U.S. Senior Open
Pooley king of valley
Qualifier makes 8-foot putt on fifth playoff hole to top Watson, win Senior Open; Winner was caught on 71st hole; Two-time PGA Tour winner is sixth to make Open first victory on senior tour
Don Pooley watches his 8-foot birdie putt about to drop on the fifth playoff hole, ending a five-hour marathon with Tom Watson. (Sun photo by Lloyd Fox / June 30, 2002)
More than five hours after Pooley and Watson teed off in the final round of the 2002 U.S. Senior Open at Caves Valley Golf Club, an 8-foot birdie putt by Pooley on the fifth playoff hole -- the second hole of sudden death -- ended one of the most scintillating shootouts in the 23-year history of the event.
Pooley, who had won twice in a PGA Tour career shortened by injury, became the first qualifier to win the Senior Open and the sixth player to make the Open his first win on the senior tour. The victory was worth $450,000 to Pooley, 50.
It marked the fourth time this year that Watson, 52, had finished second, but none could have been as agonizing -- or exhilarating. Watson shot a final round of 4-under-par 67, catching Pooley on the 71st hole of regulation. Both finished at 10-under-par 274, three strokes clear of Tom Kite.
"I felt somebody was really going to have to play great to beat me," said Pooley, who had started the day three strokes ahead of Watson and found himself five in front of the former U.S. Open champion through eight holes. "And then Tom started reeling off birdie after birdie."
But Pooley never wavered. He kept making pars -- 14 straight in regulation and three more in the playoff -- until he made an 8-foot birdie putt on the first hole of sudden death, only to be matched by Watson's 5-footer for birdie. It finally came down to another 8-foot birdie putt.
Having missed a shorter putt from the same side of the hole on the 18th green on the final hole of regulation, Pooley said his thought patterns became a bit jangled as he stood over his ball. As he had done on several occasions throughout the afternoon, Pooley backed off.
"I got in there and I felt like I wasn't quite lined up right," Pooley said later. "So I was trying to get set up better and I'm thinking, 'No, this isn't working, back away and start over, don't fight this. This is a very makable putt and give it your best shot and see what happens.' "
Though Pooley was admittedly more nervous after he set up over the putt again, his stroke was pure. When the putt dropped into the cup, the large crowd surrounding the 18th hole roared its approval and Watson walked over to shake Pooley's hand in defeat.
"Don Pooley did an awful lot for senior golf today," Watson said. "It's disappointing not to win, but I had a few good moments out there that I can look back on and maybe use in the future to help me get through the barrier of second place. ... I feel like Phil Mickelson to Tiger Woods. It's not a lot of fun to finish second."
It had been 15 years since Pooley won his last tournament, the 1987 Memorial. There he played with Watson and shot himself into the lead with a low third round. After breaking the competitive course record and setting a Senior Open record with an 8-under 63 Saturday, Pooley started hot again yesterday.
He made birdies on the par-4 first hole and par-5 third to build his lead to four shots. He still led Kite, Ed Dougherty and Watson by four when he made the turn. It seemed to be heading toward the kind of routine victory Woods had in winning the year's first two majors on the PGA Tour.
"I was just playing very solid golf," Pooley said. "Nobody was really making a move. I think he [Watson] made six birdies from 9 on and he caught me, which was phenomenal because I was playing well. I think somebody asked me what the shot of the tournament was for me, and it was my second shot on 16."
That came in regulation. With Watson's ball in the fairway, Pooley had to play from a side-hill lie in the rough with the ball above his feet. He somehow managed to hit his shot onto the green. Watson missed the green, and they both wound up with pars.
Pooley would also get up and down for par on the 18th hole to keep his chances alive, making a terrific shot out of the bunker without much green to work with. It was just the start of one big shot after another by either Pooley or Watson.
"That was a phenomenal stretch for me, especially those up and downs, those pars I made on 16, 17 and 18 in regulation," said Pooley, who would shoot a final round of 1-under-par 70. "I'm very, very proud of that."
Asked whether he could have done the same thing 20 years ago when he contended in a few major championships without much success, Pooley said: "Not a chance. I felt like this was a major championship today. I've been in contention in the majors on the regular tour, and I didn't handle it as well as I handled it today. This is as well as I've played under this kind of pressure."
When Watson hit his approach on what would be the final playoff hole from the left rough through the green and into deep rough, there was a feeling he had been there. It was 20 years ago that Watson had chipped in from a similar spot to beat Jack Nicklaus in the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach.
But this time, Watson hit his ball 5 feet past the cup and Pooley made the birdie putt to win.
"It was really fun," Pooley said. "I thought I had Tom beaten twice on 18, but like the champion he is, he made two putts to keep it going. And then the birdie putt, just to top it off. I can't imagine anything better."
The victory gave Pooley nearly as much money as he made during his best season on tour -- $5 less in fact -- and came after a mostly sleepless night in which he found himself reading two of his favorite books, the Bible and one by sports psychologist Bob Rotella.
"I wanted to refresh my mind of some positive things," Pooley said.
They stayed with Pooley throughout the long day, and into the early evening. What made the victory even more satisfying for Pooley was the player he had beaten. He had admired Watson ever since their college days, when Pooley was a sophomore at Arizona and Watson a senior at Stanford.
Watson would become a star, the No. 1 player in the world, the winner of eight major championships.
Pooley would become an extra, a respected and solid PGA veteran, the winner of two tour events.
After five hours and 23 holes of golf yesterday, Pooley would finally get top billing.
"To win the U.S. Senior Open as my first Senior event, it doesn't get any better than that," he said.
The only thing better might have been watching it.