- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 30, 2002

OWINGS MILLS, Md. It has been just one unlikely protagonist after another atop the leader board of the 23rd U.S. Senior Open at the Caves Valley Golf Club.
While the first surprise leader, R.W. Eaks, wilted yesterday and the second, Walter Hall, stumbled as well, the Open's newest flavor of the day was Don Pooley.
Pooley, who started the day six shots behind Hall, had nine birdies against just one bogey en route to a championship record round of 8-under 63. Pooley has a 54-hole total of 204, a comfortable three shots ahead of Hall (72) and Tom Watson (69).
Then again, no lead has been comfortable in this wide-open tournament, which has seen a host of players rise from obscurity to challenge for the lead, Pooley among them. It's ironic the seniors' most prominent event has had virtually unknown leaders.
That Pooley is the biggest name of the trio isn't saying much; he had a grand total of two career wins on the PGA Tour and has never finished higher than ninth in a Senior PGA Tour event.
And, oh yeah, this is Pooley's first Senior Open.
"The last couple of years on the regular tour, I didn't play very well. I didn't play very much either," said the 50-year-old Pooley, who is in his first full year on the senior tour.
"And then, I didn't get off to a very good start this year, and my game is just starting to come around. This would be a good time for it to come all the way around, I think."
However, no one this week put together as an impressive round as Pooley did yesterday.
His best stretch came on holes 7 through 10, all of them birdies. His deft putting was his calling card during that streak and throughout the day. He also birdied the 16th and 17th holes and capped his round beautifully when he sank a 15-footer for par at 18. He needed the putt, which broke almost three feet, after his approach came up short on the home hole.
"I really wasn't expecting to make that putt," Pooley said. "When that went in, I was a little surprised. But good things happened all day, so that was fun."
Pooley's presence atop the leader board seems likely and unlikely at the same time.
On one hand, he has been known to contend in major championships. At the Masters in 1988, he was just one stroke back with six holes to play before finishing fifth. He came close again at the PGA Championship in 1987, finishing two shots out of a playoff.
On the other hand, the last of those wins came 15 years ago, and since then a string of back troubles almost ended Pooley's career. He had two surgeries, one to repair a blown disc in the neck in 1992, the other to remove a disc in his lower lumbar region in 1993. Shortly after that, a third surgery seemed imminent, one that might have ended his golf career.
It didn't, but that wasn't the end of Pooley's hard road to Caves Valley. Earlier this month, there was the matter of qualifying for the Open, and Pooley almost didn't make it. At the BellSouth Tournament in Nashville, there were 116 players competing for just five spots. It took a birdie from Pooley on the final hole just to force a playoff and another birdie to win the last spot.
Pooley twice led the Tour statistically in putting in 1988 and in 1997 and ranked in the top five for the 1980s. He needed just 25 putts to tour Caves Valley yesterday.
"I've been a good putter my whole career," he said. "I was a good putter as a kid. I think it's a gift as much as anything. And I'm happy it's back."
Pooley will have his hands full today, as he tries to hold off notables like Watson and Tom Kite (4 under) and non-notables like Hall and Ed Dougherty (5 under). Eaks can attest to how tough it is to do justice to a spectacular round. After shooting his opening-round 64 Thursday, Eaks struggled through a 73 on Friday and then hit rock-bottom yesterday, carding a 78.
Hall, on the other hand, appeared poised to build on the one-stroke lead after 36 holes. He birdied the course's first three holes to move to 10 under and assert a three-stroke edge. But bogeys on 7 and 9 plus three more on the back nine brought him back down to earth, allowing Pooley to pull ahead.
"My game is not 'drive it down the middle, hit it in six feet and make one or two,'" Hall said. "I hit it all over the lot, and hopefully I can make more birdies than bogeys. Today I made more bogeys than birdies."
For a time, Watson and Kite flirted with the possibility of restoring a more natural order to the tournament standings. Like Hall, Watson took advantage of makeable birdies on the first three holes and moved to 7 under.
Watson got to 8 under after a birdie at the 11th, but as was the case Friday, he fought his putter late in the round. He three-putted No.12 for bogey and missed an 8-footer on 15 and a 3-footer on 16 that would have scored birdies.
"I played very well from tee to green, but I didn't come up with very much on the greens," said Watson, who bogeyed 17. "It was disappointing, gut-wrenching when you hit a lot of good shots like that and you can't convert the putts."
Watson and Pooley, who will be paired together today, will be quite the odd couple. The accomplished Watson, who had eight major titles during his PGA Tour career, can become just the eighth player to win a U.S. Open and a Senior Open crown. Meanwhile, Pooley's biggest win was the 1987 Memorial.
But in the upside-down world of the 2002 Senior Open, history may not foretell anything. Watson acknowledged as much when he was asked about his chances.
"Well, if Don Pooley shoots a 63, my chances aren't very good," he said, only half-kidding.

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