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T.J.'s Take: Oak Hill shows its teeth
With temperatures topping off in the low-to-mid-50s and a steady morning rain that gave way to a few poked holes of sunshine through the thick gray canvas of a sky, staying warm proved to be just as difficult as staying close to par on the sprawling 7,001-yard Donald Ross design.
Jay Haas must have something for courses with the word "Oak" in them. He tied for fifth in the 2003 PGA Championship here at Oak Hill, won the 2006 Senior PGA Championship at Oak Tree and on Thursday was the only player to record a score under par in the first round -- a 1-under 69 -- good for a one-shot lead over Rochester native Jeff Sluman and PGA Club Professional Bill Britton.
"I played extremely well," said Haas, whose 1-under performance was the highest score in relation to par to lead the Senior PGA Championship since Chi Chi Rodriguez had a 2-under 70 in 1987 at PGA National. "I would have taken 1 under par before I teed off. I would have stayed in the hotel room. I wouldn't even have come out here."
Britton had the pleasure of playing with more favorable conditions in the afternoon, which didn't make the task at hand easier by any stretch.
Britton, who won on the PGA Tour at the 1989 Centel Classic, is currently the PGA Director of Instruction at Twin Brooks Golf Center in Tinton Falls, N.J. The highlight of his round was an eagle-2 at the 439-yard, par-4 16th hole, his eighth of the day, when he holed a wedge from 120 yards out.
"If you know 16, the fairway slopes a lot right to left," Britton said. "And the ball's above my feet and the wind was blowing hard left. So I was trying to hit the ball about 10 feet right of the pin and land it about probably 15 feet right of the pin. But it hit and spun like I thought it with would, I just drew it a little bit more than I really tried to. And then it rolled in."
A group of nine players were two shots back at 1 over par, including notables Bernhard Langer, Scott Hoch and Ian Woosnam. Greg Norman and defending champion Denis Watson were among another group of nine players trailing by three shots at 2 over.
What made Haas' start all the more impressive was the fact that he teed off at 8:00 a.m. and came out of the round no worse for wear despite the conditions.
"Thankfully, it wasn't that windy when we teed off. And the first few holes downwind and that, the wind, what there was, did not play a real huge factor," Haas said. "But it was cold. Somebody said it was a chill factor of 37 when we teed off.
"Again thankfully it didn't rain very hard out there. They were talking about showers and then we got a little bit of showers early this morning," he added. "And I think some of the guys ahead of me maybe played a hole or two in a fairly good rain before I even went out to practice.
But it's not great, especially at 54, when the temperature is that cool. Basically you hit a poor shot here, you'll make a bogey. So when it's cold, you're stiff. It's pretty difficult."
In all, there were three bogeys for Haas with two of them coming over the course of his final three holes -- Nos. 16 and 18 -- where he missed 15-foot putts for par.
Haas did most of his scoring on the front with birdies from outside 20 feet on Nos. 1 and 9 and a short one on No. 6 against a bogey on No. 2 to go out in 2-under-par 33.
While the opening-round 69 was remarkable, Haas was quick to put himself back in his place.
"'In 1989, I think I shot 69 in the first round and shot like 78 in the second round and missed the cut at the U.S. Open. The one that Curtis [Strange] won," Haas recalled. "So I know what's out there and how you have to be patient. And it's a long week. But I think too if you play well, I think if you hit good shots, you're very much rewarded here. It's not impossible. So I think the lure of possible birdies and a good round, a good score is out there. It's not like you're climbing Mount Everest."
Maybe not for Haas, but it was like that for most on Thursday.
HOMETOWN HERO: Kudos to Jeff Sluman, who turned what looked to be a rough opening round into a brilliant even-par 70, just one back of leader Jay Haas.
With bogeys on Nos. 8 and 9, Sluman made the turn in 3 over par. However, the Rochester native who estimates he's played somewhere in the vicinity of 500 rounds at Oak Hill, got things going on the back nine with birdies on Nos. 10, 15 and 16.
"I made the turn at 3 over and I just thought it was not time to hit the panic button or anything, but I just knew that I needed to relax and regardless of the score that came out, just try and play the way I've been playing and I hit a bunch of good shots on the back nine and made a couple of nice putts and I'm very pleased to be in at even par," he said.
This week mark's Sluman's 16th start on the Champions Tour and he's still looking for his first victory. Could it really be that there's no place like home?
EASIEST HOLE: The 323-yard, par-4 14th hole. It played to a scoring average of 4.161 -- which begs the question: Was it really that easy considering it played over par? The hole surrendered 20 birdies and gave up 97 pars. Thirty-three players walked away with bogey, four players made double bogey and former Masters champion Charles Coody took a trunk-slamming quadruple-bogey 8.
MOST DIFFICULT HOLE: The 460-yard, par-4 17th hole. It played to a scoring average of 4.581. Only nine players recorded a birdie on No. 17. Sixty-seven players made par, while 62 made bogey and 10 took double bogey. Three players, including Mark O'Meara, made triple-bogey 7.
ROUND OF THE DAY: The 1-under-par 69 turned in by 2006 Senior PGA Champion Jay Haas. His was the lone under-par round on Thursday.
Interestingly, Haas has now carded a 1-under-69 in each of his last three competitive rounds at Oak Hill's East Course, dating back to his final two rounds of the 2003 PGA Championship where he tied for fifth place.
QUOTE OF THE DAY I: "Three-wood on No. 1 off the snow and into the left trees." -- Jeff Sluman, exaggerating just slightly, when he started to rattle off how he made his birdies and bogeys
QUOTE OF THE DAY II: "Hit fairways and greens. Got to be really good. If you have a secret, let me know. If you have fairy dust in your pockets or anything, I'll take some." -- PGA Club Professional Jeff Coston, the PGA Teaching Professional at Semiahmoo Golf Resort in Blaine, Wash., after he was asked what he'd need to do in the second round after his opening 8-over-par 78
SHOT OF THE DAY: Tom Watson's bunker shot at the 14th hole, his fifth of the day. After hitting his approach shot into the left bunker that guards the green on the short 323-yard par 4, Watson hit a magnificent third shot from the sand to within inches of the cup to set up a stellar par.
Overall, there weren't many highlights for Watson, the eight-time major champion and winner of the 2001 Senior PGA Championship. He shot a 8-over-par 78 in the first round with three double bogeys.
THREE THINGS TO WATCH ON FRIDAY
1. The weather. Players and spectators alike will be thrilled to know that Friday's forecast is a whole lot better than what they got on Thursday. That rain looks to have moved on. It'll still be chilly when the first groups tee off in the second round -- about 45 degrees -- but the high is expected to reach 63 degrees.
2. Jay Haas. The 2006 Senior PGA Champion hasn't won yet this season. He's had multiple wins in each of his three previous full seasons on the Champions Tour. Haas has got to be hungry for a win and his risen to the task in this major before. His afternoon tee time on Friday should also work in his favor.
3. The 1 unders. Look out for the players sitting at 1 under par through 18 holes. The group of nine includes Bernhard Langer, Scott Hoch, Ian Woosnam and Eduardo Romero.