Don Thames had an experience open to few -- he played in the U.S. Senior Open. That's not to mention signing autographs. (Photos: Carole Thames)
Neighbor Don Thames earned a spot in the U.S. Senior Open two weeks ago in Colorado, and he had the golf experience of his life. He made the trip with his wife, Carole, and family and friends. Don writes about it here -- first-tee jitters, good shots, bad shots, friendly golf legends and the U.S. Golf Association's equipment rules.
By Don Thames
I would like to thank all of you who supported Carole and me before and during the 2008 U.S. Senior Open at The Broadmoor. Your e-mails, cards and phone calls were very uplifting and inspirational. I want to chronicle the week for those who are interested.
To begin, I have to say that this was the single greatest golf experience I have ever participated in times 10. Upon arrival at the airport, the U.S. Golf Association supplied each player with a Lexus to drive for the week. When we arrived at the Broadmoor Hotel (a five-star resort) we were spoiled immediately with tremendous service by the hotel and the USGA. At every turn was a volunteer, hotel staffer or USGA official to welcome us and make our week seamless, comfortable and nice.
All U.S. Opens are difficult examinations. In this one I got an "A" in finding the rough. A player can simply not play well from the hay. My driving was not at all wild but was off just enough to barely miss fairways and thus I missed several greens. I liken the tournament to the situation of NBA teams that make the playoffs for the first time. In most cases they do not advance. After a couple of tries they may eventually become successful.
I feel that I can play well at the Broadmoor under Open conditions, but this time it just did not happen for us. But it's OK. I will know better the next time. It was a great learning experience. I also misfired on some short putts due to a combination of nerves and very tricky greens.
Scott Hoch told me that the greens were the toughest he had ever played, including Augusta National. That made me feel a little better knowing that everyone struggled to read and putt the greens. Hoch said that "It's hard to get the right thoughts from your head to your hands in hitting it hard or soft enough." I agreed completely with his assessment. The other problem for me was that the golf course did not eyeball well for me because most of the holes were dogleg lefts. My shot shape is that of a fade.
After check-in we arranged tee times for our practice rounds. You simply put your name down with whomever you chose. I chose Hale Irwin, Dale Douglass and Jim Colbert for Monday. I chose Ben Crenshaw, Bobby Wadkins and amateur Mike Bell for Tuesday.
On Sunday we played solo, with Carole measuring yardages and Clive from Jamaica on the bag. Clive knows the course and especially the greens very well. He explained about the "mountain effect," whereby everything breaks away from the Will Rogers Shrine. In his Jamaican accent he told me, "Fight the mountain up and then let it die back down to the hole." I listened and tried to put his advice into action, as unbelievable as it seemed at times. These greens were large and treacherous with several separate areas containing their own wicked characteristics. I was exhausted after the round and Carole and I had a quiet meal and slept like babies.
I had met Jim Colbert on Sunday and was very comfortable playing with him and Dale Douglass. Hale did not join us as he was late in arrival from the Senior British Open. Colbert and Douglass could not have been nicer. Colbert told me to "Just play like you do at home. Don't pay any attention to who you are competing against. Most guys get caught up in that instead of playing the course."
The protocol of the practice round was similar to what we learned in college golf. Most of the practice involved putting several balls on the greens and hitting a few chips and generally trying to guess where the hole locations would be. I was bombing the tee shots that day, prompting Douglass to comment after a long one, "How many shots have you played to get there?" We all laughed, but I was careful not to think I was the new John Daly, because Colbert and Douglass are in their late 60s.
Playing with Ben Crenshaw was a thrill. He is one of the nicest guys I have ever been paired with. He told me many times, "Good swing, nice rhythm, good shot." We talked all day. He told me about his Masters victories and what Harvey Penick meant to him. He told me that he feels blessed to have had three main interests in life: golf, architecture and history and that he has been able to match these interests with his career paths. He also talked about his family and Austin, Texas, and was interested in my family. He really liked Carole and my daughter Katie.
By contrast, Bobby Wadkins was a bit standoffish. I introduced myself to them both in the locker room while tripping on the tablecloth and nearly lunging forward into their sandwiches. Immediately after the awkward introduction, Wadkins told me, "We'll see you out there" -- his way of saying "Get lost, son." Ben more than made up for him, though.
Ben Crenshaw: a golf legend who is one of the nicest playing partners ever.
I was super nervous on the first tee, as we had a large gallery and stands full of people on all sides. I managed not to take a divot or hit anybody and drove a thin straight one right up the gut. I was still shaky over the seven iron that I stuffed to four feet.
After I wobbled in the putt for birdie, Wadkins said, "You're taking this practice round way too serious." All of the players and spectators laughed, and my nervousness never returned. The rest of the round was pure golf nirvana. It was the single most enjoyable round of golf in my life. It was also a great ball-striking day, especially the driver, which leads into the main story on Wednesday.
Unbeknownst to me, Crenshaw and Bell went over to an equipment trailer to get a new club. While there, they were mentioning my name and telling the equipment rep that I was driving the ball really long. The rep asked if I was a big guy. "No, he's about our size," they replied. "Well, then, I guarantee his club is illegal," the rep said. At that, Crenshaw and Bell went silent.
I received a call from John Spitzer from the USGA who wanted to take a look at my driver to see if it was conforming. I said, "Sure, I know it is. I'll see you in 10 minutes." At our meeting he inspected my club while glancing at his manual full of USGA conforming equipment. "It looks OK," he said. As he was handing the club back to me he noticed a decal on the toe. "What's this?" he said. "This logo is not on my list."
