 8] basically you have to hit a 5-wood off the tee that leaves you a 3- or 4-iron into the green, and the green is not designed for that kind of club - and it's very firm. ... It's a great golf course, just a tough set-up."

-- Bill Fields

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News & Tours

Tim Jackson back in contention in U.S. Senior Open

SAMMAMISH, Wash. - Tennessee amateur Tim Jackson had a storybook run at the 2009 U.S. Senior Open, shooting 66-67 to lead through 36 holes and eventually finishing T-11.

Jackson, 51, is starting this year's championship in the same vein. He shot a two-under 68 at Sahalee CC Thursday and is solidly in contention in T-3, two strokes behind Bruce Vaughan as the afternoon starters played their rounds.

"This week, for me, is my whole year," said Jackson. "My whole golf schedule was set around this whole week."

Jackson is proof that a golfer doesn't have to grind away all year if he has talent and uses his time wisely. He took about four months off after losing in the 2009 U.S. Mid-Amateur Oct. 8, not playing his first round of 2010 until Feb. 20. "I probably hit balls a couple of days a week during the season," he said. "But for me playing golf is better than hitting a lot of balls."

The formula is working.

-- Bill Fields

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