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Scott Verplank is no longer a hot young golf star, but competition still drives golf's newest senior

By Bill Fields

loop-scott-verplank-sr-open-518.jpgEDMOND, Okla. -- Upon realizing Scott Verplank would be in the field at this week's U.S. Senior Open -- he turned 50 on Wednesday, the day before the event started at Oak Tree National, where Verplank won the 1984 U.S. Amateur -- I started thinking back to covering him three decades ago when he was golf's hot young star.

Any number of bright lights have blazed lots of promise with their early exploits, but Verplank stood out with an efficient style of play, the hallmarks of which were a relentless confidence and a magical putter that could demoralize opponents. As demonstrated by the way he beat Sam Randolph in that U.S. Amateur final, he seemed to have an extra gear owned by the greats, his not based on power but precision and persistence. Verplank didn't come up hard, the way Ben Hogan did, but there was something in his golf grit reminiscent of the Hawk.

Once, recalling to me the summers in his teens when he, having been diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes at age 9, would play as many as 54 holes a day in the sweatbox that can be Houston on visits to his grandparents, he said, "I didn't know you were supposed to get tired."

After winning at Oak Tree, Verplank won the 1985 Western Open in a playoff over Jim Thorpe, becoming the first amateur to capture a PGA Tour title since Doug Sanders at the 1956 Canadian Open. That year he won 11 of the 26 collegiate, amateur or pro events he entered and had 21 top-10 finishes. When he turned professional prior to the 1986 U.S. Open, it was on the heels of winning the NCAA individual championship, an achievement diminished in his mind because his team, Oklahoma State, blew a final-day lead and lost to Wake Forest.

The greatness that seemed to be ahead for Verplank would be derailed by multiple injuries -- he has had five operations, including reconstructive surgery on his left wrist in 2011 -- and being an elite athlete with diabetes was never as effortless as he sometimes made it seem.

Between his second tour win (1988 Buick Open) and third (2000 Reno-Tahoe Open), there were severe elbow problems. In two seasons, 1991 and 1992, he made only two cuts in 39 starts. That kind of competitive valley would have been too much for many golfers to overcome, but Verplank persevered. He has five career wins, two Ryder Cup appearances for the United States (2002 and 2006) and has been in the top 100 on the money list 18 of 28 years.

He flirted with winning the 2011 PGA Championship when he was 47, finishing T-4 and leaving it to a wild scrum between eventual winner Keegan Bradley and Jason Dufner after hitting it into the water on No. 17 at Atlanta Athletic Club and making a double bogey. A few weeks later he had the surgery on the wrist that had plagued him for two years.

With the joint still not 100 percent and the physical limitations having seeped into the mental part of the game Verplank used to be so good at, he has made only one cut in 12 tournaments on the 2013-14 PGA Tour schedule. As much as he wanted to excel at Oak Tree, in the city where he settled and has raised his family, Verplank knew it would be a long shot despite the local knowledge and lovely memory of 30 years ago.

An odd summer wind -- from the east -- blew on a hot Thursday afternoon at Oak Tree. And despite his recent struggles, it seemed strange to see Verplank unable to conjure any magic at a place he once commanded. The first few holes of his opening round were downright ugly. A par to start was followed by a bogey, double bogey and double bogey. Five over through four, he finished with a four-over 75 that could have been much worse. He topped a tee shot. He saw places at Oak Tree he has never seen.

"Fairly embarrassing," was Verplank's assessment of a round in which his score, without some lengthy par putts, could have been well north of 80. "I can get in a little rhythm on the range and feel OK, and I go on the golf course and it's terrible," he said. "All I know is, I've been hurt a lot of times in my career and I'm hitting it like I'm hurt. I'm going to have to fix that somehow. I hit it short, crooked, unsolid."

Including Verplank, there are 14 players competing in the Senior Open who played in the 1984 U.S. Amateur. If you've followed golf even a little, you've heard of most of the men who sought that 1984 national championship. Billy Andrade, Jerry Haas, John Inman, Jeff Maggert, Rocco Mediate and Duffy Waldorf are among the group. They were on the way somewhere then, to journeys they could imagine but filled with details only time and circumstance can provide.

"I may get a good night's sleep and come out tomorrow and things feel better," Verplank said. "I know I can still play. It's been a hard road. I just haven't gotten back to the level that I want to be at."

