2006: Haas gains knowledge, Senior PGA triumph from stay with Tway

By Rich Skyzinski

Edmond, Okla.

Members of the Oak Tree Gang proved to be gracious hosts for the 67th Senior PGA Championship at Oak Tree Golf Club.

Jay Haas and Curtis Strange were house guests of Bob Tway and his wife, Tammie, whose palatial estate of 18,000 square feet is so close that Strange joked the drive was too short to get the car cool. And Tway was a capable tour guide as well. Early in the week, he showed his guests most of the way around Oak Tree.

“He went around with us the first 12 holes,” said Haas, “and just kind of mentioned a few different things – some of the lines off the tee shots we needed to take. But also about where to miss it. Some of those places are not so obvious.”

Gil Morgan, meanwhile, provided invaluable on-course tutelage. Peter Jacobsen was paired with Morgan in all four rounds, and he astutely copied Morgan’s tactics, well aware that Morgan had played dozens of rounds at Oak Tree in conditions far worse than the 30 mph winds the Senior PGA field faced throughout much of the week. Where Morgan aimed, that also was Jacobsen’s target, and it was hardly coincidental the two were locked in tandem on the leaderboard for most of the week: 1-2 after each of the first two rounds, first and third after 54 holes.

Brad Bryant professed he didn’t have the talent to play Oak Tree as proficiently as Morgan, but he was an adept student as well during his weekend pairings with Morgan.

“Gil has probably the most level attitude that I know of in the game,” Bryant said. “I just sort of watched Gil go through his routine and just tried to draft off him so that I could kind of keep my composure.”

But as Morgan put so succinctly, “Local knowledge is great, but you still have to hit the shots.”

And with the Senior PGA title on the line, no one did that better than Haas and Bryant. They took turns one-upping the other throughout the final round May 28, right down to the 72nd hole, where Haas made a 10-foot birdie, only to see Bryant drain one from twice that distance.

“That was just found money,” Bryant said, “like walking out there and finding five bucks laying on the sidewalk.”

Haas and Bryant finished at 5-under-par 279.

That forced a sudden-death playoff, and when Bryant missed a 4-foot par putt at No. 18, the third playoff hole and the third time they played it Sunday, Haas had his first Champions Tour major and his third victory in his last three Champions starts ­– one behind Chi Chi Rodriguez’s record of four consecutive in 1987.

“There were moments today where I thought I would be at the airport already by now and then there were moments where I felt like I had everything under control,” said Haas, who trailed by six strokes three holes into his final round. “And then some moments again I was in the car, mad about missing whatever, and so to be here right now (holding the trophy) is unbelievably special.”

Five consecutive birdies will change anyone’s outlook, and it did for Haas. He birdied the par-3 fourth with a 6-iron to 14 feet, followed by a 12-footer at the fifth and birdies over the next three holes, from 4, 10 and 4 feet, respectively.

“Never in a major tournament,” said Haas when asked to recall a similar run, “never right by the lead. But I looked up after No. 9 or 10 and I had a two-shot lead. And I went, ‘Oh my goodness. That’s way too early.’ It’s like I got the fresh tires way too soon, in NASCAR speak.”

Haas brushed the wall a few times from there, needing a 10-footer for par at the ninth and a fortuitous carom off a railroad tie along the creek at the 16th, tossing the ball back into play instead of into the water. Meanwhile, Bryant was beginning an emotional run over the finishing holes.

That was no surprise because Bryant owned Oak Tree’s 16th, 17th and 18th all week. Over the first three rounds he collected four birdies and an eagle there. “That’s pretty good,” he nodded.

Trailing Haas by two, he prepped for his favorite section of Oak Tree with a birdie putt at the par-4 14th “that was 60 feet or some such nonsense.” A bogey at 15 again dropped Bryant two shots back, but at the par-5 16th he ripped a 5-iron second shot to 4 feet for an eagle and a tie.

“I gave it everything I had,” Bryant said. “Dramatic, yeah, that’s a good word for it. And excruciating.”

Which also is an apt description of what the hometown folks experienced as Morgan failed to fire.

Despite the fact that he hadn’t played 18 holes at Oak Tree since October, Morgan, the winner of three Champions Tour majors but none since 1998, was the consensus choice among logical contenders. There were 46 players in the Senior PGA field who played in the 1988 PGA Championship at Oak Tree, but Pete Dye’s exacting, reworked tract is only a vague resemblance of what was used in ’88. And, after all, Morgan, who lives less than a mile from the first tee, has played the new version hundreds of times.

“Obviously we probably have a little more experience than most of the players,” said Morgan, referring to the five members of the Oak Tree Gang in the field. “And then, when the conditions get severe, that comes into play a lot more. And because we play in a little bit of wind all the time and then we get a little bit more here today, we may understand those situations a little bit better than the rest of the field.”

Morgan took a one-shot lead into Sunday, where he made as many bogeys over his first nine holes (five) as he did over his first two days combined en route to a 3-over 74 that left him in third, two shots back.

“I kind of got out of sync, I think, on the front nine,” he said, “and that was the story of my round. I think that all week there was quite a bit of pressure on me to play well. The first part of the week, maybe I handled it a little better.”

Speaking of expectations, they are changing for Bryant and Haas.

Bryant had a career that took 18 years and 475 starts to get his first PGA Tour victory. Now, in two years on the Champions Tour he has won twice (both this year), and in the first nine starts of 2006 he already has earned more money than any year since he turned pro in 1976.

Haas now has a major in his pocket. And for those who like to look ahead, the U.S. Senior Open will be played on the wide-open heartland, at Prairie Dunes Country Club in Hutchinson, Kan., where it might huff and puff like it did at Oak Tree. Next year’s Senior PGA Championship is at Kiawah Island, another wind tunnel.

Guess who has the local knowledge everyone will need?

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