COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. – The air gets thick when championships and reputations don’t match.
If the numbers get too red, as they did at the 2017 U.S. Open at Erin Hills, Mike Davis and his USGA minions feel the heat. If the game gets extreme, as it did Saturday afternoon at Shinnecock Hills in the recent U.S. Open, leaderboards flip, Phil Mickelson goes haywire and the guys wearing khaki get the blame.
So, when things are as they should be, when a national championship holds up, pushes and prods, penalizes those who waiver and rewards those who persevere, credit should go where credit is due.
The 39th U.S. Senior Open on the East Course at The Broadmoor was a major-championship prototype, a perfect blend of picturesque and painful, an inspection that favored no one and accommodated everyone. The test required accuracy, analytics, creativity and crusty stick-to-itiveness.
David Toms grabs the U.S. Senior Open hardware after some clutch play on the closing holes.
It had mountain mystique and USGA attitude, unconscionable at times, but never unplayable. The surroundings even served to antagonize Colin Montgomerie, maybe the ultimate stamp of approval.
“Those of you who know me know I don’t like to give the USGA a lot of credit,” said Jerry Kelly, a heartbroken runner-up. “But this week, they got it right. It was an awesome championship.”
All of the boxes got checked, in style and substance. Seven players came down the stretch within a shot of one another. The final pairing went to the 72nd tee with fate in their hands. One needed a par to win outright, and the other needed a birdie to join a playoff. As Paul Azinger said, “You don’t fluke your way into these championships.”
David Toms prevailed, with a crucial birdie on 16, a critical par on 17 and a pressure-packed two-putt on 18 (scores). Toms, 51, won for the first time in more than seven years. His caddie went down earlier in the week with chest pains. His son picked up the bag. The story had legs.
No, there should be no complaints, not about the venue, not about the setup, not about the conclusion. If you didn’t appreciate the character of this Senior Open, you officially are golf-watching impaired.
But if there is an issue, it has to do with the environment, not the event. No disrespect intended, but this isn’t about competitive credibility; it’s about star power. As you learn in Marketing 101, perception is reality. And the reality is that the Champions Tour is dental-floss thin on “names.”
At an advanced age, the players on the circuit are on the short list of the best in the world, no question. But if we’re being honest, they’re on the long list of marquee names in the industry.
Only two players in the hunt on Sunday had won a PGA Tour major: Toms and Davis Love III. Each owns one major to his credit, a PGA Championship, perhaps the least romantic of the four. Among the seven players who finished under par, only two had won Champions Tour majors: Paul Broadhurst and Miguel Angel Jimenez. Not exactly Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer.
Hale Irwin was at The Broadmoor, but he’s 73. Tom Kite is 68. Jay Haas is 64. Bernhard Langer is still viable, but he’s 60. Fred Couples is 58. Montgomerie is 55. Tom Watson rarely plays. Greg Norman never plays.
The top dogs on the Champions Tour these days include names such as Kelly, Broadhurst, Scott McCarron, Joe Durant and Tim Petrovic. At The Broadmoor, they were complemented by Kevin Sutherland, Brandt Jobe and Kirk Triplett. Fine players, every one, but you can stuff all of their PGA Tour victories into one basket. They played on the “B” team and didn’t move the needle.
This Senior Open stands up well to scrutiny, but this golf genre certainly makes one wonder. To the Champions Tour’s credit, as the celebrated names have faded, the tour has made it work. It has found a niche in smaller, golf-starved markets, at least for now.
But help does not appear to be on the way. Tiger Woods is 42. Will he play Champions Tour golf? These days, you can’t be sure whether he’ll play PGA Tour golf. The remaining crop of regulars who command a crowd still are some 20 years away.
Full credit to the USGA. The bash at The Broadmoor was a blast. It drew 134,500 fans during the week, the most for a Senior Open since 2013. Make no mistake: there was nothing wrong with the show. You just have to wonder how long it can last.
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: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @WWDOD