EDMOND, Okla. – After a brief visit with the media following an opening-round 3-over 74 Thursday in the U.S. Senior Open, Willie Wood exited stage left and quickly hustled across the green in the short-game area at Oak Tree National.
Yeah, I’ve hit a few chip shots on this green, he said with a grin. My house is right over there." He pointed to a house that was perhaps a strong 7-iron away. This week has already been amazing, he added. I want to play well, but for me, the fun is just having another big golf tournament in our backyard.
Yes, he said our backyard. Wood is a member of a special group of players at Oak Tree National, a group of tour professionals better known as the Oak Tree Gang.
Scott Verplank might be the most well known, with a U.S. Amateur that he won here and five PGA Tour titles, plus appearances on U.S. Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup teams. Bob Tway won eight times on the PGA Tour, including the 1986 PGA Championship. Then there’s Gil Morgan, who has a combined 32 wins on the PGA Tour and Champions Tour, plus Wood, Mark Hayes, David Edwards and Doug Tewell, who have all won tour events.
Four of them – Verplank, Wood, Tway and Morgan – were in the starting field for this U.S. Senior Open, and three of them made the weekend.
What drew them to Oak Tree National? Well, many things, including the fact that all of them except Morgan attended Oklahoma State. Morgan, though, fits in just fine, being a native of Wewoka, Okla.
This club was founded by Oklahoma State golfers, Joe Walser and Ernie Vossler. So this club has always been huge to the Oklahoma State golf family, said Verplank, a Dallas native who turned 50 on the eve of the championship. That's how I ended up here. I played golf at Oklahoma State, and everyone that played the Tour from Oklahoma State … not everybody, but a good number, moved down here, and they were great to us, and they still are. You know, it's kind of the home away from home.
They've been so nice to us over the years, you know, starting out with Landmark and Joe and Ernie, said Morgan, 67, who beat his younger counterparts in the opening round with a 1-over 72. They've treated us very special from that standpoint. You know, helped us with lots early on. We built out here and did that type of thing. They were very good with us about clothing and some representing the club early on and they just been overly nice to all the Tour players and … kind of enjoyed having them around so it was a nice place for us to live, very convenient to play and practice. It's been fun, and we're very appreciative of all they've done for us through the years.
Morgan added that there was another clear reason for the gang hanging around and that is the quality of the Pete Dye-designed course that hosted the 1984 U.S. Amateur and 1988 PGA Championship, among other big events.
It's a very challenging golf course, Morgan said. It helps your game when you're home to have the difficulty that it has here. When you go back on Tour sometimes it seems a little bit more open or not so demanding into the greens, that type of scenario. It's fun.
Morgan, Tway and Wood were paired together for the opening two rounds of the championship, while Verplank played in the group ahead of them. The four drew large crowds, which included plenty of friends and family, even though their games weren’t quite in tip-top shape.
Tway and Wood matched scorecards, opening 74-73-147 to make the 36-hole cut. Morgan also qualified for the weekend after a 76 left him at 6-over 148. Still out of sorts after wrist surgery nearly two years ago, Verplank posted 75-75-150 and missed the cut by a stroke.
I don’t know what I’ll do this weekend. Maybe have a pool party, Verplank said, trying to find a sliver of joy after two difficult days.
Wood was happy he had the chance to share the stage with two longtime friends and playing partners. I’d much rather play with someone I've played with a lot and enjoy, than someone I may have just met or someone I don't like.
Tway felt the same, but he couldn’t hide the disappointment on his face. He gave five strokes back to par over his final four holes on Friday after reaching 3 under for his round. Nevertheless, that didn’t get in the way of how delighted he was on behalf of his club.
I'm just so pleased that it turned out to be in the shape that it's in, Tway said. You know, a lot of people have worked really, really hard. Everybody is very proud of this place. That's why we all have continued to live here. We love it. Played a lot of golf here and had a lot of good times here and will continue to do that. It's just a special place.
Dave Shedloski is an Ohio-based freelance writer whose work previously has appeared on USGA websites.