- The Washington Times - Monday, July 1, 2002

OWINGS MILLS, Md. "Don Pooley did a lot for senior golf today."
Those are words not even the most avid senior golf fan would utter, yet Hall of Famer Tom Watson, after being vanquished by Pooley in a five-hole playoff for the U.S. Senior Open title, made that proclamation yesterday.
Jack Nicklaus had pulled out with a bad back. Gary Player missed the cut, as did Arnold Palmer. There was no Chi Chi Rodriguez here either. But Pooley and eight-time major champion Watson were, and they certainly provided a good show at Caves Valley Golf Club.
The 23rd U.S. Senior Open was missing most of the big names that first gave life to the Senior PGA Tour. But it wasn't missing the drama that could sustain it now that most of those stars have aged past their senior primes.
When he made a 12-foot putt birdie on the 18th hole, 50-year-old upstart Pooley ended a breathtaking playoff with Watson to claim the championship, simultaneously restoring life to his stalled career and, perhaps, the fate of the senior tour.
Watson said Pooley did a lot for the tour, but they both did.
Paired together, they stared each other down, matching shot for shot on the final holes and in the playoff. The battle was reminiscent of the one between Watson and Nicklaus 25 years ago in the British Open at Turnberry.
Watson started the final round three shots behind Pooley, who became the first Senior Open qualifier to win the title. But Watson rallied for five birdies during a furious stretch on the back nine to force the tiebreaker.
That was just the beginning. Still tied with Pooley after a three-hole, stroke-play playoff and again after another sudden-death playoff hole on 18, Watson missed the green at 18 on the pair's fourth visit of the day. He made a nice chip to set up 10-foot par attempt, but Pooley faced a birdie putt.
That's when Pooley, whose magnificent putting carried him to a championship record 63 on Saturday, addressed his shot. He lined himself up, gripped his putter and
He backed off. It was a move he had perfected by that point. The nerves, the same ones that kept him awake for all but four hours Saturday night, seemed to bother him all day long.
An eternity later, he pulled the putter back and found the hole. Just like that, he had won his first senior tournament, not to mention his first win anywhere in 15 years.
"It wasn't because I was nervous. I backed away because my thoughts weren't where I wanted them," said Pooley, who ranked tied for fifth in the tournament at 28.5 putts a round. "The problem with backing away is you get more nervous the next time you get there. Especially in the playoff my mind was going in places it shouldn't have been going."
After the putt, Pooley basked in an ovation that the crowd, up until then, had reserved only for Palmer. Pooley's climactic victory may be just the shot in the arm needed for the senior tour, criticized recently for its lack of star power and personalities.
"We're playing in front of new people here," said Watson, who closed with a 4-under 67 yesterday. "We're playing a new crowd. And it's wonderful to play in front of people who have the enthusiasm that they have. You can feel it. It's genuine. It's fresh. It's raw. And this championship had all of that."
Before yesterday, Watson had made just a cameo appearance atop the leader board when he tied Walter Hall at 8-under Saturday. But Watson was in the running all along, his play consistent, save for an old nemesis: his putter.
Missed putts Friday and Saturday kept him from pulling away Watson led all players in greens in regulation (79 percent) but ranked tied for 30th in putting (30.0 a round).
However, Watson's putter came around yesterday he needed just 27 putts and that set up what proved to be a magnificent pairing yesterday with Pooley. Through the first seven holes, they matched each other stroke for stroke. But equaling Pooley was not enough for Watson, who still trailed by three heading into the back nine.
The opening was there for him. After welcoming all comers during the first three rounds, yielding two of the best scores in Senior Open history, Caves Valley did not yield to Pooley as it had a day earlier. Instead, after birdieing Nos. 1 and 3 and bogeying No. 4, Pooley ran off 14 straight pars that kept him at 10 under a lofty mark. It was not enough to stay ahead of Watson, who finally made a charge after lying in wait most of the week.
"I just played very solid golf," said Pooley, who closed with a 70. "Nobody was really making a move, and I was playing solid and I felt like somebody was really going to have to have to play great to beat me. And then Tom started reeling off birdie after birdie."
Indeed, at long last Watson's putting had returned to him. He made a 12-footer for birdie on 13, a 3-footer on 14 and a 25-footer on 15 to earn a share of the lead.
"That's when you get light on your feet," said Watson, who bogeyed the 16th but rebounded with a birdie at 17 to tie for the lead again. "You can just skate up the fairways when you're like that."
The pair parred the first two holes of the playoff, and Watson made a 15-footer on 18 to force sudden-death.
"I made a couple of putts to keep my hopes alive," Watson said. "I'll remember those. Those are good memories."
In the end, though, Watson was trying to beat Pooley at Pooley's own game putting and he couldn't.
After sinking his putt on the fifth playoff hole, Pooley had his crown, a treasure he later said he ranked behind only God, his wife and children.
Watson, meanwhile, was left to ponder what might have been.
"I feel like Phil Mickelson to Tiger Woods," Watson said. "It's not a lot of fun to finish second."
But if finishes like yesterday's bring the senior tour the type of attention that Tiger usually generates, Watson's misfortune may have been the best thing that could happen.


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