If there is any golf justice, Verplank's Friday will be a day of long-enough, straight and solid. The game owes no one, but he deserves that.

Photo: Hunter Martin/USGA

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News & Tours

U.S. Open, other USGA events, moving from NBC to Fox

By John Strege

Telecasts of United States Golf Association events, a staple of NBC Sports' golf coverage since 1995, will move to Fox Sports in 2015, the first of a 12-year multi-media contract, the network and the USGA announced Wednesday.

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The Fox network and Fox Sports 1 will become "the domestic media partner" of the U.S. Open, the U.S. Women's Open, the U.S. Senior Open, the U.S. Amateur and the U.S. Women's Amateur and other USGA championships, the parties said.

"This is an exciting and remarkable day for the USGA, as our partnership with Fox Sports is a game-changer for our organization and for the game of golf," USGA president Glen Nager said in a news release. "The game is evolving and requires bold and unique approaches on many levels, and Fox shares our vision to seek fresh thinking and innovative ideas to deliver championship golf. This partnership will help us to better lead and serve the game in new and exciting ways."

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A minimum of 70 hours of live coverage of the USGA's three Opens is part of the agreement. The agreement also includes inclusion of USGA events on a mobile app, Fox Sports Go, that will launch soon.

"It was a big bummer," NBC's lead analyst Johnny Miller told The Associated Press from his home in Utah. "For some reason, I told Dan Hicks at the U.S. Open this year, 'I don't think we're going to keep the U.S. Open.' I just had a hunch it would be ESPN or Fox that stepped in and made a high bid. I know we tried.

"I feel bad for the USGA in a way that money was more important than basically a good golf crew."

In January of 2005, the USGA and NBC announced a six-year extension of its contract that was due to expire at the end of 2008. At the time, Dick Ebersol, then the chairman of NBC Universal Sports, said the contract extension "ratifies one of the great broadcast partnerships in all of sport and extends our commitment to the USGA and its championships."SGA Executive Director Mike Davis said the new partnership with Fox "represents a promising new future for both organizations that will be marked by broadcast innovation, new approaches and fresh thinking. We could not be more energized by what we will be able to accomplish together to make golf better, both now and for future generations of players and fans who love the game."

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News & Tours

Cheat Sheet: What you need to know for Saturday in golf

By Luke Kerr-Dineen

Move over Steve Stricker, Zach Johnson's in town
Lots of people found it tough to look past Steve Stricker this week at the John Deere Classic, and for good reason -- he did win the tournament three years in a row, after all. But instead, it's this year's defending champ, Zach Johnson, who's sitting T1 and has yet to make a bogey through 36 holes at TPC at Deere Run. But this shouldn't really come as much of a shock, because once he gets comfortable on a course he almost immediately becomes the man to beat. The evidence? If he wins this week, it'll be the fourth time Johnson's won the same tournament more than once.


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(photo by Getty Images)
Lose-lose situation for Park?
It's pretty tough to lower expectations for someone whose nickname is Winbee. Regardless of what happens this week at the LPGA Classic, Inbee Park will still have a chance at winning the five-major super slam. But the truth is, because her level of play this year has been so astonishing, there's an assumption she's going to win every time she tees it up. That's a lot of pressure to deal with, and it could start to wear on her if she doesn't take home the trophy this week. But let's not be too rash: at -10, she is, after all, just five shot out of the lead.


"I'm glad I'm leaving."
That's what Ernie Els said Friday after missing the cut at the Scottish Open. It was similar story for Phil Mickelson who shot 70 on Friday to drop out of the Top-10. The third highest ranked player in the field, Matteo Manassero, isn't exactly lighting it up either. He's -5 and sitting T46. Instead, the story's about the flat-capped wearing, 341st-ranked Scottish Challenge Tour player Chris Doak, who's leading at -12. Yes the tournament's only halfway through, but you'd have to be a robot (or just really boring) not to root for this guy. 

Lots of big names, chasing a small one.
The Top-10 at this week's U.S. Senior Open is amazingly strong through 36-holes: Rocco Mediate, Fred Funk, Tom Lehman, Mark O'Meara, Tom Watson and Kenny Perry are just some of the names featured. But they were all chasing Michael Allen, whose Friday 63 opened him a 5-shot lead. Allen has amassed just seven wins on all tours in his nearly 30 years as a professional. Can he hold on and add one more to his tally?


