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The U.S. Senior Open isn't the U.S. Open, and that's as it should be. Still, the Senior Open is a national championship and the winner is a USGA titleholder, and rightfully proud as heck.
On Sunday evening at the Inverness Club in Toledo, Olin Browne sat with his hands carefully resting on the Francis Ouimet Trophy, the Senior Open champion's prize. He looked as if he were handling precious gemstones, yet he couldn't stop grinning because as the new Senior Open champion, his name may now be spoken in the same sentence as Ouimet's. "That's kind of ridiculous, really," Browne admitted.
Not in the world of senior golf it isn't. It's what separates the Senior Open from the U.S. Open. For flat-bellied golfers, the putter is the game's great equalizer. On this side of 50, time and age even the field. Good things may come to those who wait, especially if they don't blow out a disk or catch terminal yips along the way. As odd as it may sound, there is hope in the Senior Open, something usually absent from the regular Open.
Browne, 52, is Exhibit A. He didn't begin to play the game until he was 19 and didn't get to the PGA Tour until his early 30s. He's a late starter and a late bloomer. He didn't exactly chase Jack Nicklaus into the record books. Nicklaus won 18 major championships. Browne has played in only 19. He wasn't so much a journeyman on Tour as he was a slowly improving craftsman. He won three times, including once at Colonial, in 1999, when that event still ranked among the Tour's most prominent stops, and once near Boston at the 2005 Deutsche Bank Championship, during which he fended off the likes of Tiger Woods and Vijay Singh.
"He's a tough competitor," said 2009 PGA Senior champion Michael Allen, who tied for seventh at the Senior Open. "When he grabs the lead, he doesn't let it go very easily."
Browne is not the kind of player one expects to win a major championship, much less lead the Senior Open wire to wire (the only player to do so besides Dale Douglass, in 1986), much less rewrite the tournament's record book. Yet that is exactly what Browne did on a soft and vulnerable Inverness course during a humid, sweltering week.
After he set the Senior Open's 18-, 36- and 54-hole scoring records (64, 133 and 198, respectively) and became the first to shoot 29 for nine holes (back nine in the third round), Browne played solid, smart golf in a final-round showdown with Mark O'Meara. Two late bogeys by O'Meara gave Browne some breathing room, and when he rolled in a 25-foot birdie putt to clinch the title on the final green, he raised his arms in triumph, turned his back on the hole and walked away a few steps before turning and flashing a huge smile of relief.
If that wasn't this Open's signature moment, it was close. There was Hale Irwin shooting his age—66—in the third round and continuing on to tie for fourth, the 204th top 10 finish of his senior career, breaking the record held by Bob Charles. There was Damon Green, normally the caddie for Zach Johnson, completing a role reversal by shooting an opening 67. Green finished 13th and won some followers with his Chicken Walk—he flaps his arms while doing a two-step anytime he makes a birdie. He also was seen on NBC's telecast raking a bunker at the 14th green for his playing partner, Jeff Roth. "Just trying to speed up play," Green said. Once a caddie, always a caddie. Thirty-six players finished 72 holes under par, a Senior Open record. The USGA's website best summarized the scoring blitz with the headline: RED ALERT!
Mostly, though, Browne was the show. After his opening 64, which featured two eagles, he joked that nobody was going to hand him the trophy on Thursday. It turns out they could have. Before last week the closest Browne had come to major glory was on the regular Tour in 2005, when he was paired with Michael Campbell in the final round of the U.S. Open and watched him win. As for Browne, "I butchered Pinehurst on Sunday," he said of his 80. Browne's best major finish was a tie for fifth at Congressional in the 1997 Open.
So Sunday, when he finished with his only birdie of the day, was something special for Browne, who had been winless in his young—pardon the expression—senior tour career. "This is very satisfying for me," he said.