SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) — Footballs and kicking tees are being replaced by golf balls and tees for the 40th playing of the U.S. Senior Open, which is being contested for the first time in the shadows of Notre Dame's Golden Dome and "The House That Rockne Built."
Players in the 156-man field are raving about "The Course That Bill and Ben Built" — the par-70, 6943-yard Warren Golf Course designed by architects Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw.
Warren opened in 2000 and is only the second university public course to host a USGA championship. The course, squeezed onto a flat 250 acres, demands accurate second shots from mostly wide fairways into small putting surfaces.
"What struck me is how mature the golf course is for being a fairly new golf course," said David Toms, who won last year's Senior Open at the Broadmoor in Colorado.
"It looks like a historic golf course to me," Toms added. "The whole place in general looks like it's been here for quite a while. I've always enjoyed playing historic venues and old-style golf courses. I'm sure hoping that it dries out a little bit. I think it'll play a lot better for everyone when the fairways start to chase out and the undulation of the fairways become a factor."
An unseasonably cool spring and start to the summer in northern Indiana and 14 inches of rain since May 1 have softened Warren's sand-based fairways. But warming temperatures and winds forecast from Thursday's opening round through Sunday round could help provide the firm test that Coore and Crenshaw envisioned.
"There's some great shots off the tees — and you don't have to hit driver all the time," said Scott McCarron, who has three victories this year on the PGA Tour Champions and leads the Charles Schwab Cup standings. "You've got to make sure you hit it in the fairway because the rough is pretty deep, and they've got some really well-placed bunkering around the sides of the fairways."
Most of the challenge comes on and around the greens.
"Because they are extremely small with a lot of undulation, you're going to have to be spot-on with your iron game," McCarron continued. "You have to keep the ball below the hole, and you have to hit it in the right quadrant to have an opportunity to make birdie. If you don't, you might only have 30 feet or so, but you might have something that's breaking 20, 30 feet."
Tom Watson, who's competing in his 17th Senior Open and 52nd USGA championship, said precise iron play will be crucial.
"The greens are as tough to putt as I've ever experienced," Watson said. "You may have a putt that starts to break to the right and then it straightens out, maybe goes a little bit left and then back to the right again. What's that mean? You'd better hit it close."
Notre Dame has rolled out its red carpet for the field, which includes 23 amateurs. The players registered in the Notre Dame Stadium home locker room and got to touch the "Play Like A Champion" sign on the way to the field, where they threw passes with family and friends.
"I threw Mark O'Meara a little pass out there and I think he almost pulled his hamstring trying to catch it," said Steve Stricker, who won his first senior major, the Regions Tradition, earlier this year. "We're at that age where hamstrings, Achilles, calf muscles are all in danger. My wife was throwing it and she threw better spirals than all of us."
The Lady on the Golden Dome might have smiled.
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