By Murray Evans
Special to Golf Oklahoma
EDMOND – Bleachers and tents already are erected and Oak Tree National is buzzing as the course prepares to host the U.S. Senior Open next week. The atmosphere figures to become more frenetic as the tournament nears.
Which is why Tom Lehman – fresh off playing in the Senior Players Championship in Pittsburgh that ended Sunday – was at Oak Tree on Monday, notebook in hand, charting shots, hazards and greens. Lehman, who had never before played the Pete Dye-designed course, wanted to get a feel for the par-71, 7,410-yard layout before the chaos that no doubt will ensue next week.
“Next week, it’s going to be a zoo, so it’s nice to get some work done today,” Lehman said.
“To come out early like this, when there’s nobody around, is so much easier. Once (next) Monday rolls around, there’s 156 guys here trying to play. It’s six hours on the course for practice rounds. Everybody is taking forever around the greens, looking at the greens, like I’m doing today. To do it without the pressure of having to be playing it’s a good way to prepare.”
He said his goals Monday were “finding out what you think the club selection is off the tee, to put yourself in the best position to attack the greens, and then knowing around the greens where you can miss it and still get up and down and where you probably can’t miss it, because you probably can’t.”
Lehman, 55, didn’t qualify for the 1988 PGA Championship when Oak Tree hosted that event, and he wasn’t yet eligible for the Champions Tour in 2006, when the Senior PGA Championship was played at the course.
He said he’s heard a lot about Oak Tree from some fellow touring pros including Scott Verplank and Bob Tway, who live at Oak Tree, but that the knowledge gained from playing the course leisurely on Monday could prove invaluable. Conditions were hot and breezy, typical for Oklahoma this time of year.
His initial impression, after playing the front nine, was that Oak Tree is a championship-worthy course.
“You’ve got to drive it straight, you have to have accurate irons, you have to chip great and you’ve got to putt well,” he said. “That pretty much covers it all, doesn’t it? It looks like quite a test. I’ve heard it’s a really tough course and it certainly seems to be that way at first blush.
“Pete Dye courses, they kind of follow the same pattern, in that it’s very penal if you miss it in the wrong spots. It’s not at all unlike Sawgrass and other places that he’s done. Once you’ve played one course, you kind of get an idea of how he thinks and this course falls right in line with that. There’s some places that you just certainly can’t miss it.”
With six top-10 finishes in 11 starts on the Champions Tour this year – including a win less than two weeks ago in the Encompass Championship at North Shore Country Club in Glenview, Ill. – Lehman figures to be on the short list of favorites for the U.S. Senior Open. His 20th-place finish at the Senior Players Championship ended a run of three straight top-10 finishes.
Lehman, who has eight career Champions Tour wins and was chosen as the tour’s player of the year in 2011, said he’s pleased with how he’s played of late.
“I’m playing better right now than I have been most of the year,” Lehman said. “I’m disappointed with the way I finished yesterday, but overall, my game is really starting to come around. My putting is improving, which has been the thing that’s been most erratic. I feel good about the way I’m hitting it. Most of the times when you play courses like this, you’ve got to put the ball in the fairway, for starters, and that’s always been one of my strengths.”