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Tom Watson and his caddie, Bruce Edwards, walked up the long slope to the landing area of the 18th fairway at Caves Valley Golf Club in Owings Mills, Md., for the third time on a warm, humid afternoon, too charged up to be tired. Watson's tee shot on the first hole of sudden death at the U.S. Senior Open was in the short grass, and long. "Here's your ticket to Olympia Fields," said Edwards, knowing what to say and when to say it, the way a good caddie does. The Senior Open title was at stake, but almost as meaningful to Watson was the exemption into the 2003 U.S. Open that goes with it.
Watson didn't answer. "He kind of gave me a smirk," Edwards said. After Don Pooley had hit his approach shot to within nine feet of the flag on the difficult, 455-yard finishing hole, drawing a roar from the appreciative gallery packed around the green, Watson answered with an eight-iron to eight feet, getting an even bigger response. When Pooley sank the potential winning birdie putt a few minutes later, the decibel level reached new heights, but when Watson poured in his do-or-die try on top of Pooley's to prolong the playoff, well, they hadn't heard a noise like that on the Senior tour for a long, long time.
Watson and Tom Kite, two friendly rivals, had a sizzling playoff duel in the SBC Senior Classic in March, but that was nothing like this. Jack Nicklaus was in the hunt on Sunday in the Senior Open a year ago, but that was nothing like this, either. This was the tournament that proved the Senior tour more than has a pulse; it can still make the heart race.
In the end Watson, 52, failed to get his ticket to Olympic Fields. Pooley, 50, dramatically ended an unforgettable five-hole playoff—three holes of aggregate score, followed by sudden death—by nailing another birdie putt of the same length the fourth time that he and Watson played 18 that day. The win was Pooley's first as a Senior.
With its aging superstars no longer competitive and the long shadow of Tiger Woods making all other tournaments and tours seem small, the Senior tour has been struggling to stay relevant. The oft-asked question, What's wrong with the tour? was answered at Caves Valley. First, the tournament mattered. The Senior Open, which has been held for 23 years, and the 65-year-old Senior PGA are the only events on the over-50 circuit with history and prestige. Second, the Open was played on an interesting and telegenic course. (One beef: Tom Fazio—designed Caves Valley is littered with unnecessary bunkers.) Third, at least one player that we've heard of played a starring role. Fourth, Pooley and Watson put on the kind of shotmaking display last seen on the Senior tour when Lee Trevino was winning every other event in the early '90s. Watson birdied six of the last 10 holes, while Pooley made remarkable par saves on the last three holes of regulation when he appeared to be ready to crack. Finally, throw in a touch of drama—those matching birdies in overtime—and you've got a product that will sell anywhere. "The enthusiasm was wonderful," Watson said. "You could feel it. It was genuine. It was fresh. It was raw. This championship had all of that."
Before Sunday's big finish, though, this Senior Open seemed to have all the upside potential of WorldCom stock. The first-round leader was R.W. Eaks, a journeyman of the highest order. Eaks's rookie year on the PGA Tour was 1980 and his second was '81. His third year was '98. In between he dined on a smorgasbord of mini-tours and still ranks second in number of events played (258) on the Buy.com tour and its predecessors, a record no pro golfer aspires to. Eaks, a former high school basketball star in Colorado Springs who turned 50 in May, was making his fifth start as a Senior and surprisingly tied the Senior Open scoring record with a seven-under 64 in the first round. He gamely held on with a 73 on Friday, but—eeks, R.W.!—shot 78-77 on the weekend and skidded to 37th.
Walter Hall, a former appliance salesman, was the star of the second round. Although he has won only once, Hall, 55, has been a steady performer on the Senior tour over the last three years, always finishing among the top 20 money winners. His 65 on Friday gave him a one-shot lead over Kite and Jose Maria Canizares, but a bogey-bogey finish in his 72 on Saturday dropped him out of Sunday's final pairing, and a closing 77 made him invisible to NBC's cameras.
Sheldon George Pooley Jr., better known—but not by much—as Don, came next. His third-round 63 erased Eaks and those he had tied from the record books. Pooley joined Helen Alfredsson, Johnny Miller, Jack Nicklaus and Tom Weiskopf as the only players to shoot 63 in a U.S. Open. "I had no idea what the record was," said Pooley, who hit 15 greens in regulation and needed only 25 putts. "I'd rather not know that stuff when I'm out there." Pooley had a nice regular Tour career, winning a couple of tournaments, the 1980 B.C. Open and the '87 Memorial. He made the Senior Open via qualifying, the first winner to do so, thanks to a birdie on the final hole and then another birdie on the first hole of a playoff.
Eaks, Hall and Pooley? They're hardly the Big Three. But then golf's old Big Three aren't really the Big Three anymore; they're simply old. Gary Player, 66, shot 79-75-154 to miss the cut. Jack Nicklaus, 62, didn't even play, pulling out early in the week due to continuing back problems. "I'm not surprised," said Watson, who had played with Nicklaus the previous week in an exhibition in Kansas City. "Jack was really suffering. He can play one day, but not five or six." (Nicklaus's WD fueled speculation that the 2001 Masters was his last and that he might be done playing Senior golf, too.)
Arnold Palmer, 72, gamely soldiered on. He parred the first six holes in the first round before going double bogey, quad. Then on Friday he parred the first five holes before reality set in with three bogeys and a triple. Palmer shot 82-85 and looked like a beaten man. He ingloriously three-putted his final hole, wagging a finger at the disobedient ball after the second miss, histrionics that drew chuckles from the fans but sent the message that, uh-oh, his time as even a ceremonial golfer is about up. Palmer may sense it, too. He has committed to play three more Senior events this year, but, he said, "that will be it, I'm afraid, unless something strikes." Presumably he didn't mean the employees of a major airline.