By Ken MacLeod
Ryder Cup captain past and present, former winners at Southern Hills and notable Oklahoma pros all agreed on a couple of major themes when it comes to the 2021 KitchenAid Senior PGA Championship Thursday through Sunday at Southern Hills.
One, the restoration of the historic course completed in 2019 by architect Gil Hanse was a stunning success and the venue is one the players are excited to compete on for one of the most prestigious titles for the over 50 set.
Two, what Phil Mickelson accomplished by winning the PGA Championship on the doorstep of age 51 was both historic and inspirational for many of his peers of similar age.
Steve Stricker, the 2021 Ryder Cup captain who also made the cut in the PGA Championship at Kiawah Island, said Mickelson’s accomplishment pushed the boundaries of what he imagined was possible.
“Yeah, for sure, and I think he showed everybody that it’s possible later on in your career. We go from Collin Morikawa, one of the youngest players to win a major, to the oldest player in history to win a major That’s the cool and unique thing about the game of golf, and that’s what’s exciting. If you put the time in and you work hard at it, Phil showed us that we can continue to compete at that higher level. “
Jim Furyk, who is serving as an associate Ryder Cup captain to Stricker, said watching Mickelson negotiate the perils of Pete Dye’s Kiawah Island course was a source of pride for all golfers over 50.
“I think it’s great that — I think all the guys on the Champions Tour have a pride in the quality of the product that we’re putting out there and our abilities,” Furyk said. “We don’t hit the ball as far as we used to, but you look at the scores and guys are still firing, seems like 10-, 12-, 15-, 16-, 18-under wins every week, and a lot of times in a three-day tournament.
“I think we have a lot of pride in the product we have, and to see a guy our age go out there and still compete against the kids and then not only that, win a major championship, create history and then do it on a golf course that that’s not a golf course I would expect a 50 year old to win on. It is a long, brutally hard — there’s a double, triple bogey waiting at every corner there. So I think you wrap that all together, it was a really cool week, obviously, for Phil and the world of golf, and I think the over 50s take some pride in that, as well. “
Scott Verplank was serving as an analyst for ESPN Plus and saw much of Mickelson’s work. He ranked it with the 1986 Masters and Tiger Woods’ victory in 2019 at The Masters as one of the greatest accomplishments in golf that he’s witnessed.
“I was covering his group and he was 3-over after 6,” Verplank said. “And I’m sitting there like going, you know, this golf course is not going to fit Phil. From that point on he just whipped everybody’s butt and he played the best. I got to watch all the guys that were in the lead or in the last groups and call the shots and, listen, he just played better. He played smarter and he, for him, it was important he led the field in driving after two rounds, which is really unusual.”
As for Southern Hills, the players were routinely very complimentary while noting the premium now on accuracy of second shots with all the new runoff areas on and around the greens.
Willie Wood of Edmond, who Verplank called the best putter he’s ever played with, is hoping the premium on the short game will help him overcome what he gives up in driving distance. Stricker is also a fantastic putter and one that many would regard as a pre-tournament favorite.
The field includes the winners of the 1995 Tour Championship (Billy Mayfair), 1996 Tour Championship (Tom Lehman) and 2001 U.S. Open (Retief Goosen) but not the 1994 PGA Championship (Nick Price) or 2007 PGA Championship (Tiger Woods). There are a number of players in the field who competed in the 1982 PGA Championship won by Raymond Floyd and three that played in the 1977 U.S. Open (Jay Haas, Tom Kite and Jerry Pate).
Verplank said his good friend Stricker has to be regarded as the favorite due to his combination of ball striking and short game skills. Stricker won two senior majors in 2019 (Region Traditions and U.S. Senior Open) and added the Chubb Championship in April while remaining competitive on the PGA Tour.
“Stricker is the second best 50-year-old player in the world in my opinion, right behind Phil now.” Verplank said. “Stricker, Furyk, Ernie. Retief won here. (Bernhard) Langer is unbelievable, he puts in all the hard work, kind of like Phil has done the last couple years and he’s always prepared to play. A lot of these guys are playing more inspired golf than they have ever played, so it makes it very competitive.”
This will be the sixth championship for Ernie Els at Southern Hills but his eighth in Oklahoma. Els played in the 1994 PGA, 1995 and 1996 Tour Championship, 2001 U.S. Open and 2007 PGA Championship.
Not many realize Els was a competitor in the 1990 Oklahoma Open at Oak Tree Country Club in Edmond his first year as a pro. The next year he played in the 1991 Ben Hogan Open at the Golf Club of Oklahoma, finishing seventh.
“That was the first top 10 finish of my professional career,” said Els, who made $6,143 for the year and finished 123rd on the Ben Hogan Tour money list. That was his only top 10. He’s done a little better since.