Rickie Fowler disciples, unite!
We'll let the picture do the talking, but be honest -- you'd be lying if you said this wasn't kind of cool.

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News & Tours

Tom Watson keeps grinding, as only he can

By Bill Fields

OMAHA -- Tom Watson's bright green shirt looked like Scotland 1977, but his legs felt like Nebraska 2013.

"These hills are getting my legs, I have to admit," he said. "The legs aren't firing, they're a little weak."

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Walking the steep slopes of Omaha CC Thursday in the first round of the U.S. Senior Open clad in nearly the color he wore when he outdueled Jack Nicklaus in the final round at Turnberry in that epic British Open, Watson didn't need to be reminded he will turn 64 in less than two months.

Related: Why we should remember Johnny Goodman this week

He didn't strike his irons crisply, didn't make much happen with the putter. But if you think he was a hopeless, aging legend taking up space, think again. Watson shot an even-par 70, just three strokes behind the best scores (Jay Don Blake and Jeff Sluman) shot Thursday morning.

Watson remains struck by how much his astounding near-victory at Turnberry in the 2009 British Open when he was 59 meant to people of a certain age, when he told them possibility doesn't have to wrinkle. To watch him now is to still be inspired.

"He's grinding," Watson's caddie, Neil Oxman, had said along the eighth fairway as he waited for the five-time British Open champion to drive on the 469-yard par 4. "He always grinds."

Give your best on a shot. Get ready for the next one. Accept the good breaks and bad breaks in the same spirit. Repeat, until the round is done. Then do it again the next day.

That is what Watson has done on the job for 40 years. That is what keeps him doing his job today. That, and the rare tenacity of a champion.

For a putting stroke that has been sick off and on for a quarter of a century -- ugly-yippy even at times -- Watson's cure has been to keep on keeping on. A more forgiving putterhead design than that with which he ran the tables in the 1970s and early-1980s has been his only concession. He hasn't clawed, hasn't cross-handed, hasn't bellied or broomsticked.

Related: Tom Watson's key for more power

He was in a first-round grouping with Colin Montgomerie (oversize grip) and Bernhard Langer (long anchored putter). Watson, as ever, putted conventionally.

"You got it right. Stubborn. Exactly right," Watson said. "I just keep on trying to do what I used to know how to do. I try to remember and try to do the things I used to be able to do. And it's a struggle sometimes. With the putter particularly, it's been a struggle for a long time."

When Watson plays with a Champions Tour rookie like Montgomerie, who just turned 50, it's a mental post-it note of the clock to go with the putting nerves and the muscles aches.

"I start thinking about 13 years difference, yeah. The rookies out here now are quite a bit younger than I am," Watson said. "They've got the power . That's something I'm going to find I'm going to lose more and more of. Every now and then I can crack it out there. But the consistency is not there now. That's what I'm looking for is that consistency."

To the 50-year-old who was not enjoying Omaha CC's hills either, despite bettering Watson's score by a shot, it was still pretty impressive. "Amazing," Mongomerie said. "Fantastic effort. Good home support for him. I think he's quite close [to home]. I think Kansas is the next state down. Flatter, I believe, in Kansas. So we should have played there. Good golf for Tom. Sixteen pars for nearly 64 years old."

Watson will go from Nebraska to Scotland, for another British Open at Muirfield. "He has every chance to do well again, as he did at Turnberry in 2009," Montgomerie said.

"He's just being nice," said Watson, who had more immediate concerns.

Related: Tom Watson and other U.S. Ryder Cup captains remembered

He was off the practice range, a place he has known as intimately as any golfer ever has.

"I'll go the practice range and see," Watson said. "The swing's not very easy right now. I don't know whether I'm moving my head or not making a very good turn. I've got a couple of ideas. If they don't work, I'll go home, take a nap, I'll think about it, come back tomorrow, practice before I play, try something else and see if that works. That's the way I've always worked."

To his golf mind, it is closer to 1977 than 2013.

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News & Tours

Excitement high in Omaha as U.S. Senior Open comes to town

By Bill Fields

OMAHA -- When the Champions Tour is at its best, the formula is no different from special events on other tours: Good course plus good galleries equals a tournament that feels as if it matters.

