ROCHESTER, N.Y. (AP) — Somewhere between the champions dinner and the five-inch rough he encountered during his practice round at Oak Hill this week, Denis Watson came to realize how difficult a test he’s facing to defend his Senior PGA Championship title.
“It started sinking in last night,” Watson said Wednesday, a day after being one of numerous past PGA winners to be honored. “I started to see that this is a big deal.”
A bigger deal, perhaps, was the rough Watson found himself trying to hit out of along the East Course’s narrow fairways. The deep grass is an indication the ever-demanding Oak Hill won’t prove to be the walk in the park he thought it might have been when he first played the course two weeks earlier.
“Two weeks ago, they said they had the rough pretty much where they wanted it. And it’s probably at least two to three times that,” Watson said. “It’s a brutal test.”
Welcome to Oak Hill, the Donald Ross-designed course that current Champions Tour money leader Bernhard Langer believes “will hold up forever.”
“No matter how long the guys will hit it off the tee, it doesn’t matter,” said Langer, who’s playing Oak Hill for the fourth time of his career. “This course is very, very difficult.”
Established at its current site in 1926, Oak Hill has hosted two PGA Championships, three U.S. Opens and the Ryder Cup in 1995. Out of the five combined majors played at Oak Hill, only 10 players have finished under par. And it’s a course that’s earned its credentials, boasting such champions as Jack Nicklaus (1980 U.S. Open) and Lee Trevino (1968 U.S. Open).
Add in a good chance of rain and a forecast high of 52 – unseasonably cold even for upstate New York in May – for the first round Thursday, and Oak Hill’s 7,001-yard, par-70 tight and well-protected course could prove to be an even nastier challenge for the field of 156 competing for the $2 million purse – $360,000 goes to the winner.
Langer is considered part of a group of favorites that includes Jay Haas, Tom Watson and Loren Roberts. And then there’s Denis Watson, who has spent the past year quickly making up for two lost decades of golf.
A rising star on the PGA Tour in the mid-1980s, Watson’s career was eclipsed for 22 years by a freak injury after he snagged his 9-iron on a hidden tree stump during a tournament in South Africa at the end of 1985. One operation after another failed to fix the effects of a ferocious whiplash that devastated nerves, bone, muscles and ligaments from his right hand all the way up through his shoulder and neck.
Though he kept playing on and off, and rarely well enough to climb onto the leaderboard, Watson’s breakthrough didn’t arrive until after his ninth surgery in 2006, followed by months more of rehabilitation and painful therapy.
The payoff finally came last year, his first on the Champions Tour when Watson achieved one of the great comebacks in sports history when he captured the Senior PGA on Kiawah Island, S.C.
Since then, the 52-year-old from Zimbabwe has picked up wins at the Boeing Classic in August, the AT&T Classic in March and the FedEx Kinko’s Classic on May 4. Although he still has a hard time believing it all, every victory feels like a validation and he’s hoping to maintain a high momentum.
“They say if you pray for things … ,” Watson said with a gulp of emotion. “I say, just give me a chance to be there on a Sunday, I want to see if I can handle it. Golf is so much about overcoming yourself.”
Although he needs to work constantly on his shoulders and neck because they’re “never going to be 100 percent,” Watson said he’s playing without pain except for “normal old age stuff” and occasional numbness in his right pinky finger.
Getting a second chance has provided Watson an upbeat perspective on life and his career.
“It’s very easy to speculate – geez, if I hadn’t gotten hurt, I might have won 20 times, like my friend Nick Price. I could have won the British Open. I could have won the U.S. Open,” said Watson, who was a three-time PGA Tour winner in 1984 and runner-up at the 1985 U.S. Open.
“I tend to look at the other side and say, `You know, I might have had a miserable life!”‘
AP Sports Writer John Wawrow contributed to this report.