Senior Open gives unknowns chance to compete

Bruce Stewart, who came to Omaha from rural Oregon, signs an autograph at the U.S. Senior Open.

Bruce Stewart, who came to Omaha from rural Oregon, signs an autograph at the U.S. Senior Open.

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Why am I so fond of the U.S. Senior Open?

Molalla, Ore., is the answer.

Molalla, a sleepy little country town with a population of about 8,000, is home to Arrowhead Golf Club (not to mention the Buckeroo Rodeo). What’s that got to do with the Senior Open? Everything, because Arrowhead has sent a golfer to the Senior Open in each of the last three years.

Not many clubs – big or small – can claim such a distinction. It was head professional Rob Gibbons in 2011, amateur Pat O’Donnell in '12 and teaching pro Bruce Stewart this year – all of them from Arrowhead.

Golf is the most democratic of games. All individuals face off equally with par, and unknown players from Molalla are presented the same opportunity as famous golfers who have forged their identity on the PGA Tour.

As the name implies, the Senior Open is open to all golfers who are at least 50 years old and have demonstrated their skill at the game.

In this year’s Senior Open here at Omaha Country Club, Peter Horrobin became the first native of Jamaica to play in the championship. He grew up across the street from a golf course, and his first club was a discarded broken-shafted iron that he connected to some PVC plastic pipe.

Meanwhile, the 59-year-old Stewart is carrying the banner of Arrowhead and Molalla in the same tournament.

"All this is a celebration of golf. All these different people, from all these different backgrounds, are celebrating this great game and competing for a national championship," said Stewart. "It's just an honor for me to do here."

What's the secret of Arrowhead? Here's a hint: Many members of Arrowhead owner Joe Clarizio's family are employed at the golf course, which operates as a private facility but is friendly enough to open its doors to just about anyone who wants to pay a greens fee.

Technically Stewart isn't a family member, but he's been teaching at Arrowhead for 31 years. So he's clearly an honorary member of the family, and he is intensely proud of the golf course, restaurant and fitness center that occupy 127 acres next to the Molalla River.

Stewart and his wife, Candy, have been exploring Omaha and dreaming of making the 36-hole cut. Even after a practice round in which he carried his second shot into the middle of the grandstand on the 18th hole, Stewart was beaming with enthusiasm.

As a photographer snapped away, Candy held up the ball, with green splotches of grandstand paint on it. Everyone laughed.

"I'm actually the self-proclaimed mayor of Dickey Prairie, Ore.," Stewart announced to the crowd. Dickey Prairie, with one general store and no post office, is located a short distance from Molalla. The Stewarts live in Dickey Prairie in a cabin built at the confluence of two separate rivers. It's nature, all right, but golf is just down the road.

Soon enough, this U.S. Senior Open will be dominated by Kenny Perry, Fred Couples and the other golfers who are household favorites. On the eve of the competition, though, all the qualifiers are rejoicing. They are just happy to be here.

These are golfers who can forever say they qualified for a national championship. Regardless of what they shoot, most will be celebrating their good fortune all the way home.

What a game.

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