That would describe the U.S. Senior Open at Omaha CC, a surprisingly hilly, interesting track in Nebraska's largest city, which is enthusiastically embracing the championship. 

Not since the 1999 U.S. Senior Open in Des Moines has the event been such the talk of the host town. Crowds won't approach the nearly 200,000 spectators that turned out in Iowa, but there will be a throng come Thursday's first round.

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(photo by Getty Images)

"I don't think we'll get to the size of galleries in Des Moines, but I think this will be second best," said Tim Flaherty, U.S. Senior Open senior championship director. "[We're] expecting over 150,000 here for the week."

And early returns seem to support that prediction, with eight-thousand fans attending Monday's practice round.

"It's phenomenal," said 2010 U.S. Senior Open champion Bernhard Langer on Wednesday. "There's so many people out there. I haven't signed this many autographs since the Masters in April."


To sign a scorecard as the winner come Sunday evening, a player will not only have to had produced the repertoire of shots that an Open (even the elder version) requires. He will have to still be walking sprightly on a rolling piece of Middle America terrain that has surprised many with its elevation changes. 

Kenny Perry, coming off a win at the Constellation Senior Players Championship, felt the effects on his problematic left knee walking the course Tuesday. "I had a lot of problems just walking," Perry said Wednesday. "There's a lot of steep descents out there from the tee box down to the fairway. That really aggravated my left knee. I was feeling a lot of pressure, a lot of pain, and that had me concerned. I told somebody yesterday this is probably the hardest walking course I've ever been on. It's the hilliest, just very demanding. Some of the courses we play are pretty hilly, but you get some good shuttle cart rides from the green to the next [tee]. You don't get none of that here."


With most holes featuring uphill approach shots -- half a dozen of them to greens with tricky false fronts -- the par-70 course plays longer than its 6,711 scorecard yardage. Although there are a couple of petite par 4s (Nos. 13 and 17), No. 8 is a 477-yard brute playing gradually uphill. No. 3 is a 230-yard par 3. Golfers with Perry's length will have an advantage -- if they keep it in the fairway. 

"The rough is as bad as I've seen it anywhere in the world," Langer said, "worse than anywhere in the world, I mean. We played with a few other players, and sometimes we couldn't see the ball from three feet away. You know it went right in here, and you're looking, and you're walking from here to there, and you can't see the ball. That tells you how much it's sitting down. I've hit a couple of shots out of there, and some of the lies, I couldn't move it more than 25, 30 yards, hitting it as hard as I can. So it's just very demanding off the tee."


"This rough is as tough a rough as I've ever played, it really is," concurred Tom Watson, who at 63 is still looking for his first U.S. Senior Open title. 

Players will get a bit of a break when it comes to the greens. Because of the intense summer heat, the small putting surfaces might have to be kept a bit softer and will be more receptive than the USGA might like. "I think you'll see some pretty decent scores because of the greens being softer," Watson said. "But the golf course is a true test. The key here is putting the ball in the fairway off the tee." 

Asked to predict a winning score, Fred Couples said if someone would give him eight-under 272, he would go his room and watch television for four days while the rest of the field walked the hills. 

He might not be the only one. 

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News & Tours

Senior Open: Weather delays second round

TOLEDO, Ohio -- Heavy rain and thunderstorms Friday morning have delayed the start of the second round of the 32nd U.S. Senior Open at Inverness Club.
 
The second round, scheduled to begin at 7:30 a.m., will commence at 10:15 a.m. The final afternoon pairing, which was supposed to go off at 2:45 p.m., is now 5:15 p.m.
 
There is a chance of scattered thunderstorms Friday afternoon in northern Ohio, but the forecast for Saturday and Sunday is good.
 
Olin Browne shot a seven-under 64 Thursday to take a two-stroke lead over Michael Allen and Mark O'Meara.
 
-- Bill Fields 
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News & Tours

Frustrating season continues for Couples

TOLEDO, Ohio - What a difference a year makes.

At the 2010 U.S. Senior Open, held at Sahalee CC just outside Fred Couples' hometown of Seattle, Couples was the story of the week, drawing large galleries and dueling eventual winner Bernhard Langer. It was a microcosm of the year, as Couples played 17 Champions Tour events, winning four times and energizing the senior circuit in his rookie season.

