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Senior Open Diary

Don and Carole Thames shared their diaries from Omaha, where Don competed in the U.S. Senior Open. Don, head pro at Rancho Murieta Country Club, failed to make the cut.  Anyone who has ever played a bad round of golf can learn from Don's thoughtful analysis of his own efforts, which he offers in the latest installments -- July 10, 11 and 12.

Practice round

Don, right, got some air time on Omaha TV coverage of the practice rounds.

July  10: An easygoing day before the tournament

By Don Thames

We stuck with our plan to take Wednesday off from playing another practice round.  We chipped, putted and hit some balls on the range.  Each player has a name plate while hitting balls and has the choice of practicing with brand new Titleist Pro V1’s, Callaway or Bridgestone golf balls.  It was so pure that I had to fight the temptation and stop hitting shots so as not to over-do it.  Instead we made it leisurely, just took it all in while allowing ourselves to feel like we belonged. 

We visited all of the golf vendors trailers to sample all of the latest equipment.  We were fortunate that some of the company’s were generous with their gear.  Nice.  Upon checking my locker, Titleist had come by and dropped off three dozen balls for me to use.  Callaway, Taylor Made and Adams were all on site for the event. 

Our daughter, Makayla, arrived earlier in the day and we all went out to dinner that evening.  In general, Wednesday was a relaxing day.  Not much more to report. 


The playing partners and the Omaha fans could not have been better.

July 11: On the leader board ... very briefly

By Don Thames

The opening round tee time was 12:45.  We were the first group out in the afternoon wave of split tee times.  It was breezy, roughly 90 degrees and a bit humid.  The starter announced, “Welcome to the 34th U.S. Senior Open, from Rancho Murieta, please welcome Don Thames.” 

I was the third player to hit, so I had the disadvantage of having to balance the ball on the tee after the announcement.  The first guy could tee it up before all of the hoopla.  There is no doubt about it, I was nervous, but I managed to smooth one down the middle.  Knocked it on the green about 20 feet with a wedge and guided something resembling a stroke up to about three feet short.  Leaving putts short is a sure sign of nerves.  The nerves were still evident on the three-foot downhiller I had to lag in.  Blew a birdie opportunity on the par five second and then laced a five iron to 10 feet on the 230-yard downhill par-three third.  When the birdie putt found the bottom of the cup, the crowd behind the green erupted and I gave it a mini downward thrusting fist pump in my exhilaration. 

Leader boardIt was really exciting, as the people of Omaha really embraced this event and were extremely enthusiastic in their support of the players.  Later in the day, Carole told me that my name was on top of the leader board.  LOL.  That didn’t last long.

By now, Jerry Ortner, Josh Twist, Ron Coy, Carole, Makayla, Dan/Sue Cullen and Toni Sherbourn were the RMCC contingency following our threesome.  Played with a guy from Maui named Kirk Nelson and Kym Olsen from Australia.  Great guys all.  We had a blast together and chatted throughout the first two rounds.  Kym gave us lessons in how to speak Australian.  “No one drinks Foster’s in Australia, we export that @#%# to the U.S. and drink the good beer ourselves.”  We were taught the proper and various ways to use the word “mate.”  I called Kym “mate” all day long both days.  He was a scrappy player and narrowly missed the cut by a shot or two. 

I ended up shooting 81 for the first round, which put me into a perfect position to miss the cut.  In my younger days, I would be embarrassed by such a score, but not anymore.  Golf is such a humbling endeavor that after enough of such snowmen (80’s +) , a player finally gets desensitized to it.  On the positive side, a good score can also go a long way to wash away the agony.  Of course, that was my motivation for play in round two. 

Don ThamesI believe that the only time any shame should fall on a player is when he rolls over and gives up.  I missed on my goal of going “double-less” for the tourney as I three-putted my way to a double bogey on the 216-yard par three 16th.  I was told by my caddie and gallery that the only luck I had in round one was bad luck.  This is probably true, but I was the one who missed some of the fairways by just enough to be buried in three inches of hay.  In the second cut, I could advance an 8 iron, but in the third cut I had to blast down on sand wedges.  Even though physically my nerves were in check, I think that mentally, I was far too timid on the greens.  Kept leaving everything short.  Didn’t miss any really short putts, but I didn’t make anything over five feet except for the early birdie on number three. 

