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THE DEBATE about whether the term senior major is an oxymoron is hereby over. The 69th Senior PGA Championship, the first senior major of the year, began with 28 players withdrawing before the tournament even started, and things went downhill from there. ¶ Twenty-eight? That's not a major championship, that's a work stoppage. Most Masters invitees would sooner give up a family member than turn down a chance to play Augusta National. Real majors don't have multiple dropouts. (And they don't have pro-ams, either. Especially on a Tuesday, as the Senior PGA did.) ¶ The mass exodus from Oak Hill Country Club was unprecedented but not totally unexpected. After all, there was the weather forecast for Rochester, N.Y., that called for temperatures in the 40s with rain and wind. There was the agronomic forecast that predicted thick, deep, extra-juicy spring rough. And there was the certain knowledge that under any conditions mighty Oak Hill is an equal opportunity butt-kicker. ¶ Somewhat surprisingly, those missing in action included Hall of Famers such as Ben Crenshaw, Ray Floyd, Hubert Green, Larry Nelson, Gary Player and even Curtis Strange, who won the U.S. Open at Oak Hill in 1989. All cited illness, injury or personal reasons. Like what? Being allergic to five-inch rough and numbers in the 80s? "You have to question that," Champions tour rookie John Cook said of those who WD'd without a medical excuse. "This is a major. I guess they felt as if they had paid their dues and didn't want to do that anymore." ¶ The result was a major with a black eye, although Jay Haas was a worthy champion, outlasting Bernhard Langer to win the title for the second time in three years and taste sweet redemption. Cook's comment notwithstanding, once play got under way, those who skipped the event for the most part were quickly forgotten. Former U.S. Open and Masters champ Fuzzy Zoeller got a call from his absent pal Green after Zoeller slogged through a brutal opening round in which the average score was nearly seven over par (76.8), and the number of bogeys or worse was higher than birdies by a 5-to-1 margin. Thirty players failed to break 80, 10 over par.
"Did I make a good decision?" Green asked smugly. Zoeller answered by laughing.
Oak Hill won the Senior PGA by a knockout: There were boatloads of bogeys and only three rounds in the 60s, and the final threesome on Sunday went a combined 18 over. "The course is unrelenting," said David Eger, whose closing 70 lifted him from 24th to 16th. "It's simply a difficult golf course for old men."
The PGA of America didn't learn anything from its previous visit to Oak Hill, for the '03 PGA Championship, which featured folded-over eight-inch rough that proved to be an equalizer. The rough last week was fresh and springy and somewhere between four and five inches in height. If you think the pitchout back to the fairway is an exciting shot, you probably also watch hockey for the icing calls, look forward to TV timeouts and enjoyed the heck out of the Senior PGA.
Never have so many pro golfers been made to look so stupid by missing so many greens with stubbed chips, pitches and flops. On Sunday, Langer, the meticulous (and in these conditions slow-playing) German, hit his drive into the rough a few paces short of the 14th green. The pin was five steps onto the green. It might've been a relatively easy flop shot from a normal lie, but Langer's best effort left him just in the edge of the deep cut. So much for a birdie opportunity. Langer got up and down to save his par.
"They said the rough was 3 1/2 inches long. It looked more like five to me," Langer said. "It was very juicy, dark green, like fertilized rough. Chipping was extremely difficult out of that thick grass."
Players gave the setup mixed reviews. It's a major championship, some said, so it's supposed to be difficult. Second-round leader Tom Purtzer called it "borderline too hard" before he plummeted with a third-round 81.
The numbers don't lie. Haas won with a seven-over 287, the highest winning score in relation to par in Senior PGA history and the second highest on the Champions tour. (Arnold Palmer was nine over when he won the 1981 U.S. Senior Open at Oakland Hills.) The cut, which was made at 12 over, was a stroke lower than the tour record set at the '90 Senior PGA at PGA National.
Jim Woodward, whose closing 79 left him in 46th place (at 20 over), spoke for many. "If I ever come back to Oak Hill again, it will be too soon. I give. [Oak Hill] wins. Here's the good news: Anywhere I go from here is going to be easier."
The course's difficulty made for a close but ugly finish. The final threesome—Haas, Langer and Jeff Sluman, Rochester's favorite son—combined for two birdies and 18 bogeys or double bogeys in the final round.