Spitzer explained to me that all conforming clubs must be in possession of the USGA, and this particular club with the logo had not been submitted. Even though the difference was cosmetic, Spitzer pooh-poohed my driver. He was sorry but the USGA actually checked their inventory to see of there was a mistake. There was no mistake. The USGA did not have my driver with this Genji logo.
After several calls to the manufacturer, I finally gave up. It was a mess. I could not play with my own club. So I went to the TaylorMade trailer and they made me a driver I would use for the tournament. As much as I tried, the stress and anger over the situation would not leave my mind. Finally I resigned myself to the fact that I would be competing using the TaylorMade. This whole process took about four hours. This was time and distraction that I did not want or need. After all, there is enough distraction.
Fortunately, Kevin and Tracy Sexton arrived and Kevin calmed me down and caddied for the back nine holes that I had planned to play that day. Also in the gallery were Rod and Betty Lawson, Matt and Karen Davis, Mike and Nancy Page, Carole and her sister Mary Blakemore, Pat Lytle, Mike and Sue Fisher and a sprinkling of other spectators.
Relaxing at the Broadmoor, from left, Karen Davis, Tracy Sexton, Kevin Sexton, Matt Davis, Don Thames and daughter Katie.
Naturally I thought that the amateur had summoned the USGA because the pros could care less about some amateur from Rancho Murieta. When I saw Mike on Friday he explained to me that he and Ben were talking me up to the equipment rep and were sorry that they could have turned up trouble for me. Of course it was the rep who had the most to lose, so I am sure he was why the USGA asked about the club. My driver manufacturer immediately overnighted a new club to the Broadmoor.
All of our family and friends went out to dinner that night in Colorado Springs and had a great time. They helped me forget a very stressful day.
Prelude to our 9:05 starting time: UPS arrives at 8:10 with driver head aboard, while Don is on driving range. Not sure whether to interrupt his routine but not wanting to make the decision about playing with a new driver, Carole runs to driving range and lets Don know the head has arrived. Carole: "What do you want to do?" Don: "I want my driver."
While sister Mary is retrieving shaft from hotel, Carole gets John Spitzer from the USGA to meet her in the office. After a brief examination of the head and a thumbs-up from John, we are scrambling to the range with screwdriver. By 8:35 we had reassembled the driver and Don takes three practice swings before heading to the first tee. Whew!
It is difficult to explain the electricity in the air of a major championship. It is thrilling. With that thrill comes the challenge of controlling the nerves. With thousands of people on all sides in the stands you realize that you are being watched intently.
People were lined eight deep 100 yards down the fairway.
The first hole is an uphill 439-yard par four with a chute of trees just off the tee on the left side. With my fade ball flight, I had to tee the ball on the extreme right side of the tee box. My ball was teed up no more than two feet from the front row of spectators. I was so nervous I could not hover the club as I ordinarily would. Instead, after a small waggle I soled the club on the turf and left it there until I was ready to take it back. Thank God, I trusted my swing and spanked it solid and straight down the middle. What a relief.
It was a tough day. I struggled to make pars and made no doubles. I made some fine up and downs and one particularly good sand save from the short side to an elevated sloping-away green. My aforementioned friends were with me all the way, cheering the goods and hurting with the bads. Carole did a great job on the bag and read the greens very well. The problem on Thursday was that I seemed to be between clubs all day. Long or short, hardly ever hole high.
I was lucky to have had Carole by my side the entire week. Although she did a fine job on the bag she was even better as my manager. She was able to handle all of the administration of the family and friend passes. She was constantly deflecting distractions and laid out the social agenda for our troupe. She did all of the work behind the scenes and took care of every detail that would have been a distraction. I cannot praise her and thank her enough. Great job, Carole.
I started on the back nine and felt that if I could shoot even par I might have a good chance to make the cut, as the front nine has the two par fives and plays easier than the back. I thought that if I could shoot 69 or 70 that I would have a good chance.
My chances were greatly hampered with an opening double bogey on number 10. I bounced back with a birdie on the equally difficult 11 and my spirits soared for a while. I made four more bogeys coming in to my ninth hole, number 18. I was pumped when I made a 15-footer up the hill and heard a thunderous roar from the thousands in the stands and my family and friends.
I played well for the next several holes but made a triple on my 16th hole, which more or less dashed my hopes of making the cut. The triple occurred as my ball was in the trampled rough on the right side. It was the best lie I had in the rough all week, but I stubbed the 9 iron going back and couldn't stop. I slashed the shot into a bank of rough
before the green and heaved it out only to four-putt my way into oblivion. Three-putted the next hole and then went for the green in two on the last and helped it out of the rough into the pond fronting the green to make my last bogey of the round.
It was a very disappointing finish, but I put it into perspective. I got there. Secondly, the course was very demanding and exposed the slightest error. I felt naked after finishing. But I am encouraged because I learned from the mistakes I made and I am confident I will improve next time.
Saturday and Sunday I was a spectator. I walked with Tom Kite and Mark McNulty for a while and also sat in the bleachers. I particularly enjoyed spending a great deal of time in the locker room talking to the players. I spoke to all of the players I saw. I had lunch on Sunday with Tom Watson, Andy Bean and Mark McNulty. On Saturday I ate with Constantino Rocca and Scott Hoch.
There are so many more stories I could tell, but I am almost burned out about it.
I will end by again saying thank you to all of you who have been so supportive to Carole and me. Thanks.