EDMOND, Okla. – Colin Montgomerie could only keep a straight face for so long.
The 51-year-old Scotsman had been asked about the role that fitness would play over the ensuing three days in the 35th U.S. Senior Open Championship at Oak Tree National, where temperatures are expected to reach 100 degrees.
Well, my physical conditioning is obviously up to scratch, there’s no doubt about that, Montgomerie began before pausing briefly, then abandoning the riff on his less than svelte body frame with a wide grin.
Montgomerie found the relatively cooler conditions much to his liking in the opening round on Thursday morning, as he carded eight birdies en route to a 6-under-par 65 and a one-stroke lead over Marco Dawson.Dawson, a longtime PGA Tour veteran who is playing in his first Senior Open, was two strokes clear of Mark Brooks, the 1996 PGA champion, who got to 4 under early in his round, then slipped back before birdieing his final hole for a 3-under 68.
On a day when the course played to a stroke average of nearly 75.7 following a morning weather delay of 1 hour, 17 minutes, Montgomerie had runs of three straight birdies on each of his nines to help offset two bogeys. He hit 11 of 14 fairways and 16 greens in regulation, making his task a good bit easier on the Pete Dye-designed course, which on Thursday played nearly 170 yards shorter than its listed yardage (7,053 yards, compared to the scorecard total of 7,219).
We had a real storm this morning and it's amazing how dry it is already, said Montgomerie, who holds the first-round lead in a U.S. event for the first time since the 2006 U.S. Open. The USGA set the course up very well today. They did a great job in understanding the weather conditions and they set the course up accordingly. All credit to them for that.
Five players – three-time major champion Vijay Singh, Kirk Triplett, Scott Dunlap, Gene Sauers and 2010 Senior Open champion Bernhard Langer, who has won three times already this year on the Champions Tour – were tied for fourth at 2-under 69. The nine-player contingent at 1-under 70 includes Jeff Sluman (who won the 1988 PGA here), amateur Jeff Wilson and Rocco Mediate, as well as three Senior Open champions: Olin Browne (2011), Fred Funk (2009) and Peter Jacobsen (2004).
Montgomerie is scheduled to begin his second round at 1:52 p.m. CDT on Friday with Mediate and Tom Lehman (72), when the heat is likely to be more of a factor.
I think that it is going to be a physical examination out there, said Montgomerie, a three-time runner-up in the U.S. Open, including 2006. I have done well in the heat in the past. ... I don't mind it. It's part of the job, and the rewards are so great at the end of it that you keep going, believe me. There is no problem with giving it 110 percent over the next three days.
Scott Verplank, who turned 50 on Wednesday and is playing in his first senior major on his home course, struggled badly out of the blocks with a bogey and two double bogeys in his first four holes. He managed to play 1 under the rest of the way, but the 4-over 75 was not the senior debut he was looking for.
I’m just injured – I’m hitting shots like I’m hurt still, said Verplank, who has struggled with his left wrist since undergoing reconstructive surgery in 2011. I was sure hoping that all the hard work I put in was going to be a little bit better but it wasn’t today. Maybe it will be tomorrow.
Gil Morgan, 67, led the way among the four members of the Oak Tree Gang in the field with a 1-over 72. Bob Tway and Willie Wood both shot 74. Rocky Walcher, an Oak Tree member and former tour pro who lives in Oklahoma City, was the first player off the tee on Thursday and shot 4-over 75.
Defending champion Kenny Perry struggled to 75 and said he felt uncomfortable all day.
I played two practice rounds, Tuesday and Wednesday, and there wasn’t much wind, said Perry, who was 4 over after just five holes. Now we have 25-, 30-mile-an-hour wind out there today. I had no clue what I was doing. I was shell-shocked. I never could pull the right club.
That gusty wind wreaked most of its havoc on the afternoon field, with the majority of the top scores being logged in the morning. Montgomerie begins Round 2 on Friday buoyed by having recently won his first 72-hole stroke-play event in the United States, the Senior PGA Championship in May.
I look forward to the challenge of trying to compete against the rest of the field, the golf course, which is superb, and also the weather conditions, which are very foreign to myself and most competitors, to be honest, said Montgomerie. We don’t usually play in 100 degrees. It’s going to be interesting over the next three days.
Ron Driscoll is the manager of editorial services for the USGA. Email him at email@example.com.