By T.J. Auclair, PGA.com Interactive Producer
LOUISVILLE, Ky. – The oldest and most prestigious major in senior golf -- the Senior PGA Championship presented by KitchenAid -- gets under way at the demanding Valhalla Golf Club on Thursday.
This is the fifth major PGA of America event Valhalla has hosted, joining the 1996 and 2000 PGA Championships (won by Mark Brooks and Tiger Woods, respectively); the 2004 Senior PGA Championship (won by Hale Irwin); and the 2008 Ryder Cup (won by the United States).
Tom Lehman is the defending champion, having hoisted the Alfred S. Bourne Trophy at Colorado Golf Club in 2010, following a wild, one-hole, sudden-death playoff with Fred Couples and David Frost.
It’s hard to believe now, but that victory for Lehman was his first of the individual variety on the Champions Tour and was also his only win in 2010.
In 2011, however, it’s impossible to imagine Lehman wouldn’t be the odds-on favorite at Valhalla with three wins in just seven starts on the Champions Tour. A victory this week would make Lehman the first back-to-back winner of the Senior PGA Championship since Irwin turned the trick in 1997 (and won his third straight in 1998).
“To win the PGA Senior Championship, that was a big step for me,” Lehman said. “I felt like it was … I had won with Bernhard Langer at the Legends of Golf and had yet to win an individual title. So getting that, first of all, getting an individual title meant a lot, and secondly to have it be a major and this one in particular because of the quality of the course, the quality of the field, my relationship with the PGA of America, all those things kind of created the perfect win for me. So it was something that I look back and I have a lot of great memories about.”
Weather will certainly be a factor at Valhalla. When the Senior PGA Championship was played here in 2004, storms flooded the course, forcing a Monday finish with Irwin eventually winning for the fourth time.
One hole in particular that has all the players buzzing is the 468-yard, par-4 sixth, fittingly named, “the Bear.” The approach shot is played over water with a deep bunker guarding the left side of the green and closely mown collection areas grabbing shots to the right.
Mark Brooks said it’s more like a par 4 ½, seeing as -- no matter how good the tee shot -- players will still have over 200 yards left to the green.
“I think I'm going to kind of view it as a short 5,” Brooks said. “And that doesn't mean lay up, it just means two 4s and two 5s there for the week wouldn't be the end of the world. I don't think that trying to risk the tee shot into some perfect spot is worth it. There may be days I don't even hit driver there.”
Severe weather is on the way for Thursday’s first round with a chance of showers and thunderstorms and winds gusting up to 25 mph. Friday and Sunday are looking good, but Saturday could bring more rain and thunderstorms.
With all the weather certain to soften up an already spongy, saturated course, it would seem the longer hitters have a significant advantage.
“I actually just dropped off my driver,” said Ken Green, who admits he needs all the length he can get after a horrific RV accident in 2009 that killed his brother, girlfriend, pet dog and took part of his right leg. “One great thing about being a professional is that you can get your clubs changed right that week to suit what's happening.
“My drivers are set to run because I don't have the swing I used to, so the only way I can get some distance is to make my ball roll. So now I have to find a driver that goes up because you're not going to get any roll, period,” he explained. “So instead of flying it 230, I need to try to fly it 242 and stop it. And these holes are, Christ, they're long. I don't know how the PGA's going to set it up.”
It’s amazing that Green is still living, let alone pondering ways to tweak his driver at the highest level of senior golf.
“I'm actually thrilled to be here,” Green said. “I'm a little concerned that … I didn't realize this course was as long as it is and obviously the rain, it's going to be a little tough and it's a little more hilly than I thought, so it's definitely going to be an interesting. I don't want to say 36 holes, but to me this is the … and I'm not taking anything away from the U.S. Senior Open -- but this is the premier event on the Champions Tour and it's been around the longest, it's run, in my opinion, better than the USGA runs their events.”
Several big names have already withdrawn from the 72nd Senior PGA Championship for a laundry-list of reasons, including the likes of Fred Couples, Bernhard Langer, Paul Azinger, Joey Sindelar, Bruce Fleisher and Jim Dent.
Plenty of headliners are here, however. Among them? Mark Calcavecchia, Tommy Armour III, Sandy Lyle, Corey Pavin, Hal Sutton and Kenny Perry, who all have something shockingly in common -- no Champions Tour wins among them.
If you’re counting at home, that’s six players who account for a combined 64 PGA Tour victories and 175 Champions Tour starts.
“I think there's a combination of things,” Lehman explained. “I definitely think there are some guys who may work harder than another guy. I think there's definitely some of that. I'm not saying that guys don't work hard, I'm just saying that everybody's different and I see a lot of guys still working really hard and so I don't know what other guys, who haven't won, what their work ethic might be. But that could be part of it.
“I think part of it is physical,” he added. “I think some guys are in better shape, some guys are not dealing with minor injuries like other guys might be. I think that as you get older the short game gets a little less sharp. I think there's all kind of things which go into it. But I think, like anything else, the longer you go without winning, the more pressure you end up putting on yourself to win… Golf's still a big head game.”
In all fairness, Perry only has five Champions Tour starts, but the five others have each played in at least 20 or more.
Perry, of course, is a Kentucky native and would love nothing more than to snag his maiden over-50 win in front of the home crowd. In 1996, he was on the losing end of a playoff with Brooks, but buried the hatchet with Valhalla as a member of the winning U.S. Ryder Cup squad in 2008, where Perry contributed an impressive 2 ½ points toward the effort.
“If I can somehow figure out how to put it together and make it happen this week, this will be a huge victory for me,” Perry said. “And seeing where I have come from, from the past year and a half, I won three times in 2008, twice in 2009, and then I haven't even been close. I mean I'm not even competitive anymore. I just disappeared. I turned 50 and it’s like I didn't know how to play anymore, I just quit. I just couldn't figure it out. I don't know what happened. So to me, it would be a huge accomplishment, to come in here and beat these guys in front of all my friends and family.”
The key to a high finish this week, just like any other major, will be patience. Everyone will deal with the soft, long conditions, the steamy, hot temperatures and the mental and physical challenges that major golf presents.
John Cook, with one win under his belt in 2011, summed it up best.
“It's a little bit of a revert back to the old mentality of par's going to be a decent score and eliminate the big hole, bogey's not terrible, and try to take advantage of the very few holes that you do have opportunities on,” he said.