In the lead-up to the 43rd U.S. Senior Open Championship, the talk amongst the best 50-and-over players was how SentryWorld was a “proper” USGA Open course. Translated, the daily-fee facility that has undergone two extensive renovations since opening 41 years ago has penal rough, tight, tree-lined fairways and slick greens.
A throwback Open, where par is a good score.
The leader board after Round 1 reflected just that, as only four competitors managed red figures on a sun-splashed Thursday in central Wisconsin, where the scoring average on the 7,085-yard, par-71 Robert Trent Jones Jr. layout was 77.32.
“This course is kind of like what I used to play 30 years ago in U.S. Opens,” said 2015 U.S. Senior Open champion Jeff Maggert following an even-par 71. “It's just fairways and greens. That's all you're trying to do. You're not thinking about birdies.
“It’s … old style U.S. Open.”
One player who managed his way around the minefield in Round 1 was Rod Pampling, 53, of Australia, who overcame a double-bogey 6 on the par-4 sixth to post a 3-under 68. He finished two strokes ahead of two-time U.S. Open champion Retief Goosen, Miguel Angel Jimenez and University of Illinois men’s golf coach Mike Small.
Among the notables three strokes back at even-par 71 are two-time U.S. Open champion Ernie Els, Wisconsin native Jerry Kelly, 2010 U.S. Senior Open champion Bernhard Langer and 2018 champion David Toms.
Steve Stricker, winner of the year’s first two senior majors, saw his streak of consecutive rounds at par or lower end at 55. The Madison, Wis., resident and 2019 champion suffered a pair of double bogeys midway through his round and settled for a 1-over 72. His poor drive left of the fairway on the par-5 10th was stymied against a tree, and he found the penalty area with his tee shot on the par-3 12th.
Pampling, a three-time PGA Tour winner, came into the championship with some momentum. He began June with a tie for fourth at the Principal Charity Classic, and last week, he shared 12th at the Dick’s Sporting Goods Open. On Thursday, he registered seven birdies against two bogeys and a double bogey.
“There were a lot of good things [in the round], but yes, the putting was really solid,” said Pampling, who owns a solo fourth (2021) and tie for 13th (2022) in his two previous U.S. Senior Open starts. “It's been good for a month or so. Not a surprise, but just to be able to actually see the lines as well as I did today was good.”
Tough conditions are nothing new for Goosen, especially considering his two U.S. Open titles came at Southern Hills Country Club (2001) and Shinnecock Hills Golf Club (2004), where he one-putted 11 greens in Sunday’s final round to hold off Phil Mickelson. He got to 3 under par before finding the rough on the par-4 sixth, statistically the third-toughest hole in Round 1, and again on No. 8 to suffer bogeys.
Small, meanwhile, didn’t arrive at SentryWorld until Tuesday night after deciding to play in the Illinois Senior Open, where he successfully defended his title in a playoff over amateur Mark Small (no relation). The two-time PGA Professional of the Year used his Wednesday practice round with Stricker, his ex-college teammate at Illinois, to gain some insight into the golf course. Despite hitting just 5 of 14 fairways and 10 of 18 greens, he scrambled his way around the course. Starting on No. 10, he birdied the first three holes and added birdies on Nos. 18 (a shot to a foot), 3 and 5. He ended his day with a double-bogey 6 on the 431-yard ninth hole, which played as the most difficult in Round 1 (4.880).
“This course is so hard,” said Small, who has guided the Illini to 13 of the last 14 Big Ten titles and a runner-up finish in the NCAA Championship (2013). “It's difficult. I hit one fairway on the back nine today. Hit [five] fairways all day. To do that and score what I shot, I'm pretty thankful.”
Jimenez, the popular Spaniard who owns five top-10s in seven previous U.S. Senior Open starts, including two runners-up (2016 and 2018), also got to 3 under par by playing bogey-free golf for 13 holes, only to suffer a bogey on the par-5 14th and another on the par-4 17th when his approach found a penalty area.
Defending champion Padraig Harrington, coming off a win last weekend at the Dick’s Sporting Goods Open in Endicott, N.Y., only hit half his fairways (7 of 14) and greens (9 of 18) en route to shooting a 74. Harrington is hoping to become the fourth player to win consecutive U.S. Senior Opens since the competition began in 1980.
All 156 competitors will play Round 2 on Friday, beginning at 7 a.m. CDT, after which the field will be trimmed to the low 60 and ties for the final two rounds on the weekend. Golf Channel has the coverage from noon to 3 p.m. ET and from 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m.
“No surprises. I said to my caddie (Perry Gammon), we've just got to be patient. Just keeping it as simple as we can. Just hitting a lot of short wedges. Not trying to stress too much and just play the golf course as it comes to you.” – Rod Pampling on his mindset for SentryWorld
“On the 17th [hole], it's a pity. Hit a nice shot from the rough, and then the ball run boom, boom, boom into the water, and then one putt [for bogey].” – Miguel Angel Jimenez on his second-to-last-hole hiccup en route to a 70
’’“It’s been going out of joint for a couple months, and it just inflamed so bad the last week. I’ve been having it worked on constantly, and that’s aggravating it more. So, it's inflamed. I was hoping it was going to be better. I could barely play three holes yesterday.” – Jerry Kelly on playing through a nagging wrist injury
“I'll be going to Indiana Jones this afternoon. That's my plan. Won't be [at] the range.” – defending champion Padraig Harrington after his first-round 74
“You [have] got to hit the fairways. Otherwise, you've got no shot.” – two-time U.S. Open champion Retief Goosen on the challenge of the rough
“It's going to be a challenge the next three days, and the rough isn't going to get any shorter. Like I said, anything around par, you're not hurting yourself.” – Steve Stricker
“When you make three birdies in a row you can't get too far ahead of yourself. Or, hey, I'm leading this golf tournament. And certainly, when you make bogeys, you can't get too deflated because you know a lot of people are. If you get too high or get too low, you get ahead of yourself and get down. You've just got to be there on every [shot] to the best of your ability.” – David Toms on making three consecutive birdies from No. 10 and finishing with three bogeys over his last four holes
David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA. Email him at email@example.com.