By Ken MacLeod
The good news for the competitors in the 2014 U.S. Senior Open at Oak Tree National is the wind is not likely to be howling July 10-13 like it was during Media Day Monday.
The bad news is, for many of those in the field, it might not matter.
Unlike the 1988 PGA Championship, in which a nervous PGA of America softened and slowed greens while no winds and high heat combined to make conditions about as easy as possible, leading to Jeff Sluman’s record winning score of 12 under, the USGA is a different animal.
Firm, fast and fair is the USGA mantra and you can bet it will devise a thorough examination of the golfer’s skills, nerves and wit. With a willing accomplice in Pete Dye’s malevolent masterpiece, it is scary to imagine how high scores will be if the winners are shooting close to par.
"We’ll have professional players shoot 90 or above," said Steve Kimmel, director of golf. "Mark my words. If the wind blows at all, someone will shoot over 90."
"Oak Tree is just a hard, hard golf course," said long-time Oak Tree Gang member Bob Tway. The veteran went on to discount local knowledge as a huge advantage as well, telling a story about an old dirt track driver who knew every inch of his local roads and was thrilled to learn a race would be held there. Only problem was he showed up in his battered Chevy pickup to face Lamborghinis, Porches and Ferraris.
In other words, bring your A game.
Not many of the Oak Tree Gang have their A game at present, though all hope to for the tournament. Gil Morgan is still an excellent ball striker, while Willie Wood can putt like no one else. Tway is also striking the ball brilliantly while trying to iron out some glitches with his short wedge game.
The one that seems most likely to contend is Scott Verplank, who turns 50 the day before the tournament starts. Verplank also won the U.S. Amateur there in 1984, and has pushed hard for the course to be restored much like it was in the 1980s during recent renovations by Tripp Davis.
The USGA said Monday it would set the course up at a maximum of 7,219 yards at par 71. The nines will be reversed for tournament play, with the ninth green in front of the clubhouse becoming 18.
Shortly after opening Oak Tree achieved what were then some of the highest slope and course rating numbers in the country and today is still 76.3 rating with a 154 slope from the championship tees. Maximum slope allowed by the USGA is 155.
Wood is known for his putting but said it is driving that is paramount at Oak Tree.
"You can’t play this course from the rough (2.5 inch Bermuda for the tournament)" Wood said. "You can’t spin the ball and it’s very hard to get up and down when you miss the greens."
Jeff Hall, USGA managing director who will work closely with Oak Tree superintendent Josh Cook on course setup, said a big challenge for the USGA will be making sure the course is a test but not too difficult so 156 players can complete their rounds on Thursday and Friday.
He agreed with Wood that shots from the rough will be marginal.
"If they can play from the rough grass, they won’t have complete control of their ball. So we let the architectural features come to life and take the ball where they want it to go. Between gravity and the architectural features, there are some interesting places it will wind up."
NOTES: Tickets for the tournament are on sale at www.2014ussenioropen.com. Kenny Perry is the defending champion, collecting $500,000 for his victory at Omaha Country Club in 2013.
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