TOLEDO, Ohio – The coolest thing at the U.S. Senior Open hasn’t been the air conditioning in the clubhouse or the ice in the drinks at the corporate tents.
Olin Browne, of all people, has been one cool customer.
Battling high heat and staring down wizened major winner Mark O’Meara, Browne continues to run just a few degrees above zero.
The journeyman had all the answers for the third day in a row on Saturday, shooting a 6-under 65 to forge a two-stroke lead over O’Meara heading into Sunday’s final round.
“The truth is, I haven’t been thinking about what I’ve been doing; I’m thinking about what I’m going to do,” Browne said.
Never a winner in his three years of competition since turning 50, Browne set the tournament record for lowest score through 54 holes. After a record-tying 64 followed by a 69, he’s at 15-under 198.
He didn’t even want to contemplate what winning a major championship would mean to him, even though he knows what it’s like to be on the outside looking in for much of his 27 years as a touring pro.
“I really don’t have any idea,” he said. “It would be great, obviously. Any time you can put that kind of a championship on your resume it’s a tremendous accomplishment. I haven’t gotten one. I would love to have one.”
O’Meara, winner of the 1998 Masters and British Open, had a 66 in a head-to-head duel. Playing in the same pairing, he pulled even with a birdie at the ninth hole but Browne had five birdies on the difficult back nine. His 29 was another tournament record.
“I’ve always been a player that respects my fellow players,” said O’Meara, getting a second wind after playing in Pebble Beach three weeks ago, the past two weeks in England and then flying to his home in Houston before arriving in Toledo on Tuesday. “Olin’s a friend. He’s a very good player. He showed that out there today and I know he’ll be tough tomorrow.”
Heading into the final round, it’s basically a two-man race. Six shots off the pace at 9-under 204 are Jeff Sluman (65), Peter Senior (68), Joey Sindelar(69) and Mark Calcavecchia (69).
They’re left with almost no margin for error.
“You’ve got to hope that at least you get it done early in the round,” said Sluman, winner of the 1988 PGA Championship. “You’ve got to get this thing done quickly and make some birdies and get some momentum going right off the git-go.”
O’Meara refused to say the rest of the pack was out of it. At the same time, he said he relished the one-on-one battle atop the leaderboard.
“It’s a whole new day tomorrow,” he said. “We enjoy playing with each other. I’ll certainly try to do the best I can and if I’m not doing it and he’s hitting good shots, I’m fine with that. If he goes out there and plays well and if I play well, we’ll have to see what happens coming down the stretch.”
Browne is trying to join Simon Hobday, who won at Pinehurst No. 2 in 1994, as the only wire-to-wire winners in the tournament’s 32 years.
His 54-hole total was one better than Hobday’s 199.
Browne said the thought had never crossed his mind that he might not win again after finishing first at the Deutsche Bank in 2005.
“I feel very fortunate to have this kind of a career,” he said. “Whatever happens is OK with me. I’ve had a nice run. I’ve got no complaints.”
Browne began the day with a one-shot edge on O’Meara. They matched each other swing for swing, putt for putt, throughout a day of scorching heat and high humidity at Inverness Club.
Both birdied the fourth hole, with O’Meara falling two back with a bogey on the next hole. Birdies on holes 8 and 9 helped O’Meara catch Browne heading to the back nine at the old Donald Ross layout, which plays to a par of 37 on the front but doesn’t have a par-5 hole and plays to a 34 on the last nine.
Browne hit a wedge to 18 inches for birdie on the 10th hole and took off. He built a three-stroke lead with two more birdies through 13.
O’Meara birdied the 17th and 18th to pull within a shot, but each time Browne – a three-time winner on the PGA Tour – dropped in a birdie putt immediately on top of O’Meara’s.
“Does it feel good to answer his birdie? Yeah, of course it does,” Browne said. “But I’m not looking at it that way. This isn’t match play.”
For all intents and purposes, it will be Sunday when Browne and O’Meara trade shots again.
Inverness again remained defenseless despite sun and high temperatures. The course was hit with almost 4 inches of rain in the last week, with a huge thunderstorm on Friday morning delaying play and forcing 21 players to return to the course on Saturday morning to complete the second round.
Barely staying in sight of Browne and O’Meara are Hale Irwin, who shot his age (66), along with New Mexico club pro Jeff Roth (68) and Michael Allen (71), all at 7-under 206.
Tied for 10th and nine shots back came a who’s who of senior golf, including defending champion Bernhard Langer (68), Hal Sutton (66), Nick Price (68), Jay Haas (68), Steve Jones (69) and Corey Pavin (70).
“I haven’t threatened the leaders yet, but hopefully tomorrow I can go crazy,” Haas said.
So far, Browne has.