By John Shinn
The Norman Transcript
The practice range at Oak Tree National was a place of bewilderment Thursday morning. A cold front brought an early morning thunderstorm along with a 180-degree shift in the wind to the north.
Nothing, however, seemed to bother Colin Montgomerie. The 51-year-old Scotsman fired a 6-under 65, seizing the early lead in the U.S. Senior Open.
“You're always going to get breeze out here in Oklahoma. That's part of the test out here,” Montgomerie said. “At the same time, I prefer the wind and the cool than the no wind and the heat.”
The heat showed up in force, along with strong southerly winds early Thursday afternoon. The opening round was a classic luck-of-the-draw scenario.
The half of the 156-player field that teed off in the morning were greeted with relatively light winds and a soft course. Their only issue was a 77-minute weather delay due to the thunderstorms.
Most of the players had not hit the course before the delay. It didn’t affect their routines much. They were expecting worse.
“It was so dark out there that it was eerie in many ways. It was like Armageddon, you know. It was weird,” Montgomerie said. “So the siren was expected. I was surprised at the length of the delay. It was only an hour, really.”
The morning wave had the easier time Thursday. The thunderstorm delayed morning rounds by 77 minutes, but also softened the 7,053-yard, par-71 course.
Montgomerie wasn’t alone in taking advantage of the soft conditions.
Marco Dawson was only one shot off the pace at 5 under.
Their routes to Oak Tree National couldn’t differ more. Montgomerie spent two decades as one of golf’s biggest names. He dominated the European PGA Tour throughout the 1990s, winning 31 times internationally, and amassing a Ryder Cup record of 20-9-7.
But he never won on American soil until claiming the Senior PGA Championship two months ago.
Still the name recognition he’s brought to the Senior PGA Tour and this week’s event is noticeable. His group, along with Rocco Mediate and Tom Lehman, was one of the most watched of the days.
They witnessed a ball-striking exhibition from Montgomery. His round included eight birdies against two bogeys. Twice he put together runs of three straight birdies.
Montgomery’s round began on the 10th holes. He sank birdie putts at Nos. 14 and 15 and chipped in for another at No. 16 to get to 3 under.
A similar three-hole run on Nos. 6, 7 and 8 put him at 6 under.
Dawson was two groups ahead of Montgomerie and playing in near anonymity.
Dawson spent 21 years on the PGA Tour, but only amassed 18 top 10 finishes in his career. He teed it up in 161 Wed.com Tour events as well. Dawson’s golfing career has been a constatnt fight to make cuts and stay in the game.
Even getting a spot in the U.S. Senior Open was a chore. He earned an alternate spot in sectional qualifying, but didn’t get a spot in the 156-player field until last week.
But Montgomerie and Dawson shared a common trait on Thursday. They both hit a lot of fairways and a lot of greens.
“You’re always going to be on the offensive when you're driving the ball in the fairway,” Dawson said. “If you're in the rough all the time you're always playing defense. So, it really helps to drive the ball well.”
That was getting harder to do at the day went on.
Bernhard Langer, the two-time Masters champion, and Kirk Triplett both wrapped up the penning round at 2 under and are four shots off Montgomerie’s pace.
Langer, who won the 2010 U.S. Senior Open crown at Shahale Country Club in Sammamish, Wash., and won the Constellation Senior Players Championship two weeks ago, has been the over-50 circuit’s best player for the last five years.
“They say you don't win a tournament on the first day. You can certainly lose it with a bad round, so, you know, I'm somewhere in the top 10 or top 20 after today, which is a good spot to be,” he said. “Still have three rounds to go.”
The leaderboard could look dramatically different when they return to the course today. Montgomerie doesn’t expect to still be on top when he returns to the first tee box at 1:52 p.m. today.
“The guys that are going out now will play now and then tomorrow morning, so I don't expect to have the lead when I tee off tomorrow afternoon,” Montgomerie said. “So it's a matter of being patient and trying to play somewhere near the way I did today. It will be difficult. I'm not denying that. It will be a struggle. It's going to be 100 degrees the next three days, and it's going to be difficult, no denying. But at the same time the rewards are great enough to warrant that. So I look forward to it.”
Mark Brooks, the 1996 PGA champion, shot the best round of the afternoon wave with a 3-under-par 68. Three-time major champion Vijay Singh, Scott Dunlap and Gene Sauers joined Langer and Triplett at 2 under early Thursday evening.
They all played late Thursday and should enjoy better scoring conditions today. What they encountered Thursday afternoon was a course showing how difficult it can be under typical mid-July conditions.
The heat and wind are expected to intensify over the next three days.