- The Washington Times - Friday, June 28, 2002

OWINGS MILLS, Md. His stay atop the leaderboard may or may not prove to be an abbreviated one, but R.W. Eaks sure made a name for himself yesterday.

In his first-ever U.S. Senior Open, the relatively anonymous Eaks had a round for the record books on the first day of competition at Caves Valley, shooting a 7-under 64. His score tied the lowest 18-hole mark in Senior Open history, topping a list of nine players who finished under par before rain postponed the rest of the first round until this morning.

Starting on the back nine, Eaks reeled off birdies on three of his first four holes before managing an eagle on the par-5 third to improve to 8under. Eaks cooled off after that, though, twice settling for bogey and getting one birdie.

Tom Watson, who enters today in second place behind Eaks at 4under, was at a loss to talk much about the tournament's surprise leader. The name rang a bell sort of.

"You always remember Eaks, it's an unusual name," Watson said.

But beyond that?

"All I know is he can hit that ball right through plywood," Watson said. "He can hit the ball a long, long way."

Indeed, the tournament longshot can certainly hit the long shot. His 320-yard launch off the tee on the 515-yard third hole paved the way for his eagle. At that point, Eaks said, he thought he might manage something even grander than what he finished with.

"I got to 8-under-par and started thinking about, man, maybe I can shoot 59 today," said Eaks, whose game was helped by the course's generous fairways. "And that was probably the wrong thing to do. But I think you've got to think that way if you're going to try to shoot low."

Behind Eaks and Watson, James Mason and Jose Maria Canzares finished the day at 3under. Isao Aoki (2under) could have been Eaks' closest competitor, shooting 5under heading into the 18th hole. But he fell victim to a tough green on 18 and finished with a triple bogey.

For his career, Eaks managed three wins on the Buy.com Tour in 258 starts the second-most starts ever. He did not qualify for the PGA Tour until 1998 at which time, Eaks says, "I was probably playing the best golf I've ever played" only to blow out his right hip in a freak accident that year.

Since then, he had bided his time until he could play on the senior circuit.

"I waited three years to turn 50," said Eaks, whose birthday was last month. "It's just been a terrible struggle to walk in the last three years. But I think we've made it now."

He certainly played like a man dying for an opportunity. At times, he may have even bordered on overly aggressive. His drives, while powerful, were erratic at points. He missed six of 14 fairways sometimes by a good amount. His tee ball on the fifth hole landed 50 yards off line, beyond the gallery and just under a chain-link fence behind one of the club's catering areas.

"It was back by the outhouses," said Eaks, who also joked when informed of Watson's compliment regarding his power off the tee. "Yeah," he said, "but I don't know where it's going to go sometimes when it goes through that plywood."

Still, even when his drives drifted off target, his approach shots usually left him in fine shape. After getting relief for his unplayable lie on 7, his 7-iron shot just skidded in back of the green. Only a regretful decision to chip off the fringe, rather than putt, prevented him from saving par on the hole.

He made another mistake on 7, when his shot landed in the deep rough to the left, setting up another bogey.

"I let my ego get in the way [on that hole]," he said. "I should have hit a 5-wood off the tee, short of the bunkers but I decided that I was going to try to hit it over the right-hand bunker. I tried to hit a hook. I'm not very good at hitting hooks."

Aside from an occasional spell of overconfidence, Eaks was on fire for most of the day. He sunk a 25-foot putt with his unique crosshanded grip for birdie on No. 2. When he eagled the next hole, Eaks noticed he was catching the gallery's attention. It was a feeling he'd waited his whole career to experience.

"After I made eagle, I felt like Jack Nicklaus out there," he said about the crowd's response to him. "I was looking around, thinking 'Is Arnie [Palmer] here?'"

No, but Eaks was. On this day, that was pretty special in itself.

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