It was a day that my iron play was about a 9 for me, but I just missed too many fairways.  Never got it up and down when I missed the green.  Unfortunately, this is not a good combo for scoring.  The stats showed that I took 36 strokes on the greens.  Driving distance was good as the stats showed distance to be 275 to 280 yards.  Stats are available under the Champions Tour tab of pgatour.com.  You can click on a players name and see their stats for the tournament. 

Even though the scoring was not good, the experience has been incredible.  The USGA, the volunteers and the fans of Omaha have treated us like kings.  I wish I could just drive home in the Lexus SUV they let us use. 

There is such a fine line between a good round and a poor one in conditions like this.  Barely missing the fairway is at least a one half stroke penalty.  A player must be very adept at getting it up and in from around these greens that are surrounded by two to three inches of thick grass.  Even though I practiced the shot for three days, the knack for it in competition has not come to me yet.  If and when I have this opportunity again, I will somehow find some grass like this and just flop a thousand balls around and back again.  One of the players, Kym Olsen, had this knack and he beat my brains out even though I clearly outdid him in ball striking.  Kym competes on the Asian tour, the Australasian Tour and plays in some Senior European Tour events.  In his travels he has picked up playing these greenside rough shots.  I can tell you for sure that being in the bunker versus the greenside rough is preferable.  There is also an incredible amount of courage involved in playing this shot as the options (other than hitting it close) are leaving it in the hay or playing conservatively and blasting it 30 feet long. 

Josh, Jerry, Carole, Makayla and I went out to dinner in the Old Market area downtown and had a great meal.  Josh and Jerry wimped out on eating oysters but were happy with their corn-fed Omaha steaks.  Omaha is a great town.  Several fortune 500 companies are here and the downtown is thriving with tourists and locals alike.  The people here are so nice.

Don and Carole Thames

Don and Carole Thames.

July 12: My final round and final thoughts

By Don Thames

By now if you are following the Senior US Open live you know that we missed the cut.  In 2008 at the Broadmoor, I was somewhat devastated by missing until the next day when I was able to put all of this into perspective.  This year, armed with the experience of '08, I was disappointed, but not nearly as much as before.  The part that was most disappointing is that I had my 90-plus percentile swing (for me) coming in and during the tournament.  But as golfers like you know, there is not necessarily a correlation between scoring and ball striking.  Many other factors come into play such as putting, mental state, course management and the like.  Don’t leave out luck either.  I had my share in getting here but ran out once the bell rang. 

Drove the ball well today and seemed to find most of the fairways.  I did have one case of missing the 14th fairway from the tee, missing it again from the rough and missing it again upon the approach.  That will always spell B-O-G-E-Y around here.  Ended up firing 78 with yet another double.  I am sure there were more doubles made this week but I was shooting for zero in the DB department.

I definitely took the time to smell the roses as I climbed the sloping fairways of Omaha Country Club.  The atmosphere is so charged and thrilling that you can’t help being pumped to the highest octane.  The added adrenaline was a huge factor in staving off being tired.  My fitness coaches, Ryan Tomson and Kyle Yamashiro, would be glad to know that I was prepared physically.  Gotta have a few more words with my mental coach, I guess.  The topic would be “How to make the cut at the U.S. Senior Open."

Ended up shooting 78 for a 36-hole score of 159.  At least we averaged under snowman for two rounds.  No sense hashing things out shot by shot because that is not only boring, but extremely so.  To summarize it, I would say that my iron game and putting were substandard.  For example, on the difficult uphill 419 fourth, I drove it right up the gut only to chunk a 9 iron for bogey.  Two holes later on the downhill 543-yard par five I crushed another drive down the middle staring at pin with side boards and backboards with a perfect angle of attack.  I was salivating at the prospect of making an eagle three as I had another nine iron in my hands.  Promptly came over the nine iron and launched it over the back into the rough with little chance for an up and in birdie.  Nice par, DT.

