By Ken MacLeod
EDMOND – Colin Montgomerie didn’t know how hard Oak Tree National really was when he fired a first-round 6-under 65 featuring eight birdies to grab the lead in the U.S. Senior Open. He predicted shortly after that the winning score would be well into double digits in the red.
As it turned out, Montgomerie played his next 54 holes in searing Oklahoma heat in 1-over and that was still good enough to land him in a playoff with the unheralded but inspiring Gene Sauers.
With a 10-foot par-saving putt on the final hole, Montgomerie won a three-hole aggregate playoff over Sauers Sunday to win his second Champions Tour major of the year, second win ever in the U.S., and first USGA championship of his career. He joined Scott Verplank, who won the 1984 U.S. Amateur, as champions of USGA events at Oak Tree National. Jeff Sluman won the 1988 PGA Championship and Jay Haas the 2006 Senior PGA Championship in Oak Tree’s previous major championships.
"All week, I was just trying to stay one shot ahead of Bernhard Langer," Montgomerie said. "When I went out and shot 65 with eight birdies, it didn’t seem that hard. But the golf course asserted itself as the week went on. This is a fantastic golf course."
Montgomerie lavished praise on Oak Tree National, saying he was going to tell all his fellow Scots about its virtues and suggested it was fully capable of hosting a U.S. Open, which would also be in slightly cooler June.
Montgomerie played his first USGA event in 1992 at Pebble Beach and it’s been 22 years of mostly frustration until Sunday. It nearly was again. Sauers missed a 10-foot putt on the 18th hole in regulation that would have given the 51-year-old the biggest win of his career.
"My heart goes out to Gene," Montgomerie said. "We all know he’s overcome a lot. That last putt had held its line for another foot and he wins."
Sauers, who has overcome a rare skin disorder that kept him off the course for most of seven years, said he proved he could play with Hall of Famers such as Montgomerie, Langer and Vijay Singh, but was disappointed he wasn’t able to hole short putts on 16 and 18. He bogeyed his first two holes in the playoff to fall a shot behind Montgomerie, who also bogeyed 16.
"You know, they are great players and I love them to death, but we’re all competitors," Sauers said. "I know I can beat them, given the opportunity."
Both players missed the green on the par-4 18th. Montgomerie pitched well short, but with Sauers facing a short par putt, drained the 10-footer ("it will become much longer over the years") to cap his long-time goal of winning a USGA event while improving his playoff record to 1-7-1 overall, an unusual record for a man who has never lost a Ryder Cup singles match.
"It’s just a great, great golf course here," an exhausted Montgomerie said. "If anybody thinks these senior majors are easy to win, then they should come out here and try it. The quality of golf out here is just a hair short of the PGA Tour."
Sauers won three times on the PGA Tour before leaving the game for seven years. He joined the Champions Tour in 2012 and was 19th on the money list in 2013.
Montgomerie trailed by four shots at the start, but closed the gap to just one shot after nine. He was still two down after a bogey on 12, but pulled within a shot with a birdie on the par-3 13th. He hit his tee shot just far enough past the pin to roll up a rise in the back of the green and then back down to within a few feet of the pin, giving him a birdie to go to 5-under.
After a birdie on 7, Sauer’s made all pars until missing a short par putt on 16 that dropped him into a tie with Montgomerie.
Langer’s stoic German disposition was tested on the ninth hole when his approach shot hit the flagstick and bounded back off the green and 30 yards down the fairway. He was 4-under and right in the thick of it, but bogeyed that hole and the next after a poor chip from behind the green. He made three more bogeys coming in to shoot a closing 77.
Montgomerie lost a great chance to either tie or take the lead when he drove the green on the par-4 15th which had been pushed up to 276 yards. After hitting a brilliant tee shot, however, he three-putted for par.
Montgomerie hit a huge tee shot on the 18th hole, clearing a bunker on the left side that allowed him a great angle in to the closing hole. He gave himself a decent birdie putt but settled for par.
Sauers, after pushing his tee shot right on 18, hit one of the most brilliant shots of the tournament, a 4-iron from 202 yards, leaving himself 10-feeet for birdie. He pushed the putt slightly, grazing the right edge and forcing the first Senior Open playoff since 2002.
