43rd U.S. Senior Open: 3 Things to Know, Rounds 1 and 2

By David Shefter, USGA

| Jun 28, 2023 | Stevens Point, Wis.

43rd U.S. Senior Open: 3 Things to Know, Rounds 1 and 2

Thirty-nine years ago, a couple of future PGA Tour winners came to SentryWorld for the Wisconsin state high school championship that was won by Steve Stricker. Back then, the Robert Trent Jones Jr.-designed course was still in its infancy, having opened just two years earlier.

Two renovations later – both supervised by Jones and his design team of Jay Blasi and Bruce Charlton – the daily-fee, parkland layout is playing host to its biggest event, the 43rd U.S. Senior Open. It’s the third USGA championship for SentryWorld, following the 1986 U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links and 2019 U.S. Girls’ Junior.

“As I told my caddie, this is a proper golf course,” said Madison, Wis., native Jerry Kelly who competed in that 1984 high school competition. “This is a lot more than I expected. I think they did a fantastic job [with] the renovations. I don't have a whole lot of memory of what was here, but what is here now is really something special.”

Kelly, Stricker and the other 154 competitors assembled in Central Wisconsin will find a challenging 7,218-yard, par-71 course with narrow fairways and lush rough. Ernie Els, a two-time U.S. Open champion, said the rough is as thick and deep as any U.S. Open venue he’s played, including Oakmont.

“It's seriously one of the finest conditioned courses I've ever seen,” said the sweet-swinging South African. “Really well-done to the greens crew.”

While the course, which is owned by Sentry Insurance, is open to the public, it has been off limits to anyone since last fall for renovations and championship preparations.

“It's in great shape,” said Stricker, who snuck in a couple of practice rounds last week. “It’s in pure shape. Looking forward to the start of it.”

Here are 3 Things to Know going into the first two rounds:

Stricker Slam?

No golfer on the 50-and-older circuit has been hotter than Stricker. The Madison resident already has claimed the first two senior majors of 2023 – the Regions Tradition and Senior PGA Championship – and a victory this week would put him in position to be the first player in PGA Tour Champions history to claim all five majors in a calendar year. The final two majors are set for next month at Firestone Country Club (Kaulig Companies Championship) in Akron, Ohio, and Royal Porthcawl in Wales (Senior British Open).

Only Gary Player (1988), Jack Nicklaus (1991) and Bernhard Langer (2017) have claimed three majors in a calendar season.

The 56-year-old Stricker leads virtually every statistical category, including scoring average (67.20), rounds in the 60s (30), putting average (1.68), greens in regulation percentage (80.47) and scrambling (77.98). He enters the championship with four victories and four runner-up finishes in 11 starts on the PGA Tour Champions in 2023.

Factor in the home-state advantage and Stricker clearly is one of the favorites to hoist the trophy for a second time in four years.

“What Steve is doing right now is special, no question about it,” said Kelly, a longtime rival and friend. “He is at the top of his game, and I'm sure he's looking at it going, ‘If I would have made that putt, that putt, that putt, I would have won by 12 instead of six.’ That's the way we all think. But he is really firing on all parts of his game.”

Stricker will have his wife, Nicki, on the bag. She caddied when Stricker won this title in 2019 at the Warren Course at Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind.

“Obviously, I'm feeling pressure this week,” said Stricker about trying to win in Wisconsin. “I want to play well. I want to compete and try to have the opportunity to win.”

Will Irish Eyes Smile Again?

Lost in all the Stricker and Wisconsin talk is the guy who won the title in 2022 in his first year of eligibility: Padraig Harrington. The Irishman arrives at SentryWorld fresh off a win last week in the Dick’s Sporting Goods Open in Endicott, N.Y., which included a second-nine 28 on Sunday.

Harrington, 51, also made the cut in the U.S. Open two weeks ago at The Los Angeles Country Club, tying for 27th.

A year ago at Saucon Valley Country Club in Bethlehem, Pa., Harrington held off a Sunday charge by Stricker to post a one-stroke victory. Now he’ll look to become just the fourth back-to-back champion and first since Allen Doyle in 2005-06.

With the thick rough and tight, tree-lined fairways, one of the longest hitters on the senior circuit will find a course quite similar to that of Oak Hill in Rochester, N.Y., which he played in May at the PGA Championship (T-50).

“There are advantages on the golf course,” said Harrington. “But like a lot of times with golf, even if you have an advantage, you still have to play the best golf. If I play to my strengths, great, I'll be right there at the top of the leader board. But if I don't play to my strengths, then it just won’t work out.”

Beauty and the Beast

When the U.S. Senior Open competitors arrive at the par-3 16th at SentryWorld, they will notice some of the prettiest non-oceanfront scenery in the game. Called the Flower Hole, it is the course’s signature hole as more than 30,000 annuals are planted each spring by the maintenance staff.

The players, however, will have to mentally block out the aesthetics and focus on finding the green as the 16th measures 202 yards on the scorecard.

Players who happen to find the flowers won’t have to fret. They will be required to take mandatory free relief without suffering a penalty stroke.

No matter what happens on the hole, hopefully the players will find a moment to stop and smell the flowers.

David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA. Email him at dshefter@usga.org.