News & Opinion

U.S. Senior Open aims high at Broadmoor

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. – Now that Brooks Koepka is done bench-pressing the Hills of Shinnecock, now that Phil Mickelson has apologized for his Happy Gilmore moment, and now that John Jacob Bodenhamer Schmidt has explained what Rule 14-5 covers “specifically and explicitly,” the golf world can move on … to Colorado Springs.

Celebrating its 100th birthday, the East Course at The Broadmoor is hosting the 39th playing of one of golf’s great mulligans: the U.S. Senior Open (tee times)

What’s that? Didn’t get your USGA championship the first time around? Well, it ain’t over till the USGA says it’s over. Welcome to the Second City of national championships, where Roberto De Vicenzo signs a correct scorecard, where the likes of Don Pooley, Brad Bryant and Olin Browne have rubbed trophy-winning elbows with the likes of Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player, where Geritol and Medicare work a special brand of magic. 

The stage for this edition features quirky nuance and wonderful history. The Broadmoor sits in the shadow of 14,115-foot Pikes Peak, where Katharine Lee Bates was inspired to write a poem that became “America the Beautiful.” The East Course was designed by Donald Ross, and subsequently tweaked by Robert Trent Jones. That’s like Paul McCartney covering Cole Porter.

In 1959 on the East Course, the aforementioned “Golden Bear” introduced himself to the golf world by making an 8-foot putt on the 36th hole to win the U.S. Amateur. Almost 50 years later – at the 2008 Senior Open – a black bear introduced himself by scaring TV analyst Dottie Pepper off the course. In 1995, Annika Sorenstam won the U.S. Women’s Open at The Broadmoor, on her way to becoming one of the greatest talents that the women’s game has known. And in ’08, Eduardo Romero won the Senior Open, on his way to not much else.

Ah, the nuance – almost forgot the nuance. The critical thing to remember about this playing ground at 6,230 feet is that all putts break away from Cheyenne Mountain. That is, below the cup, good. Above the cup, bad, very, very bad.

“You can hit 17 greens out here,” Nicklaus once said, “and still end up shooting 82 all day long.”

The championship has taken some blows in recent days. Approaching his first Senior Open start, Steve Stricker instead withdrew because of scheduling concerns. He messed things up by qualifying for the U.S. Open, then tied for 20th on a test that sent Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth and Tiger Woods home early. Stricker would have been a competitive favorite at The Broadmoor.

More recently, Tom Watson withdrew for personal reasons. The Kansas City Kid won eight PGA Tour major championships and claimed six Champions Tour majors. But, just as he never won the PGA Championship, he never has bagged a U.S. Senior Open. Ol’ Tom would have been a sentimental favorite.

And on Monday morning, John Daly withdrew, citing an arthritic knee. He asked the USGA for a cart allowance but was denied.  There goes our best chance to revisit Rule 14-5.

These developments notwithstanding, this isn’t The Off-Broadmoor. The championship still has some captivating characters and narratives to embrace. They may not impact the leaderboard, but they might capture the imagination. For instance:

National Baseball Hall of Fame pitcher John Smoltz qualified into the championship. A starter and a closer during his baseball career, the 51-year old Smoltz will need both games – long and short – on the East Course. One thing is certain: he will be one of the most excited competitors.

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John Smoltz will debut on his new field of dreams this week at the U.S. Senior Open.

© USGA
John Smoltz will debut on his new field of dreams this week at the U.S. Senior Open.

“This has been a dream of mine since I was probably 35 to 40 years old,” Smoltz said Tuesday. “I know a lot of my teammates were tired of hearing it, that I was going to do this one day, but it is the most excited I've ever been.” 

Among the first people Smoltz called after qualifying was his Fox baseball broadcasting partner Joe Buck. “He called me on his way out of the golf course, and he sounded like a 10-year-old boy,” said Buck, who will anchor the Fox coverage this weekend. “I mean, we’re talking about a guy who pitched in the World Series and got elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. He was like, ‘Oh, my God, I just can’t believe it.’ He was recounting every shot.”

Davis Love III will be making his Champions Tour major debut. The 54-year old DL3 owns the 1997 PGA Championship belt, and he is a two-time PGA Tour winner in Colorado, at the defunct International. But he had hip-replacement surgery in November, and the road back hasn’t been paved. He withdrew from the Wells Fargo in May after shooting an opening 78. 

That said, alternative hips have been known to play well at Senior Opens. Peter Jacobsen rode a new hip to victory in 2004, limping most of the way. If he’s mobile, Love still has got game. He won as recently as 2015 on the regular circuit.

Last year’s champ, Kenny Perry, could breathe rare air in Colorado. Perry, who also won in 2013, might match Miller Barber’s record of three Senior Open championships (1982, ’84, ’85). Perry also could be the first to go back-to-back since Allen Doyle in 2005-06. With Koepka winning a second consecutive U.S. Open two weeks ago, ’tis the season for that sort of thing.

The oldest player in the field is Hale Irwin, who is in his 23rd Senior Open at age 73. Way back when, Irwin was an all-Big Eight Conference defensive back at the University of Colorado. He’s also the winningest player in Champions Tour history, with 45, including two Senior Opens (1998 and 2000). 

Irwin still is the oldest to win a U.S. Open, capturing the 1990 title at age 45. Wouldn’t it be something if he were to become the oldest to win the Senior Open? Given that Irwin’s last victory was in 2007, and that Mike Fetchick remains the oldest Champions winner at age 63, yes, that truly would be something.

Fred Funk is back in Colorado. The 2009 Senior Open champ finished second at The Broadmoor in 2008, one of 15 players in the field who were around 10 years ago. Last year, Funk had to deal with aUSA Today columnist who accused him of using “blatantly sexist” words during a pre-tournament news conference. Now 62, Funk likely won’t be battling the Fourth Estate, but he will need a blatantly fabulous week to be a factor. 

And, of course, John Elway will be around. The former Denver Broncos quarterback and Pro Football Hall of Famer is the honorary chairman at The Broadmoor. Like Smoltz, Elway tried to qualify, but he couldn’t crack the East Course code on a drizzly Memorial Day. Elway, 58, holds a 1.4 handicap, but after a 75-minute rain delay, he bogeyed two of the last three to shoot 80 and tie for 18th. 

“It's difficult," Elway said afterward. "But like I said, it's always fun for me to get to play in these conditions. Plus, when you play these, you realize how good those guys are." 

Dan O’Neill, who covered golf for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch from 1989 to 2017, is an editorial consultant on golf for Fox Sports. His articles have appeared in publications such as Golfweek, Golf World, Golf.com and The Memorial magazine. Email: dan13153@gmail.com; Twitter: @WWDOD