Watson practices at Crooked Stick

Watson practices at Crooked Stick

CARMEL, Ind.(AP) Fuzzy Zoeller recites his winning philosophy like it’s on speed dial.

Or perhaps he just remembers Crooked Stick’s history.

The 1979 Masters winner contends it will take someone who can hit long, accurate drives and repeatedly find the proper placements on these sloping greens to win this year’s U.S. Senior Open title. Someone like John Daly, who zoomed into the spotlight with his grip-it-and-rip-it strategy at the 1991 PGA Championship here. Someone like big-hitting 17-year-old Maria Uribe, who won the 2007 U.S. Women’s Amateur here.

Now, the senior tour is looking to add another chapter on the longest course in Senior Open history at 7,316 yards.

“The only thing that scared me was when (course designer) Pete Dye got up and said he had stretched the golf course out to 7,306 or something,” Zoeller said. “I had to speak right after him and I said, ‘Oh, Pete, Pete, you’re losing the fact that we’re over 50 years old. We’re trying to bring it back to us so we can have some fun.’ “

The USGA didn’t do Zoeller and the other 155 players expected to start Thursday’s first round any favors like shortening the course. It could be argued that it wouldn’t have been necessary, especially after 59-year-old Tom Watson nearly beat the youngsters at the British Open two weeks ago.

The bad news: 7,316 yards could be the short end.

With forecasters calling for rain into Thursday afternoon, weather could certainly make the course play longer. Zoeller, a local favorite who lives about 120 miles away, noted that his second practice round Tuesday, in warmer conditions than Monday, seemed to shorten things up just a bit.

Who will contend?

Defending champion Eduardo Romero of Argentina survived a tough back nine last year and returns with more knowledge about coping with nerves on Sunday afternoons. He ranks seventh on the tour this season with an average drive of 288.4 yards, a number that could keep him near the top of the leaderboard this weekend.

“I think it’s very important, very important to have a few extra yards this week,” Romero said. “But I think the course is a fantastic course from the tee to the green. I have to play chip good, putting good, then you have to be full game in good condition.”

Watson could be there, too. He is playing his best golf in more than a decade and comes to Carmel as the sentimental favorite, if not the overall favorite, after missing an eight-foot putt on No. 18 for the win at Turnberry two weeks ago. He lost in a playoff to Stewart Cink, then rallied to finish in the top 10 last weekend at the Senior British Open.

As he prepares for his third major in three weeks, Watson made an adjustment to his short game that he hopes will help claim his first Senior Open title. But Watson also is dealing with an illness that forced him to skip Tuesday’s practice round.

“The biggest concern I have is preparedness,” he said. “It’s going to be difficult for me to be properly prepared for this tournament. I’ll probably play somewhat conservatively opening it up, you know, not knowing the golf course so well and watch my fellow players play.”

Among the other big names in the field are two-time Masters champion Bernhard Langer and two-time British Open winner Greg Norman.

Langer, 51, has the best scoring average on tour this season (68.65) and ranks in the top 10 in driving distance and No. 1 in greens in regulation (76.85 percent) – a combination that could make him a real threat.

Norman spent last weekend battling in Britain. The 54-year-old led after three rounds but opened the final round by missing birdie chances on the first three holes and then settling for a double bogey on No. 17 to finish sixth, three strokes behind champion Loren Roberts.

“I feel my game is fairly solid, actually,” Norman said. “I have no complaints at the moment. I’m just a little bit like anybody would say coming off playing golf in Europe for two weeks then getting over here, it’s bit of a slug on us. But it is what it is.”

Yes, Norman, Zoeller and Watson all remember how Daly won at Crooked Stick and realize this weekend could be a hitter’s paradise.

“It’s a long-ball hitters’ golf-course, always has been. I think if you’re driving the ball well and you’re a long hitter, you should fare fairly well this week,” Zoeller said. “But there’s one thing about winning an Open, or a British Open, you’ve got to have patience galore because some crazy things are going to happen and you’ve just got to bear it. It’s going to be a long week.”

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