Only four players finished the 72 holes under par. David Frost and Woody Austin tied for third at 1-under. Jeff Sluman, Marco Dawson and Vijay Singh tied for fifth at even-par while Kirk Triplett was alone in seventh at 1-over. Tied for eighth at 2 over were Joe Durant, Peter Senior, Scott Dunlap and Langer.
Colin Montgomerie Notes:
* Montgomerie won his first USGA championship after finished as the runner-up in three U.S. Opens (1994, 1997, 2006).
* Montgomerie joins Gary Player (1987), Jack Nicklaus (1991), Hale Irwin (1998) and Roger Chapman (2012) as the only players to win the U.S. Senior Open and Senior PGA Championship in the same year.
* Montgomerie trailed third-round leader Gene Sauers by four strokes entering Sunday’s play. He tied the third-best comeback by a winner in the final round. He joined Bruce Fleisher (2001) and Roger Chapman (2012). Allen Doyle holds the record by overcoming a nine-stroke deficit in 2005.
* Montgomerie set the record for highest score by a winner in the third round with a 3-over par 74.
* Montgomerie won the U.S. Senior Open in his second attempt; he tied for 30th last year at Omaha (Neb.) Country Club.
* Montgomerie was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2013. He has 31 PGA European Tour wins and played in eight Ryder Cups.
Oak Tree National Notes:
None of the Oak Tree Gang members played well enough to be in contention. Bob Tway’s final round of 1-over 72 was the best of the tournament and the best finish by an Oklahoma pro was registered by Bill Glasson of Stillwater, as his final-round of 1-under 70 left him tied for 33rd at 8-over.
Tway tied for 43rd at 10 over, Wood tied for 49th at 13 over and Gil Morgan tied for 52nd at 14 over. Scott Verplank missed the cut, as did Rocky Walcher.
Wood cited the distractions of playing at home as a reason for the poor showing, while Tway said continuing problems with his pitching and chipping were limiting him not only this week but throughout his Champions Tour career. Still both were pleased with how Oak Tree National played and with the corporate and crowd support, particularly given a 100-degree weekend when the locals were not in contention and many of the seniors with star power, such as Tom Watson and Fred Couples, were elsewhere for various reasons.
Tway said he thought Oak Tree played as difficult as many U.S. Opens, particularly for the first three days, and there has never really been any question about National’s inherent difficulty and challenge. However Wood may have been on the right track when he said that in addition to trying to pursue a U.S. Open, Oak Tree might want to look at a fall event such as one of the Fed-Ex Cup Series. A return of the PGA Championship is another possibility. . . .
Asked what he would take away from the event, Wood said "That the club was successful. It was a really good event and looked great on TV. I think the fans enjoyed it. I don’t think it’s gong to be the last event here. It may be the last event I play in but it won’t be the last event at Oak Tree because the golf course won this week. It sure won over me. It kicked my ass."
The USGA is to be congratulated for bringing a second national championship to Oak Tree and for the incredible operations staff which made it easy for the media, fans and players. The organization will bring its 22nd national championship to Oklahoma in 2015 when the U.S. Girls Junior Amateur Championship is held at Tulsa Country Club.
Highlights from Colin Montgomerie’s winning press conference:
On winning twice in the U.S. after being unable to do so his entire career:
"I have been made very welcome on the Champions Tour and at the Senior Majors, and it’s a delight to come here and play on great golf courses. The weather is a lot better here than it is at home and I’m enjoying it. If you enjoy something, you’re usually quite good at it, no matter what it is. I’m enjoying playing golf here in America in my latter years and thrilled and delighted that I’m able to do so."
On a bagpiper appearing on the 12th hole and playing the Song of Scotland.
"I’m 5,000 miles from my home and to have him playing was a thrill. So whoever he might be, I will find him no doubt. It’s amazing to have that. Please pass on my thanks."
On Oak Tree National
"This golf course is fantastic. I think it’s got great character. No two holes are anything like the same. In Edmond, Oklahoma, you should be very proud of having something so good, a world-renowned golf course. I’m taking this course back home to tell everyone in Britain how good this place is. Whether I won, lost or draw here, it’s a fabulous course. Who knows, why not host a USGA Open Championship here? It’s certainly good enough, no question."