SALEM – Despite a spring that so far has been filled with cool temperatures and above average rainfall, a trio of power groups exuded nothing but optimism and positive vibes at a recent “Preview Day” on May 15 at historic Salem Country Club, in preparation for the 38th U.S. Senior Open Championship, scheduled June 29 through July 2.
Matt Sawicki, director of USGA championships; Ben Kimball, director of the U.S. Senior Open; Bill Sheehan, general chairman from Salem CC, honorary chairman and 25-year Salem CC member Ray Bourque and 2016 US Senior champion Gene Sauers, from the Champions Tour all talked about this year’s tournament, which is only weeks away.
“We are excited about coming back to Salem Country Club and we have fond memories of what happened here in 2001, when Bruce Fleisher shot even par to win by one shot over Gil Morgan and Isao Aoki,” said Matt Sawicki, before a packed audience of media from TV, radio, print and Internet journalists. “Beginning in 2008, the USGA had a great feeling about Salem Country Club hosting the 2017 Senior U.S. Open and they have been doing everything to make it another successful tournament inside and outside the ropes.”
The U.S. Senior Open offers a purse of $4 million, the highest of 20 Champions Tour events, with first place pocketing a check for $700,000. The USGA received 2,680 entries, which is about average, from professionals and amateurs over age 50 wishing to compete for the coveted Francis Ouimet trophy.
“This is senior golf’s ultimate test,” explained Ben Kimball, the man responsible for setting up the golf course, which still holds the highest winning score from 2001 with Fleisher’s even par.
“Salem Country Club has a great history having hosted six USGA championships and the difficult New England terrain will challenge the best senior players on this Donald Ross-designed course.”
“We are hosting this championship because the membership want to share this course and give back to the game,” said Bill Sheehan, a proud, life-time member at Salem Country Club, who played a prominent role in 2001, and will oversee about 2,000 volunteers and 30 different committees. “If you’re familiar with Salem Country Club, you may be thrown off come tournament time as the nines for the tournament are flipped. The 9th hole is 18, and 18 is No. 9 for the pros, because 9 creates a natural amphitheater and makes for an exciting finishing hole.”
Defending champion Gene Sauers, at age 54, captured the 2016 title at Scioto Country Club (Columbus, Ohio) making a 5-foot putt on the 7 nd hole for a one-stroke victory over Miguel Angel Jimenez and Billy Mayfair. Sauers has three PGA Tour victories including the 1986 Bank of Boston Classic, besting Blaine McCallister with birdie on the third playoff hole.
Sauers has a compelling and powerful story to tell. In 2006, he was diagnosed with a deadly skin condition called Stevens-Johnson syndrome, that kept him off the course for seven years. At the time doctors told him he may never play golf again. Treatments at several prominent hospitals in his hometown Savannah, Georgia area allowed him to compete in a few Web.com Tour events in 2012, helping him prepare for the senior tour. Last year, in his fourth full season on the Champions Tour, he finished ninth on the money list with $1,258, 598 and double from the previous year.
“I feel so fortunate to be playing golf for a living and I’m grateful every day for the things going on in my life,” said Sauers, who received the 2017 Ben Hogan Award from the Golf Writers Association of America, given to an individual who has continued to be active in golf despite a physical or serious illness. “This is a thrill beyond words to come here as defending champion and the Ouimet trophy has an impressive list of former winners. I got my first PGA Tour win here in the Boston area in 1986 and I’m looking forward to playing well here at Salem.”
The star-studded field includes John Daly, Bernhard Langer, Colin Montgomerie, Fred Couple, Steve Stricker, Nick faldo, Vijay Singh, Mark O’Meara, Tom Kite, Tom Watson, Allen Dopyle and many more.
In an initiative to grow the game, the USGA is offering free admission to fans under the age of 17. For more information go to: www.2017ussenioropen.com
Brandon Wilfore contributed to this report.