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Couples is absent from this week's U.S. Senior Open at Inverness Club, having withdrawn last week citing back issues. The 51-year-old has played only three times on the Champions Tour in 2011, most recently in early May at the Regions Tradition, where he was T-63 after closing rounds of 77-77. His last competitive appearance came a month later at the Memorial, where he missed the cut. In addition to his chronic back problem, Couples also had cancerous lesions removed from both hands.

(Instruction: See how Freddie bombs it off the tee)

Next week's Champions Tour stop, the 3M Championship in Blaine, Minn., is promoting Couples on its website as one of the "expected golfing legends" in the field and says he has committed to play.

If Couples does compete, perhaps it will get a lost year going. Other than the run he had at Riviera in the Northern Trust Open, where he was T-7, and a T-5 at the Toshiba Classic on the Champions Tour in March, this season couldn't be more different from his upbeat 2010, when in addition to his four wins, Couples had four runner-up finishes and five other top-10s.

-- Bill Fields

(Photo: Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images)


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News & Tours

Cook defends Woods' decision to part with Williams

TOLEDO, Ohio -- Those critical of Tiger Woods' decision to part ways with caddie Steve Williams don't understand the delicate nature of the player-caddie relationship in professional golf, said Champions Tour player John Cook.

"Whether you have thought about it [firing a caddie] for one minute or five weeks, once there is doubt in your head it's there and you have to act on it because you're always thinking about it. It's always there," Cook said Wednesday at Inverness Club where he is competing this week in the U.S. Senior Open. "They [Woods and Williams] had kind of been on edge, and once you're on edge, it's time. There's really no way to walk back from that."

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Woods announced after the Open Championship that he and Williams no longer would be working together, though he informed Williams of his decision during the week of the AT&T National. Williams had been on the bag for 13 of the 14 major championships Woods won.

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News & Tours

Small, tricky greens await players at U.S. Senior Open

TOLEDO, Ohio -- The greens at Inverness Club aren't the smallest in golf, but expansive they're not. Tricky, they are.

While a lot has been made of how a different routing is in effect for the 32nd U.S. Senior Open -- holes 3-7 are being swapped with holes 12-16 to improve gallery movement as the club tries to put on its best face for the USGA to attract another U.S. Open -- Inverness' putting surfaces will have more to say about who does well this week.

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Inverness' well-guarded eighth green.

Inverness' greens average only 5,500 square feet, about 1,000 square feet less than a typical tournament course. Hitting them won't be easy; solving them will be harder. "The greens are probably the toughest greens you'll find anywhere, as difficult as Augusta, maybe even harder at times because Augusta has some flat areas," defending U.S. Senior Open champion and two-time Masters champion Bernhard Langer. "Here, there are very few. It's almost impossible to find a straight putt. Every putt breaks once, twice, sometimes three or four times, so it's very severe."

Harbour Town (where the greens average 3,700 square feet), the Stadium course at TPC Sawgrass and Riviera CC (each about 4,500 square feet) are three venues with smaller greens, but the Bentgrass/Poa anua surfaces at Inverness are more dastardly. "They're way trickier than Harbour Town," said Tom Lehman. "Harbour Town has much more flat surfaces. These just have beautiful rolls within the green."

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News & Tours

Inverness Club's "Hinkle Tree" all grown up

TOLEDO, Ohio -- Thirty-two years is a long time. If someone at the U.S. Senior Open doesn't think so, he just needs to walk out to the eighth tee at Inverness Club.

The "Hinkle Tree," was a modest, scraggly Black Hills Spruce about 15 feet tall when it was hastily planted on USGA orders after the first round of the 1979 U.S. Open to try to prevent Lon Hinkle and Chi Chi Rodriguez from repeating the dramatic shortcut they took on the par-5 eighth hole in the first round. (The arboreal audible didn't work; the golfers again hit tee shots into the adjacent 17th fairway so they would have shorter approaches to No. 8.)

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The "Hinkle Tree" is directly behind the marshal's paddle as Tom Jenkins tees off No. 8 in a practice round.

There won't be any shortcuts taken at Inverness' 566-yard eighth hole this week. The infamous tree is now at least 40 feet tall and has been joined by a couple of other large trees on the left side of the tee, creating a veritable evergreen wall.

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July 28, 2014

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