Every year, it seems, some fiftysomething takes a curtain call in the first round of the U.S. Open. In 2001 at Southern Hills, it was Hale Irwin who was up near the top of the leader board. Last year at Olympia Fields, it was Tom Watson who put lumps in throats. And yesterday at Shinnecock Hills, it was Jay Haas who shot a 66 and ended the day tied for first.
This is the same Jay Haas, mind you, whose son Bill, the college player of the year at Wake Forest, is wrapping up his amateur career here. The same Jay Haas who, just last month, was competing in the Senior PGA Championship (and finishing second by a stroke to Irwin).
One nostalgic round at the Open is usually all these golden oldies have in them. Irwin, for instance, didn’t wind up in the top 25, and Watson failed to crack the top 50. But Haas — if his recent play is any indication — might have a little more staying power. Indeed, it would be no great shock to see him still in the mix on Sunday afternoon.
Which is a strange thing to say about a golfer who hasn’t won a tournament since 1993, when he was a mere lad of 39. But Haas is one of those athletic anomalies, one of those guys who defies the aging process. In golf, after all, you’re supposed to hit the ball shorter as you get older. You’re also supposed to be a little shakier — literally — on the greens. But Jay, thanks to improved technology and a refusal to go gently into the Champions Tour, is smacking ‘em farther than he ever has. And his putting, never his strength, is better than ever now that he’s taking counsel from short-stick guru Stan Utley.
“I hit an 8-iron into the [179-yard] 17th today,” said Haas. “Ten years ago, it might have been a 6- or 5-iron.” As for Utley, “He’s given me a different theory [to work with] — one theory, not 50 like I used to have. Years ago, under pressure, I didn’t know which one to stick with.”
Haas’ wife, Janice, followed him around until the 17th hole, until he drained a 40-footer to go to 4 under. Then she headed to another part of the course to watch her boy Bill play. So it is with the Haas family, one of the golfing-est tribes around. Jay’s uncle, Bob Goalby, won the ‘68 Masters, and his brother, Jerry Haas, was on the PGA Tour for a while before becoming the head coach at Wake. Even Mom has some golf genes; her brother, Dillard Pruitt, also played on the Tour (and is now a rules official).
“I would have told [Janice] to leave earlier [and go find Bill],” Jay said. “She’s seen me play countless times. But I was playing so well, I guess she wanted to stay with me.”
Haas might not be the best active player never to win a major, but he’s definitely on the short list. He’s won nine tournaments and nearly $13million over the past 28 years, and his last two years have been his best, earnings-wise, in more than two decades. He made over $2.5million last year to rank 15th on the money list, and this year he’s raked in more than $1.2million. He’s also had a ton of top 10s and a couple of notable seconds — at the Hope (where he finished 28 under) in early ‘03 and the Players Championship a couple of months later.
The latter, especially, suggests he might stay on the leader board here longer than the other One-Round Senior Wonders. The field at the Players, after all, is every bit as formidable as the one at Shinnecock. And while Haas has never won a major (and would be the oldest Open champion in history), he has led a major before — after 36 holes at the ‘99 PGA and also at the ‘95 Masters. He ended up tied for third both times.
Just because Haas has hit the Big Five-O, in other words, don’t write him off just yet. The Open this year is being played on a course that, as he puts it, “allows everybody, lengthwise, to be in the hunt.” And in Round1 he was able to take advantage of one of those rare days when Shinnecock was there for the taking. The wind was down, the greens weren’t quite so unforgiving — and the scores reflected it. It figures to be a lot harder to shoot a 66 as the week progresses … as Tiger Woods (72) and others surely know.
After a quick bite of lunch, Haas went off to watch his kid play a few holes. “I try not to give him too much [golf] advice,” he said, “try not to be a dad too much. I just tell him it’s a matter of patience and experience.” He also tells him simply “to observe. Watch the best players. Watch what they do.”
If Bill Haas is smart — and that’s the rumor — he’ll include his father in that group.