2004: Little-known pro provides big-time shock

Portrush, Northern Ireland

Stop us if you’ve heard this yarn before: Little-known, long shot journeyman pro from the United States ventures across the pond to Europe; tees it up at a venerable club against some of the biggest names in the game at the Open championship; refuses to buckle under the Sunday pressure; and shockingly, winds up the last man standing, smooching a claret jug on the 18th green.

Todd Hamilton, Part II? Kind of.

If the storyline seems very familiar, the face belonging to the man who authored it was not. But Peter Oakley, like Hamilton, has been around the proverbial golf block, too. His latest stop was working a club pro job and giving lessons at The Rookery in Milton, Del., a daily-fee course where he is a managing partner, though somebody else might want to mind the shop counter for a spell. Oakley has more ambitious plans in store.

Being the reigning Senior British Open champion can do that.

Oakley, who earned one of 20 tournament berths in a 132-man qualifier just two days before the Open began, blasted out of a deep greenside bunker at the 72nd hole and coolly rolled in an 10-foot par putt to punctuate his shocking victory July 25, edging Tom Kite and Eduardo Romero with a final-round, 2-under 70 at Royal Portrush Golf Club. The victory was Oakley’s first on the Champions Tour. His only other tournament victory came at the PGA Senior Club Professional Championship in 1999.

When the winning putt vanished, the smallish, bespectacled, 55-year-old Oakley – a man whom ABC’s Peter Alliss said looked like a butler – appeared as startled as anyone. His Odyssey putter flew from his hands and tumbled across the green, and he took a few seconds to acknowledge the applause at No. 18. Suddenly the six-time Delaware Open champion and former Philadelphia PGA Section player of the year had added his name to a list of Senior British Open champions that includes Gary Player, Bob Charles and Tom Watson.

Oakley is the first player to go from qualifying to hoisting the Open’s gold champion’s jug, and made the biggest splash in Delaware golf since Porky Oliver finished second at the Masters more than a half-century ago.

“It still hasn’t sunk in,” said Oakley, who finished the tournament at 4-under 284. “I’m still trying to rationalize at the moment. My world is changing at the moment, at this very moment.”

Oakley, who said he decided to play the European Seniors Tour this year to keep his older brother company – David Oakley tied for second at the 1996 British Senior Open at Royal Portrush and missed the cut here last week – earned $295,212 for his victory.

“That’s some cash,” Peter Oakley said. “Now I can get out of debt.”

Oakley’s career earnings entering the tournament totaled $54,309, and his biggest check was $14,801.

Back at his Delaware club, friends and staff members at The Rookery huddled around the computer early Sunday and kept an eye on televisions in the pro shop and bar to keep tabs on Oakley’s final round.

“It was pretty exciting, watching a hometown boy doing so well – it was pretty much the story of the hour,” said Chris Adkins, who, along with Oakley, his friend of 20 years, hatched plans to build The Rookery in 1998. Adkins is the course superintendent. “We’re behind him 100 percent. Pete is such a laid-back, personable guy. He could talk to anybody and make them feel good. You’d feel like you’ve known him forever.”

Kite shot a final-round 69 and Romero, playing his first senior event, shot 67 to tie for second at 3 under. Mark James, who won the Champions Tour’s last major, the Ford Senior Players Championship, finished another stroke back after a final-round 70.

Oakley took the lead with an 8-foot birdie putt at the 11th and built a three-stroke advantage after a curling 25-footer at No. 14 delivered his sixth birdie. He dropped a shot at the par-4 16th after driving into the right rough and being forced to chip out sideways. With Kite, Romero and James all making birdie at No. 17, that sliced Oakley’s lead to one shot as he went to 18.

“I saw that I was 5 under on 16. I had a two-shot lead with two to go,” he said. “Who could have wished for more? Then on 17 I saw that there was Kite and Romero (at 3 under) and I’m gulping like it’s gone out of style.”

Oakley’s approach shot from semi-rough at No. 18 dribbled into a greenside bunker in front of the green, and the tournament appeared as if it might be headed for a three-way playoff. With no view of the flag as he stood behind the steep bunker wall, Oakley splashed the shot 10 feet past the hole, setting up the championship putt. The putt for par was perfect.

“That’s how I putted all week,” he said. “It was divine.”

A three-putt bogey at No. 14 proved costly for Kite.

“I got real aggressive on a first putt on 14, which I thought I could make, and it zipped on by,” he said. “That hurt me, but other than that and a bad swing on the 13th hole I played a very, very good round of golf. I have trouble complaining about a round of 3 under par today.”

Kite has not won a tournament for 21 months, finishing second six times.

Oakley’s previous claim to fame was winning the PGA Senior Club Professional Championship in 1999 at West Palm Beach, Fla., which earned him $14,000. His bank account pales to that of Kite, whose 34 career victories, including the 1992 U.S. Open, total more than $16.7 million. Sunday, there was more at stake than money. When the opportunity arose to make history, Oakley stepped up and seized it.

Good fortune seems to follow him in Europe. In the final round of the European Senior Tour School in November, where he finished fourth to earn a card for 2004, Oakley “skulled” an 8-iron on the ninth hole that hit the pin and dropped into the cup. “I was leaking oil like it was going out of style,” he said. “I would not be here right now, probably.”

Eight months later, his whole world has changed. With Oakley’s victory came a one-year exemption on the Champions Tour if he chooses to take it, as well as a spot in next year’s 134th British Open at St. Andrews. On the 18th green, he cried on his brother’s shoulder, and he thought of his two college-aged sons and what his winnings will do for them.

“We all are just excited for this change in the Oakley family,” he said, “and looking forward to it.”

An 11th-hour exemption into the U.S. Senior Open beckoned, and Oakley needed to make plans to return home. Big party plans were in the works at The Rookery. With that, the curtain dropped on yet another unlikely tale about another little-known American at yet another British Open.

And like Todd Hamilton’s story, Peter Oakley wants his to have a happy ending.

– Staff and wire reports

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