The second round started with the prospect of good putting as I rolled three or four putts from varying lengths over the edge of the hole without making anything.  Now for the positive:  The third hole par three was played from the “up” tee straight down wind.  Flushed a seven iron right into the bunker and proceed to chunk the bunker shot out to 25 feet.  When the left to right downhiller rolled in the crowd erupted.  Finally I made a putt.  Better late than never, I suppose.  I have to admit that even though I was a few over par and above the cut line, the response by the crowd was exhilarating. 

We came to the last two holes and I was trying to savor each and every minute because I knew that our playing in the tournament was nearly over.  The eighth hole played all the way back at 477 yards into the wind.  Crushed a drive and proceeded to launch a three wood straight away toward the flagstick.  The ball carried about 10 feet past the cup dead on line and ended up stopping about 20 feet from the hole.  Again, big crowd applause and some hat tipping.  I heard a loud whistle coming from the throng of people (perhaps a thousand or so) that I recognized as Carole’s.  Looked through and through the crowd and could not find her.  Had a testy downhill right to lefter with five feet of break that I left an inch on the low side.  To tell you the truth, I was happy to two putt.

Hole number nine is a narrow heavily bunkered, straight uphill 399 yard par four.  Crushed a tee shot into a left to right cross breeze and stood over a 112-yard approach to a back right pin.  Spent more time with my caddie trying to figure out how to stuff the caddie bib into my bag than we did analyzing the final approach shot.  Perhaps, for this reason, I yanked my approach shot to the safe side some 30 feet from the hole.  All that remained was a left to right breaking uphiller.  For one of the few times in the tournament I did not think of ramming one by.  As the putt rolled toward the hole, I knew it was going in.  When it dove into the cup the crowd roared similar to what you would see and hear on TV.  Dropped the putter, raised my hands and carried on a bit with a few vertical fist thrusts.  Followed that with a few high fives and just stood there with a big smile on my face peering into the crowd with a tremendous feeling of appreciation and exhilaration (have I over-used this word?).  At any rate, it was a great way to end the round and, in my case, playing in the 2013 U.S. Senior Open.

Suffered a bit of sadness when I signed my card and turned it in knowing that I had missed the cut.  Hung out in the family dining room with Jerry, Josh (my so-called brother in law and nephew), Dan/Sue Cullen, Carole and Makayla.  We had some beer and lunch and luxuriated in the air conditioning.

The rest of the tournament we will spend as spectators and leave Omaha on Monday morning early.  Carole is collecting a bunch of durable beer cups as souvenirs.  We seem to know no shame as we have done a bit of dumpster diving to find them.  I will take a picture and show off our collection.  

This article will be the final writing in this blog.  We would like to take this opportunity to thank all of the fantastic people of Rancho Murieta who have supported us with the fund raising effort and your kind emails, texts and phone calls.  We are overwhelmed by your kindness.  Thanks to all of you once more.


Our cup collection.

July 9: A round with Hale Irwin and Rocco Mediate

By Don Thames

Today we teed off in the first starting time of the day, at 7 a.m.  We were paired with Hale Irwin, Dave Eichelberger and Rocco Mediate.  Rocco was a super friendly man and of course a great player.  Hale never missed a fairway and Dave was one of the nicest guys you could ever play with.  Dave is 69, Hale is 67 and Rocco is a rookie Champions Tour player at 50 years of age.

Senior Open group

Hale Irwin, second from left, and Rocco Mediate, far right, joined Don Thames, second from right, for a photo.

Today was nice, as we did not hit a bunch of practice shots until we reached the greens, where we did a lot of putting to locations that would likely be placements during the actual tournament.  I am fortunate to have Nick on the bag, as he knows the greens well and talks to me and advises me as well as a sports psychologist.  He is constantly reminding me to stay in the present.  He is also very adept at golf course management.

After three practice rounds, I am satisfied with being familiar with the golf course.   I will take Wednesday off and just hit some balls, chip and putt.  Nick, as a great player in his own right, gave me a great tip yesterday about playing from the tall rough around the greens.  I practiced his method and it seems to produce a higher, softer shot, which will come in handy around here.

There are three cuts of graduated rough in this USGA event.  On top of that, I have noticed on the shorter holes and the par fives that the rough is taller than it is on the monster par fours of 450 to 460 yards.  I can move an 8 iron about 100 yards from the secondary rough, so there is definitely a penalty for missing the fairway.  Missing the fairway will result in trying to get it up and in from 40 to 100 yards.  In the third cut (the tallest grass) a sand wedge is the weapon required.  The first cut is decent to play from but can produce a “flyer” if the approach angle is too steep.

