Before the competitors stepped on the grounds of the Warren Course at Notre Dame for this week’s U.S. Senior Open Championship, they had to register inside the locker room of one of the country’s iconic athletic venues. With the Notre Dame fight song blaring through speakers, each player walked down the steps to the football field, passing by the yellow sign telling them to “Play Like a Champion Today.”
Perhaps that was a harbinger for Thursday’s opening round.
Thanks to an overnight storm that dropped more than an inch of rain on the Bill Coore/Ben Crenshaw design – part of the 3 inches that have fallen just in the last week and a half – a soft course morphed into an attack zone for the game’s best 50-and-over golfers.
Defending champion David Toms and U.S. Senior Open rookie Steve Stricker led the scoring assault on the Warren Course like Joe Montana leading the Fighting Irish on a last-minute come-from-behind victory at nearby Notre Dame Stadium.
Toms registered 10 birdies – a single-round championship record – and Stricker posted seven birdies and an eagle en route to 8-under-par 62s on the 6,891-yard layout. The 62s matched the championship record held by Loren Roberts, Kirk Triplett and Brandt Jobe. Stricker, who had four consecutive birdies from No. 8, saw his bid for a 61 slide just right of the hole on No. 18. No player has ever shot a 61 in a regular or senior major championship.
They are two strokes clear of Triplett and Jerry Kelly, who defeated fellow Wisconsin native Stricker in a playoff in last week’s American Family Insurance Championship in their hometown of Madison. Three strokes back at 5 under par are three-time major winner Vijay Singh, Duffy Waldorf and Toru Suzuki, whose round included holing a 133-yard approach shot for an eagle 2 on the 401-yard, par-4 15th hole.
Toms became the first defending champion to hold or share the 18-hole lead, and his first-round score bettered the mark by a defender by six strokes.
“Today was all about getting off to a good start,” said Toms, who has yet to win in 2019 on the PGA Tour Champions, despite five top-10s, including a tie for second in the Regions Tradition. “Obviously 62 is a bonus, but when you’re defending champion, you just want to get out there, play golf and try to be in the golf tournament after the first day and not shoot yourself out of it. I’m in a good spot, and it’s a long week. We all know that. It’s four rounds this week instead of three, and so that’s the difference.”
Coming off the disappointing playoff loss to Kelly last week, Stricker only played nine holes on the Warren Course over the past two days to keep himself fresh and energized. Considered one of the nicest guys in professional golf, Stricker, 52, admitted to being “cranky” after missing a putt on the final hole of regulation that would have won him his fifth PGA Tour Champions title and second of 2019.
“Whenever you have that opportunity to win a golf tournament and you don’t make the putt or hit the shot that you’re supposed to, it bugs you,” said Stricker, who is competing in his first U.S. Senior Open. “I didn’t sleep very well Sunday night [or]Monday night. Slept a little bit better Tuesday night. But it was eating at me.”
Toms, 52, settled into a proper mindset after overly aggressive play led to two birdies and two bogeys over his first five holes. The softer conditions forced Toms into hitting mid-irons into many of the par 4s, but his hot putter converted a plethora of 12- to 15-foot birdie attempts. Toms’ four consecutive birdies to close the round all came from 12 feet and beyond, and his second-nine 29 was just one stroke off the championship record.
“I’ve used conventional grip, I’ve used claw,” said Toms, who totaled 24 putts. “I’ve done a little bit of everything here lately. Not that I’ve been putting bad, I just didn’t feel like I was making enough to be competitive as I wanted to be. I went conventional yesterday in the practice round, and it felt good. I did it all day today, and it felt good. I’ll try to stick with it, maybe, at least for tomorrow, and see if we can roll in a few more.”