Jay Haas holds on at brutal Oak Hill to win the toughest ever Senior PGA Championship

Jay Haas holds on at brutal Oak Hill to win the toughest ever Senior PGA Championship

Haas overcame some unpleasant Oak Hill memories to hoist the trophy on Sunday.
Richard Mackson/SI

The debate about whether the term senior major is an oxymoron is hereby over. The 69th Senior PGA Championship, the first senior major of the year, began with 28 players withdrawing before the tournament even started, and things went downhill from there.

Twenty-eight? That’s not a major championship, that’s a work stoppage. Most Masters invitees would sooner give up a family member than turn down a chance to play Augusta National. Real majors don’t have multiple dropouts. (And they don’t have pro-ams, either. Especially on a Tuesday, as the Senior PGA did.)

The mass exodus from Oak Hill Country Club was unprecedented but not totally unexpected. After all, there was the weather forecast for Rochester, N.Y., that called for temperatures in the 40s with rain and wind. There was the agronomic forecast that predicted thick, deep, extra-juicy spring rough. And there was the certain knowledge that under any conditions mighty Oak Hill is an equal opportunity butt-kicker.

Somewhat surprisingly, those missing in action included Hall of Famers such as Ben Crenshaw, Ray Floyd, Hubert Green, Larry Nelson, Gary Player and even Curtis Strange, who won the U.S. Open at Oak Hill in 1989. All cited illness, injury or personal reasons. Like what? Being allergic to five-inch rough and numbers in the 80s? “You have to question that,” Champions tour rookie John Cook said of those who WD’d without a medical excuse. “This is a major. I guess they felt as if they had paid their dues and didn’t want to do that anymore.”

The result was a major with a black eye, although Jay Haas was a worthy champion, outlasting Bernhard Langer to win the title for the second time in three years and taste sweet redemption. Cook’s comment notwithstanding, once play got under way, those who skipped the event for the most part were quickly forgotten. Former U.S. Open and Masters champ Fuzzy Zoeller got a call from his absent pal Green after Zoeller slogged through a brutal opening round in which the average score was nearly seven over par (76.8), and the number of bogeys or worse was higher than birdies by a 5-to-1 margin. Thirty players failed to break 80, 10 over par.

“Did I make a good decision?” Green asked smugly. Zoeller answered by laughing.

Oak Hill won the Senior PGA by a knockout: There were boatloads of bogeys and only three rounds in the 60s, and the final threesome on Sunday went a combined 18 over. “The course is unrelenting,” said David Eger, whose closing 70 lifted him from 24th to 16th. “It’s simply a difficult golf course for old men.”

The PGA of America didn’t learn anything from its previous visit to Oak Hill, for the ’03 PGA Championship, which featured folded-over eight-inch rough that proved to be an equalizer. The rough last week was fresh and springy and somewhere between four and five inches in height. If you think the pitchout back to the fairway is an exciting shot, you probably also watch hockey for the icing calls, look forward to TV timeouts and enjoyed the heck out of the Senior PGA.

Never have so many pro golfers been made to look so stupid by missing so many greens with stubbed chips, pitches and flops. On Sunday, Langer, the meticulous (and in these conditions slow-playing) German, hit his drive into the rough a few paces short of the 14th green. The pin was five steps onto the green. It might’ve been a relatively easy flop shot from a normal lie, but Langer’s best effort left him just in the edge of the deep cut. So much for a birdie opportunity. Langer got up and down to save his par.

“They said the rough was 31/2 inches long. It looked more like five to me,” Langer said. “It was very juicy, dark green, like fertilized rough. Chipping was extremely difficult out of that thick grass.”

Players gave the setup mixed reviews. It’s a major championship, some said, so it’s supposed to be difficult. Second-round leader Tom Purtzer called it “borderline too hard” before he plummeted with a third-round 81.

The numbers don’t lie. Haas won with a seven-over 287, the highest winning score in relation to par in Senior PGA history and the second highest on the Champions tour. (Arnold Palmer was nine over when he won the 1981 U.S. Senior Open at Oakland Hills.) The cut, which was made at 12 over, was a stroke lower than the tour record set at the ’90 Senior PGA at PGA National.

