BETHLEHEM, Pa. – Jay Haas has been shooting his age or better for the last three years, just never on a stage quite like Thursday in the U.S. Senior Open.
Haas steadied himself from an up-and-down start at soggy Saucon Valley and played much younger than his 68 years down the stretch, posting a 4-under 67 to share the lead with Mark Hensby after the opening round.
Haas became the fifth player in U.S. Senior Open history to shoot his age, joining Tom Watson, Hale Irwin, Harold McSpaden and Jerry Barber, who did it nine times. Barber was the oldest first-time winner of a major in the 1961 PGA Championship.
“That's a pretty good score to break (your age) on a course like this,” said Haas, who had shot his age six previous times on the PGA Tour Champions, but never in a major.
Haas and Hensby were a shot ahead of Steve Stricker, Rocco Mediate, Paul Broadhurst and Tim Petrovic. Even with the rain that pounded Saucon Valley in the morning and left green receptive even when it relented, only 11 players managed to break par.
The co-leaders benefited from the later start because of the steady rain all morning that made it difficult to keep clubs dry. Paul Goydos had the low score from the morning wave at 69, prompting the Californian to say, “This is more rain than we've had in 10 years.”
“Wow, did we ever catch a break today,” Stricker said. “The morning wave, it looked like their whole wave played in the rain. ... It played as long as it could play today with the soft conditions and the green really not rolling out. It was long, but a tough challenge.”
Defending champion Jim Furyk, who missed the cut by a shot last week at Brookline in the U.S. Open, opened with a 71. Steve Alker, the leading player on the PGA Tour Champions this year, had a 72 in his U.S. Senior Open debut.
Hensby and Haas have some recent PGA Tour experience on their side.
Hensby, whose lone PGA Tour victory was the 2004 John Deere Classic, tied for seventh in the Puerto Rico Open. Haas played with son Bill in the Zurich Classic team event and they made the cut.
Haas doesn't see that as preparing for the toughest of the senior events. He was just having fun with his son and found a mental boost.
“Playing with Bill, it gave me some confidence, a little extra confidence," Haas said. “But at the same time, I’m on the edge of saying that’s enough. And if I play too many bad rounds in a row, then I’m done. Maybe that drives me. I don’t want to be done. So I keep working at it and keep trying to shoot good scores.”
Haas found particular satisfaction with how well cleanly he struck his irons late in the round, especially the last three holes, after dropping a pair of shots early from the rough.
One of his best was to the 16th and a back right pin that Haas stuffed to 4 feet to tie Hensby for the lead. He came up short of a ridge on the 18th hole and left himself a difficult putt at birdie and the lead, though he had few complaints.
Even when he missed, it worked out for him. Haas was in deep, wet grass left of the fairway on the par-5 12th, feared he tugged it a little and instead the shot caught the slope and funneled down to about 6 feet for birdie.
Mediate played bogey-free, which he suspects is the first time he's done that in a major.
Haas first broke his age when he was 65 and shot 64 in the first round of the Chubb Classic in 2019. The most recent occasion was posting a 66 (age 68) three weeks ago in Iowa at the Principal Charity Classic.
“He's still very competitive,” Stricker said. “He still plays a lot. He’s a straight driver of the ball, which you need to be here, and he scrambles well still. That’s what you need at a U.S. Open, whether it’s on the regular tour or the Senior Open."
Has still has a long road to the finish line and a chance to shatter the record for the oldest U.S. Senior Open champion. Allen Doyle won in 2006 two weeks before his 58th birthday.
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