PARKER, Colo. – Robin Freeman’s Oklahoma roots would seem to make him the perfect golfer to handle the gusts whipping through the high plains this week.
“It would be, but I haven’t been to Oklahoma in 30 years,” Freeman quipped after shooting a 6-under 66 Thursday for a share of the first-round lead at the 71st PGA Senior Championship at Colorado Golf Club.
Two-time Masters champion Bernhard Langer also took advantage of an early tee time before the winds whipped up and dried out the greens, firing a 66 on the piney 3-year-old private course.
Tom Lehman was the notable exception among the leaders, teeing off in the afternoon and carding a 68 to sit two shots back, along with Brad Bryant, of Amarillo, Texas.
Lehman was at 5-under when his tee shot on No. 18 found the rough, and he bogeyed.
Fred Couples and Tom Kite were among four golfers three shots off the pace.
Although it wasn’t nearly as windy as Monday, when 70 mph gusts prompted club pro Scott Pence of Middletown, R.I., to deadpan: “I saw Dorothy and Toto go by,” the winds on Thursday reached 35 mph, made shots and putts tricky, and dried out the greens.
Many shots were an adventure on the 7,406-yard, par-72 course that cuts through open meadows, wooded hillsides and streams on picturesque land where the Rockies meet the plains, an area that gets its share of violent weather.
Making his Senior PGA Championship debut at age 51, Freeman, of Coronado, Calif., actually did harken back to his wind-swept days at the University of Central Oklahoma before he turned pro in 1982.
“I can hit it low if I have to. But it’s kind of funny that a lot of times you want to hit the ball up in the air here, just so it will carry the right distance,” he said. “The spin is very important coming off the irons here, into the wind, even downwind, because if you don’t spin the ball correctly the wind will knock it down or balloon it or whatever.
“I hit my irons very solid today, which helped me maintain the right distance control. But, yes, to your question, growing up in Oklahoma does help.”
So does growing up in Germany, as Langer did.
“I think I’m a pretty decent wind player,” said Langer, who won 42 times on the European Tour and three times on the PGA Tour, including the Masters in 1985 and ’93.
“The really good wind players say they always curve it into the wind,” Langer said. “I don’t always do that. But that’s a better way to stop the ball on the greens. So, if you have right-to-left wind, you slice it into the wind and the ball comes down softer than letting it hook.”
That’s easier said that done, as the higher afternoon scores showed.
Langer was 5-under through six holes thanks to an eagle on No. 14, where he pitched in from 103 yards with a sand wedge on the par-4, 322-yard hole.
“I had 13 holes to go and I had to play them whether I made eagle there or birdie or par,” Langer said. “But, yeah, it’s nice to get under, in the red numbers, get under par early and take it from there. It’s certainly better than being a couple over.”
Neither Freeman nor Langer was overly excited about grabbing a share of the 18-hole lead because they’ll be teeing off in the afternoon Friday, when the winds are again expected to keep scores in the black.
The winds on Thursday kept shifting, which left many golfers guessing.
“You get on the greens and the wind’s wiggling you around, the ball feels like it’s going to roll all the time and you got all the undulation you’re working with, and it’s just a challenge,” said Jay Don Blake, who shot a 71. “And then trying to figure out, you’re uphill shooting shots, downwind, into the wind. I mean, it’s so hard to pick the clubs.”
Ben Crenshaw, who fired a 72 on the course he co-designed, said he was worried about the weather.
“I hope it doesn’t get any more than this,” he said. “I know it’s forecast as not good tomorrow and I’m worried about that. If you get any more wind and the greens get keen and the ball starts blowing around, then you’re worried about disruption of play. … They put a good amount of water on the greens and they dried out pretty good today.”
Willis Young, the onsite meteorologist for the PGA, said Friday’s forecast calls for similar but warmer weather with winds progressively strengthening throughout the afternoon, topping out at 35 mph.
Fred Funk, who was even-par after the first round, was actually looking forward to teeing off in the afternoon Friday because he figures the winds will die down by the time he’s finishing his round.
“We’ll actually have a lot when we tee off and then late in the round it will be perfect,” he said.
It’s not just the wind that’s on the minds of the golfers here. The high point on the course is about 6,200 feet. Combine that with the thin air and the hilly terrain, and it’s easy to see why many predict someone in their early 50s – like Freeman or Langer – will be holding the silver trophy aloft Sunday.