Jim Woodward, whose closing 79 left him in 46th place (at 20 over), spoke for many. “If I ever come back to Oak Hill again, it will be too soon. I give. [Oak Hill] wins. Here’s the good news: Anywhere I go from here is going to be easier.”

The course’s difficulty made for a close but ugly finish. The final threesome — Haas, Langer and Jeff Sluman, Rochester’s favorite son — combined for two birdies and 18 bogeys or double bogeys in the final round.

At the end, the scene on Oak Hill’s 18th green was remarkably familiar. Langer, holding his visor in one hand and his long putter in the other, greeted Haas with a warm smile and a hug. It was like the hug they shared 13 years earlier in the Ryder Cup at Oak Hill, when the Europeans upset the Americans. Haas had just lost his singles match to Philip Walton, the match that clinched the Cup for the Euros. Langer, who had missed a putt that would’ve earned Europe a tie in ’91 at Kiawah Island, understood how Haas felt.

“The crowd was cheering, and the Euros came on the green, and there was one guy who came up and gave me a hug, not a handshake,” Haas said. “I didn’t really know Bernhard that well at that time, but he was the only guy who really showed compassion.”

Sunday’s hug was eerily appropriate. Langer came to the 72nd green trailing by a shot. He two-putted for par from 50 feet, and Haas two-putted for par from 17. When Langer came forward to offer congratulations, Haas told him, “You know, there was only one guy after the Ryder Cup who came over and said some nice words to me, and you know that guy.”

Much about Haas’s winning the Senior PGA had a hauntingly retro feel. In his Ryder Cup loss to Walton, Haas stormed back from three down with three to play by holing a bunker shot at the 16th and winning the 17th after an amazing recovery from the rough. Last Saturday he holed an even more improbable eight-iron shot from the rough at 17, his ball bouncing through the fringe, onto the green and into the cup for an eagle to catapult him into a tie for the lead. “That shot will definitely go down in the Hall of Jay,” Haas said, laughing.

Haas popped up a weak drive on the 18th hole of that fateful Ryder Cup match and was closed out when he missed his par putt for a halve. On Sunday he found himself back on the 18th tee in a similar pressure situation, one ahead of Langer.

“I had to chuckle,” Haas said. “It was like, well, you’ve been talking about this. It’s time to put up or shut up. You talk a good game, how about getting up there and ripping it. Damn if I didn’t.”

What Haas did on the 18th was hit a perfect drive down the left side of the fairway, about to the spot from which Shaun Micheel played his winning seven-iron shot in the ’03 PGA. Then Haas deposited an excellent six-iron shot to 17 feet. Haas needed a two-putt for the win, and he got it, along with a sense of atonement. “If I could’ve played those two shots in ’95,” he said, “maybe I wouldn’t have played them today.”

It was a special week for Haas. The head pro at Oak Hill is Craig Harmon, son of former Winged Foot pro Claude Harmon and the brother of Billy, Haas’s former Tour caddie, and Butch, the famous swing coach. The Harmon boys are family to Haas. “Almost every day this week, if I had a chance to get lunch, I would get a plate and go up to Craig’s office and sit there and talk about nothing and just laugh,” Haas said. “That’s a great memory to have here.”

Haas will leave his mark at Oak Hill. There is a wall of champions on the front of the clubhouse, plaques for all the players who have won championships at the club. Haas will join the likes of Jack Nicklaus (1980 PGA), Lee Trevino (’68 Open), Cary Middlecoff (’56 Open), Strange and the rest. Haas noticed the plaques for the first time on Sunday morning and tried not to think about what it would be like to have one of his own. On Sunday evening, when Haas emerged from the clubhouse after signing his scorecard, he was escorted toward the 18th green for the award ceremony. Several fans on a clubhouse balcony cheered as he walked below and shouted, “Jay, you made the wall!”

Haas looked up, raised his left arm and pointed toward the plaques as he walked by. “Wall, baby!” he answered. Then again, he and everyone else had been up against it all week.