BENTON HARBOR, Mich. — The sky was a pristine crystal blue here on a perfect spring day and while the sun was beautifully bright, it was nonetheless outshined by a trio of champions.
This is what senior golf is all about — a perfect storm of a day when the Hall of Fame trio of Colin Montgomerie, Tom Watson and Bernhard Langer are paired together and play like they’re young again. It was Monty, Tom and Bernhard at their shot-making best. The only thing missing was the rest of the Ryder Cup.
Go ahead and scoff at the Champions Tour’s perceived lack of relevance but the 75th Senior PGA Championship is the granddaddy of all senior majors. Harbor Shores is a truly demanding course (and not necessarily in a good way), and these three players are a great show.
On Friday morning, there was Monty, the tour’s most enthusiastic and appealing rookie, roping another long drive at the 15th hole, a downwind par 5, and then hitting 8-iron from 173 yards — yes, 8-iron! — to 10 feet and making the putt for eagle.
There was Ol’ Tom draining a 30-foot birdie putt on the opening hole. “That’s a nice way to start,” he said later with a big grin. He two-putted from 60-feet on the fourth hole for another birdie and drained a 25-footer for a third bird at the ninth. At the 14th, he played a running 5-iron shot out of a tough lie in the left rough — “A links shot,” he called it — and ran it up onto the green within six feet. He looked like Young Tom stalking the seaside British courses, but then he missed the birdie putt. Reality returns.
There was Langer, the two-time Masters champ from Germany, methodically picking apart the course with his precision shots, as usual. He birdied the opening two holes but nothing topped his birdie at the 15th. His drive landed on the upslope, picked up some mud and stopped just over the ridge on the downslope. His 6-iron approach caught the front bank of the green and rolled back, almost into a hazard. From there he got it up and down for birdie, holing a three-footer. Langer, probably because of his long putter, never gets enough credit for his short game.
Friday morning was a master class in Major Championship Golf 101.
If you followed these gents around the sprawling, meandering layout (it’s practically unwalkable, thanks to designer Jack Nicklaus) within view of Lake Michigan’s cold, dark blue waters, or even watched on television, it took you back in time and provided a thrill ride.
Don’t let anyone tell you senior golf is boring. There was nothing boring about watching Watson shoot 68, just four shots above his age. Or Langer’s 68 or Monty’s 69. When the morning half of the field was finished Friday, the three names were on the clubhouse leaderboard. By the end of the day, the three shared the lead with Bart Bryant, Steen Tinning and Kiyoshi Murota at -4.
This is serious competition, yes, but there was plenty of joking around on Friday afternoon, the kind of thing you won’t see on a Sunday. Monty was euphoric, almost giddy, after his round in which he admitted that he actually hadn’t putted very well at all for two days. The Nicklaus-designed greens, full of humps and bumps and mounds and tiers, obviously had something to do with it.
“There are a number of great designed holes tee to green here,” Monty said. “Everyone is a bit diplomatic in what they say about it because it’s Jack Nicklaus, but really, can I be as diplomatic as possible and say that they’re complicated. They’re complicated. They’re the most complex green designs that I have ever, ever seen.” Monty went on to say he understood the reasoning behind it, to protect scoring against the onslaught of technology that has affected every club but the putter, “But some greens are extremely complicated,” he added. “God, that’s good, isn’t it? That’s fantastic. That’s as diplomatic as I’ve ever been.”
A small cadre of writers and media types laughed along with him.
When Monty was asked whether there was any Ryder Cup talk among the group during the round, a familiar voice boomed from the back of the media room, “What are you talking about?”
It was Watson. More laughter. Monty prompted launched into a dissertation on Ryder Cup captains, as all three members of the threesome have been, and said that no, there was no Ryder Cup talk while they were competing, that’s chat for after the round. “But I do wish Tom all the best…”
“Bull—-!” Watson announced from the back of the room, starting another wave of laughter.
Then, in a perfect setup line, Monty was asked his opinion about Watson as the American choice for this year’s captain.
“What, with him standing behind you?” Monty asked. Monty giggled at his own imperiousness and continued.
“Well, he’s the best that’s ever lived.” More laughs. “He’s a wonderful guy and a super father, husband whatever. He’s a handsome fellow, too.” Even more laughs. “When he leaves,” Monty said with sly smile, “I can tell you the truth.”
He was Monty at his charming best. The laughs were far fewer between when it was Watson’s turn with the media and then Langer, but it was a satisfying finale to a morning of nostalgic golf.
Watson hit 16 greens in his round and one of those he missed, he putted from the fringe. “It was a pretty good ballstriking day,” Watson said in characteristic understatement.
He talked about how he still has the fire to compete and how he still gets angry with himself over bad shots. “Like Lee Trevino said, When I stop getting angry with myself, then I know it’s time to quit,” Watson said. “And I haven’t reached that point yet.”
Later, he talked philosophically about playing in a marquee threesome and what it’s like.
“You observe and you use everything to your advantage,” he said. You observer what Bernhard does and what Colin does. You watch the shots, how the ball lands on the green, what it does in the fairways, where does it end up? You use every bit of information so it helps you eliminate any doubt. You want to be certain about the shot you’re trying to play.
“When the wind is blowing, that’s when it becomes uncertain. When you play a really good round in the wind, when you hit the ball well and have a lot of opportunities for birdies, that gives you more satisfaction than any time else playing golf. Under tough conditions, I relish the challenge.”
It was a quick look at Watson’s golfing soul. Then, he added, “I just wish I could hit the ball about 40 yards farther.”
The writers laughed again. Watson did, too, but he probably wasn’t actually joking. He is that competitive. So is Langer, obviously, and even Monty despite his display of comedic talent.
“Tom is 64 years old, he’s hitting the ball great,” Montgomerie said. “It’s amazing how he is still extremely competitive.”
The three most glamorous names in the Senior PGA field played their way into contention for the weekend in a senior major. Is that any good?
“We have played a lot of golf together, the three of us,” Langer said. “We have known each other for a very long time and that is part of the fun on the Champions tour, that you know most of these guys and you know them well. We all have respect for each other, for what we have done on the golf course over the years. The people out there do as well. They watch us and spur us on and cheer us. It’s just fun being out there.”
It was a beautiful day near the lake. Even better, it was a beautiful day of golf.