By Rex Hoggard
Owings Mills, Md.
If Fuzzy Zoeller is the breath of fresh air the Senior PGA Tour needs, then Don Pooley is the rock-solid, unflappable father figure that plays well with the everyman crowd.
With Zoeller, you get a jovial spark who engages the masses with homespun wit. With Pooley, it’s a business-like focus and an unwavering belief in his place among the game’s best. And why wouldn’t Pooley be at ease with his place on the over-50 circuit? He has the pedigree, two PGA Tour victories (B.C. Open 1980, Memorial ’87), and now – after a pitched final-round duel with Tom Watson at the 23rd U.S. Senior Open June 30 – he has the hardware to join the Senior Tour’s elite.
Not that victory, especially when it has been 15 years since your last trip to the winner’s circle, is ever easy, but Pooley’s Herculean triumph over Watson completed a 96-hole odyssey that started with sectional qualifying (18 holes plus one playoff hole) and ended with a birdie by the 50-year-old on the fifth extra hole at Caves Valley Golf Club.
Not even a cozy three-shot cushion entering the final round was enough to rattle a resolute Pooley. He had been here before – within reach of a major title coming down the stretch – and never closed the deal. But this time was different. This time, he not only had that smooth putting stroke working, but everything else also seemed to fall into place.
“I didn’t play well this year and my game was going in the wrong direction,” said Pooley, whose closest brush with a major came at the 1988 Masters, where he was one shot back with six holes to go before finishing fifth. “I took some time off. I went to see Dr. Bob Rotella, and things started to turn around a few weeks ago and the pieces started to fall into place.”
There was plenty standing between Pooley and the Francis D. Ouimet Trophy, the silver cup presented to the Senior Open champion. There was Watson, who is playing the game tee to green better than anyone else on the Senior Tour right now, sweltering temperatures that hovered near 90 degrees and a hilly, 7,005-yard Caves Valley course that was the second longest in championship history. Enough worries to keep even the most grounded man up at night.
“I wasn’t nervous when I went to sleep and I got to sleep with no problem, but old people, they wake up at night,” said Pooley of his restless night before the final round. “I woke up and immediately the butterflies hit. I could not get back to sleep.”
If Pooley was slowed by lack of sleep it didn’t show. He began his round with a pair of birdies at Nos. 1 and 3 before closing with a steady run of 14 consecutive pars that included five one-putts. After finishing 72 holes tied at 10-under 274, Pooley and Watson returned to No. 16 for a three-hole, aggregate score playoff that also failed to produce a champion. (Both parred all three holes.)
“I thought I had Tom beaten twice at No. 18,” said Pooley, who rolled in a 10-footer for birdie to extend the playoff on the fourth extra hole and an 8-footer for birdie to take the title. “He made two great putts to stay in the playoff, and I made one to finish it.”
Pooley, however, was not the only long shot looking to score a major breakthrough in the lush hills north of Baltimore. An eclectic group of potential champions paraded across Caves Valley’s rolling layout starting with R.W. Eaks, whose dubious claim to fame prior to his then record-tying 64 in the first round was his runner-up spot on the all-time Buy.com Tour events-played list (258).
Walter Hall was the next suitor to ascend the leaderboard. The former appliance distributor followed his second-round 65 with a solid 72 before fading Sunday into a tie for 11th.
By the time Zoeller unraveled the mystery of Caves Valley’s greens, he was too far back to make a serious run. Jim Thorpe – winner of the tour’s first major of the year, The Tradition – hovered near the top all week but also struggled on the Tom Fazio-designed greens.
Watson never wavered. Despite a balky putter, he inched closer and closer each round and sounded like an aged version of Tiger Woods on the eve of the final 18.
“My goal is to go out there and do what Tiger Woods did,” Watson said. “Hit all the fairways, if you can; hit all the greens, if you can; and not make any mistakes.”
Like Woods, Watson quickly applied pressure Sunday. The five-time British Open champion chipped away at Pooley’s lead with a back-nine 31 that included only 13 putts. He tied Pooley at 10 under at No. 17 and the pair traded pars at the 18th to force the three-hole playoff.
“That’s when you get light on your feet. You can just skate up the fairways when you’re like that,” Watson said of his back-nine run.
Throughout the week, the ebb and flow of each round could be followed by the rippling roar as it echoed through the towering oaks. There also was plenty of star power atop the leaderboard to keep things interesting, but Baltimore is a blue-collar town that values an underdog, and it was Pooley – the first qualifier to ever win this championship – who was anointed Senior Open darling.
History will record Pooley’s third-round 63, an 18-hole Senior Open scoring record, as the turning point in the 2002 championship, but Pooley will tell you the real turnaround came at the 430-yard 16th hole Sunday. Standing in 4-inch rough with the ball 2 feet above his feet, Pooley ripped his approach between two bunkers and onto the green.
“Tom was making birdies left and right out there and I was scraping and clawing and staying with him,” said Pooley, whose best finish on the Senior Tour prior to Caves Valley was a tie for fourth at last year’s Kroger Senior Classic and Gold Rush Classic. “The shot of the tournament for me was on 16. I had 177 yards in a really awkward stance and the only chance I had of getting it on the green was to thread it between two bunkers.”
He pulled off the shot, and with it joined a short list of players making the Senior Tour special again.
“Don Pooley did an awful lot for senior golf today,” Watson said.