By Murray Evans
EDMOND – Turns out a native Scotsman handled Oak Tree National – and Oklahoma’s brutal heat and humidity – better than the local guys did on Thursday afternoon.
While local favorites like Oak Tree’s own Scott Verplank, Willie Wood and Bob Tway struggled – sometimes mightily, as an unusual east wind blew through the course during the afternoon – on the first day of the U.S. Senior Open, Colin Montgomerie made himself right at home, taking advantage of what proved to be a favorable morning tee time to fire a 6-under-par 65 to take the lead.
Montgomerie led Marco Dawson – who birdied his final three holes – by one shot, with Mark Brooks third at 68 and five others tied for fourth at 69. Included in that group were Bernhard Langer and Vijay Singh, two players many cited as pre-tournament favorites.
But they’re all chasing Montgomerie, who ended a long run of frustration in major tournaments by winning the Senior PGA Championship earlier this year.
"It’s going to be grueling over the next three days," Montgomerie said. "We had our coolest day (today), which is still very hot. So, yeah, it’s going to be near 100 (degrees) the next three days, so concentration levels will be difficult to maintain for everybody out there, not just myself. I look forward to the challenge of trying to compete against the rest of the field, the golf course, which is superb, and also the weather conditions, which are very foreign to myself and most competitors, to be honest."
While Montgomerie, Langer and Singh certainly were on the short list of players most thought would be in contention, so were the members of the "Oak Tree Gang" such as Tway, Verplank, Wood and Gil Morgan, with their knowledge of Oak Tree National’s intricacies. Verplank, playing in his first Champions Tour event after turning 50 on Wednesday, figured to also have the advantage of relative youth.
But Verplank’s tournament might have effectively ended after just four holes. He had a disastrous start, with a bogey at No. 2 and double bogeys at No. 3 and No. 4. He had another double bogey at No. 13, which, like No. 4, is a par-3. At No. 15, he topped his tee shot, sending it skidding about 50 yards, although he scrambled to save par. He ended the day at 5-over 76.
"I haven’t been nervous on the first couple of holes in a long time," Verplank said. "I was a little nervous here. I think most of that was because I really knew that I wasn’t ready to play, like I want to play.
"All I know is I’ve been hurt a lot of times and I hit it like I’m hurt. I’m trying to keep a good attitude about it, because otherwise I’d go home and cry in my pillow. Unbelievably, for shooting a gazillion at my home course, I actually had fun. It’s great being out here and the golf course is awesome."
Morgan, at 67 the oldest of the "Oak Tree Gang" playing in the tournament, enjoyed the best opening round, firing a more-than-respectable 72, missing shooting even-par thanks only to a bogey on his final hole. Morgan hasn’t won on the Champions Tour since 2007 but he at least put on a good show at his home course.
"I didn’t feel like I beat too many people," Morgan said. "But I tried hard. I think it’s harder when you’re (from) here and you know there’s a lot of bad places out there (on the course) that you don’t want to be. And there’s the pressure of trying to play well. I’m kind of at the end of it, somewhat. You’ve got a lot of fans and friends that are rooting you on and you hate to disappoint them, so you try hard and hope for the best."
Tway shot a 75 and said the east wind – a weather condition not often experienced in Oklahoma – took away some of the home-course advantage for those from Oak Tree.
"It was a difficult day," Tway said. "It felt like a U.S. Open. We don’t play the golf course in conditions like this. When the wind starts blowing too hard, we go inside and have iced tea. It was a pretty strange wind.
"You want to play well. You expect to play well. You know the golf course. But you’ve got to go out and execute."
Wood, who posted a 74, said he "played poorly from tee to green" but seemed pleased that he played his final nine holes in 1-under.
"Hopefully, 12 hours from now, I’ll figure something out to try to hit it down the middle of the fairway, because playing from the rough out here, it’s virtually impossible to score," Wood said.
As for other players with Oklahoma ties in the tournament, Bill Glasson of Stillwater fared the best. The former Oral Roberts University standout also had a morning tee time – when conditions weren’t quite as hot and the course still was a bit softer thanks to an early morning storm – and finished with a 73, putting him in good shape to potentially make the cut.
Rocky Walcher of Oklahoma City, who earned his way into the tournament through a qualifier, was among the first players to tee off Thursday morning and shot a 75. One of his playing partners was former Oral Roberts standout Bryan Norton, who finished with a 79.
"It seemed like it was playing hard to me, but maybe I just haven’t played in 10 years and it all seems hard," Walcher said. "But the scores don’t seem to be all that low.
"I was hoping to do better than that, but I just try to keep my expectations down and hope I could do a little bit better than that – maybe get around even for the two days. I’d probably be satisfied if I could shoot (an average of) 3-over both days. I think that would be pretty close to getting in."