Daughter Makayla came in to town and has joined the fun.  Ron Coy and Dan/Sue Cullen came out and followed us around.  Carole supplied them with family passes so they can go behind the ropes and come in to the player and family dining area and make use of free food/drink and air conditioning.  It has reached 90 degrees here and is humid.  Feels kind of like Florida to me.  Jerry Ortner and Josh Twist are coming out on Wednesday night.  All of our friends get free passes for the week.

Hale still moves it out there pretty good and is extremely accurate.  I don’t think he missed a fairway all day.  As you might imagine, he is very accurate with the irons as well.  Rocco hits it about five to 10 yards by me on the average.  Hale would be about 10-15 back on the average and Dave is slightly behind Hale.  Remember, they are nine and 11 years older respectively.  I believe this aging thing is like dog years after 50.  It is hard to tell how these guys putt because my caddy threw down discs on the greens and balls were rolling all over the place simultaneously from all different directions.

Didn’t practice after the round and instead used available energy on visiting the Taylormade, Callaway and Adams Tour Vans.  Picked up a bunch of golf clubs at a great price (free).  These guys have it made out here and are spoiled rotten.  They have a fitness van for player massage and therapy which I will probably take advantage of tomorrow.  Right next to that is a mini-gym with an attendant on duty who applies “stretches” to the players.

Tonight we are all going over to Dan Cullen’s house for a barbeque.  More details to follow.

July 8: It was a week we'll remember always

By Carole Thames

What a week! Crazy temperatures, the excitement of the usual Rancho Murieta hometown Fourth of July and the anticipation of waiting to hear the news of “Yes, come to Omaha,” or “I am sorry, Mr. Thames, we just can’t tell you for sure yet.”

As you may know, we did some major research once we had made it to the first alternate position from Salinas after playing the qualifying round at Corral de Tierra. The gentleman from Fresno who was in the playoff with Don for first alternate was probably a bit flustered when Don mentioned on the first tee that this probably doesn’t mean much. Don was first alternate from his qualifying site last year and did not get in. Well, as it turned out, it meant something. The strength of field at the Salinas qualifier postioned us as the seventh alternate nationwide.  Trying to be patient, we waited until Friday, June 28, to make the call.  Staff at the USGA headquarters in New Jersey are very friendly and extremely patient ... thank God. Betsy, the gal in the championship department, informed us that she had already taken two alternates so we were now in fifth position and in a very good spot. After several calls on Monday and Tuesday, we finally got the call at 10 a.m. on Wednesday morning.

Don had asked the staff to call us once we got to first position, as we thought it was highly unlikely that a PGA player over the age of 50 would win the Greenbriar this past weekend. We had decided on Tuesday that we would book the flights. So when he did get that call his first question was, “Am I in first position or are you telling me something else?”  The USGA official said, “Mr. Thames, we are asking if you would like to play in the U.S. Senior Open.” Since then I think Don’s feet have touched the ground just a few times.

Now we could make the announcement! No, we did not postpone the twilight golf league for some minuscule reason. This was exciting stuff! We tried to hang low key on the Fourth (thank you, Doug and Tammie Kirk). Friday was a big day and an even bigger night. The members of Rancho Murieta Country Club came out with a bang. The energy in the Terrace Lounge was fully charged and I heard it carried on into the 19th hole through the evening.

After two sessions of junior golf on Saturday morning, we were scrambling off to the airport. With conflicting emotions we boarded our flight heading to Omaha. Everyone on board was praying for the passengers of the flight that had just recently crashed at SFO. Flights were already being diverted into Sacramento. It is not often you see a double decker Singapore Airline taxing into terminal B. We finally arrived in Omaha just after midnight due to a plane malfunction on the ground in Dallas.

With a couple of hours rest, we were surprised to see that Omaha is not flat! Omaha Country Club, as it turns out, makes Serrano look like a prairie. It’s a beautiful course with a lovely “old school” clubhouse. With the help of longtime ex-Murietan Dan Cullen, we hooked up with a past member of the club who was also their club champion. Nick VanDrak stepped in and looped for Don today. Don and Nick hit it off right away and his course knowledge is beyond what we could have hoped for. We have decided that if Nick is up for it he will take the reins and hopefully we will be watching Don and him on NBC next weekend!

