U.S. Senior Open a worthy spectacle

My brother Mark and I took a day trip to Hutchinson last Thursday to join the throngs at the U.S. Senior Open at Prairie Dunes.

The first round drew more than 40,000 spectators, but most of them arrived after lunch when the big name golfers teed off. The sparse crowds in the morning allowed us to get up close and personal views of several golfers, however, as we leisurely strolled the back nine holes.

We also saw some fellow Marion County residents in attendance. Some were working. Some were watching. Some were doing both. We followed Gary McCord, a TV golf analyst, and one of the few players we recognized from the morning groups.

As the pairing (even though there are three players in each, they are still called pairings) ahead of them was preparing to tee off, a doe and two young fawns sashayed out into the fairway, almost as on cue from the Hutchinson Chamber of Commerce (Kansas, where the deer and the antelope play, right?).

Neither threesome, human nor animal, seemed concerned with the circumstance. The next player hit his shot, and the deer moved off the fairway before being struck.

Prairie Dunes is a beautiful place, especially the back nine. My favorite area was the 14th green and the 15th tee in the eastern-most edge of the course.

The 14th green is nearly surrounded by huge cottonwood trees, creating a shady, park-like setting. The next tee forces players to shoot under a canopy of ancient cottonwoods to an elevated green. Spectacular.

The players occasionally interacted with the crowd. Some looked comfortable on the course, as though they were out for a nice Sunday afternoon round. Others were all business.

To be a member of the champions tour, a golfer must be at least 50 years old. I reminded my brother that he will be eligible to play next year; he remained somewhat skeptical that he would qualify based on his level of play. Age obviously isn’t the only factor in joining the tour.

Though at times the guys on the course made the game look easy with arrow-straight shots, we witnessed some strokes that made us feel good about our extremely amateur level of play.

One poor soul in a group with Tom Watson, the golf hero of my youth, struggled on the par-four fifth hole. David Eger hit into the gunch, as the sand plums and yucca plants are unaffectionately called, with his tee shot. The ball was miraculously found, but it was unplayable.

By rule, Eger could move his ball out two club lengths no closer to the hole and take a one-stroke penalty. He did, but he was still in the rough, the tall grass next to the gunch.

He made contact with the ball, and it sailed right back into the gunch about halfway to the hole. Again, the ball was found, but rather than try to hit it, he went back to the previous spot and hit, again taking a penalty. This time, he overshot the green.

When the smoke cleared from his ears, he had carded a four-over eight. Ouch.

This example of how unforgiving Prairie Dunes can be has a bit of an ironic twist. Eger, you see, is a former U.S. Golf Association rules official, one of the guys responsible for setting up a course so that play will be difficult, but fair.

He was quoted in Thursday’s Wichita Eagle newspaper as saying of his days as an official, “I never required that anyone have to play a shot that I couldn’t play myself.”

After Thursday’s disaster, he may want his old job back.

Hospitality tents lined the 16th fairway. They were air conditioned, and the signs and security made it clear these were the privileged people, the ones who worked for companies that wanted their presence known at such a prestigious event.

The view from these tents was not good, but apparently the booze was. The atmosphere clearly pointed out the rest of us as not being worthy. Poor slobs need not apply.

In general, the crowd was mostly just Kansas commoners. Most were quiet and courteous, heeding course marshals’ calls for minimal distractions. Cell phones were not allowed on the links.

I witnessed at least two instances, however, where spectators just couldn’t manage for a day without being electronically connected to the outside world. I found it relaxing not to have to carry any such devices. At times, early in the morning, the silence was almost deafening.

We decided to grab an early lunch in between sets of tee times. The price? I ate a ponini, something that looked like a slightly enlarged Hot Pocket, at a cost of $7. Mark had a hot turkey sandwich for the same price.

We missed out on the best deal, a cheeseburger for $6.50. This thing was huge, at least 1/2 pound of ground beef. I saw Prairie Dunes greens that were smaller.

Drinks were $3 each, though bottled water could be had for a mere $1.50. All in all, I didn’t think eating for $10 was too outrageous.

The concessions stands, and there were 11 of them, could have charged whatever they wanted, and people would have had to pay it. No food or drinks, other than water, were allowed in from the outside, and most people did not want to take the bus ride back to their cars just for lunch.

All the players looked to be in great shape, with the possible exception of Craig Stadler, a.k.a. the Walrus. Though a bit on the pudgy side, he held his own.

Remember, all the players, regardless of advanced age, have to walk the entire course. They do not use carts. Some of the players smoked, and at least one, John Jacobs, walked around with an unlit cigar in his mouth. When he needed to take a shot, he laid it in the grass. When he putted, he carefully placed the stogie on the edge of the green, did his work, than returned it to his lips. It gave him a good-old-boy appearance.

All in all, the trip to the Open was a good experience. I wouldn’t mind doing it again sometime. It gives a weekend duffer a close-up look at a premier course and a chance to watch some of the best in the world at their crafts.

But, it’s not something I need to do for four days in a row. TV is still the best seat in the house. Besides, you don’t have to be quiet for each shot, and you don’t have to pay $1.50 for a small bag of chips.

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