Don and Fred Funk

Don and Fred Funk shake hands at the end of the round.

We had a great practice round today with Fred Funk and Esteban Toledo. Don and Esteban had some great conversations in Spanish. Esteban and Funk ham-and-egged it with the gallery through the round and at one point Esteban pulled a young girl, who appeared to have never swung a club, out on to the tee box to see if she could outdrive Fred. After her first two attempts made it about two yards, she finally connected on the third swing and walloped her drive about 60 yards. The three got along well and I think Fred, Esteban and their caddies were all taking pointers from the local guy, Don’s caddy, Nick.  A good time was had by all!

Besides the excitement of playing in the Open, Don’s stomach couldn’t wait to get to the legendary Omaha steak houses. After two nights of large cut prime ribs Don has enough protein in his system to last him through the weekend, however I think there may be even more beef in our near future. Ron Coy flew in tonight and joined us for dinner along with Dan Cullen. There were many Rancho Murieta golf stories with lots of laughs.

Tomorrow is another early day as we are set to tee off at 7 a.m. with Hale Irwin and Rocco Mediate. Keep sending all those good thoughts … we are hoping for good things this week!

Tee shot

Don eyeballs a tee shot all the way.

July 8: Cullen comes through

By Don Thames

We arrived at the Omaha Country Club on Sunday noon and were one of the first players to register for the event.  Once inside, we chatted with Dave Eichelberger, who won the U.S. Senior Open in 1999.  Dave, you may remember, gave us all a thrill in the 1994 Raley’s Senior Gold Rush when he battled Bob Murphy in the playoff that played over and over on the 18th hole at Rancho Murieta. 

Omaha resident and former RMCC member Dan Cullen came up big as our concierge.  Through his network of friends in town, he found us a super good caddie named Nick Vondrak.  Nick is 39 years old and a former club champion at Omaha Country Club.  He also played in the Mid Am two years ago and is a regular  contestant in the Omaha State Am.  Nick lives on the second hole of OCC.  Needless to say, he is a good player.  It was a touchy subject to bring up when it came time to decide on the caddie duty, as Carole has been my longtime caddie and was on the bag to get us here.  Once she heard about Nick’s qualifications and then later walked with him in the practice round, she acquiesced, knowing that this guy knows this track.  Besides, her knees are killing her and this golf course is super hilly.  I thought Omaha would be flat, but this piece of property sure is not. 

The golf course seems to eyeball well for me, as there are no mandatory “hook” holes, as dominated the Broadmoor in 2008.  It is a par 71 converted to a 70, as is custom in many USGA events.  Thus there are just three par fives.  Two of them seem to be reachable.  At just under 6,800 yards, it is not the longest course ever played but resembles RMCC in one way.  Most of the par fours are 400 yards or so except for three of them which are monsters, like our numbers 4, 13 and 18.  The three monsters at OCC measure 440, 450 and 460.  The other similarity to RMCC is that the par threes are all over 200 yards except for one.  With that the similarity ends.  These green complexes, though not as tricky as the Broadmoor, are exceptionally challenging in slope, undulation and of course speed. The greens are known as “The Maxwell Rolls” after the architect who so diabolically designed them in the late '20s.   The USGA is shooting for 12 on the stimp during the tournament.

We are set up on Monday to play a practice round with Fred Funk and Esteban Toledo.  Tuesday we will be paired with Kenny Perry and Scott Hoch.  Wednesday (If we play) I put us down with Tom Lehman.  I will never forget Tom Lehman’s interview with David Feherty when he said this quote that I hope I never forget.  “In life you have to have something to look forward to (hope), someone to love and something to do.”  I think I might get his attention when I quote that to him on Wednesday.

That’s all for now.   Many thanks to all of our members and friends who came out to support us at the send-off.  That was a day we will always remember fondly when it comes to the great people of Rancho Murieta.  Carole or I will  be checking in regularly as time and our energy level allows.  I write this now at 4 in the morning on Monday because I can’t sleep.  I gotta go get ready to “Play my tail off."

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