On the way out of the interview room Sunday afternoon at Oak Tree National, Gene Sauers said he wouldn’t be at Royal Porthcawl for the Senior Open Championship.
Maybe the guy who followed him behind the microphone can talk him into a trip across the pond.
That would be Colin Montgomerie, who’s now holding two of the world’s three most important over-50 championships, the Senior PGA and the one he won Sunday in suburban Oklahoma City, the U.S. Senior Open.
It’s hard to know if anybody can become a national hero in their 50s without holding office, rank or maybe an Oscar, but Montgomerie’s in a position to find out if he can go win the last of the three two weeks from now on Welsh shores.
After a 21-hole performance in triple degree Oklahoma heat, you can’t say he hasn’t earned the chance, just as you couldn’t help but hate to see Sauers wrestle with defeat, just as you can’t resist the notion that no player proved to be a bigger star the last four days at Oak Tree than Oak Tree National itself.
Sauers may have been the hardest luck loser in a USGA championship since Mike Donald fell to Hale Irwin at the 1990 U.S. Open at Medinah.
Donald was a fish out of water that year, doing everything but winning a tournament nobody could have ever guessed he might. He just couldn’t quite close it out.
Nor could Sauers, a Georgia Southern alum, just like Donald, who pulled a four-footer for par left of the hole at No. 16 and lipped out an eight-footer for birdie and the championship at No. 18.
“That putt was just a hare’s breath short of pace or else it was in and he would have won,” Montgomerie said, seeming to feel a little sorry for Sauers’ loss even as he basked in his own achievement.
It was all in Sauers’ hands, he just couldn’t close the deal.
“I had a lot of opportunities out there today … I’m disappointed but I’m happy also,” he said. “It builds a lot of confidence going into the rest of the year.”
So why not take it across the Atlantic?
“They’re great players,” Sauers said of the men he stared down for 71 of 72 holes Sunday: Montgomery, Bernhard Langer and Vijay Singh, “but I know I can beat them.”
As for the course, the praise was positively gushing, led by none other than the winner, who began the gushing long before he won it.
If Oak Tree National wants to land an actual U.S. Open, it has an advocate in Montgomerie, who may have been a bit of a sore loser at earlier times in his career, but was nothing but a gracious winner at Oak Tree.
“I’m taking this course back home to tell everyone at home in Britain how good this place is,” he said. “It’s a fantastic golf course. Whether I won, lost or drawn here, it’s a fabulous golf course and a couple of back tees for the junior guys and who knows, you know? Why not host a USGA Open Championship here? It’s certainly good enough, there’s no question.”
As it turned out, what Montgomerie shot Thursday — 6-under par — had he only stayed put, would have been enough to win on Sunday.
The layout proved torturously and relentlessly fair. Hit great shots and you’re rewarded. Don’t, and only great shots will keep you from being punished.
It could be had Sunday. Kenny Perry and Joe Durant both shot 67. Also, Langer shot 76. Every shot counts and Oak Tree National made sure it did.
Finally, what to make of Montgomerie?
He, too, blew chances, just as Sauers did, that would have won him the tournament without playing three extra holes. Also, at a time both men were leaking serious oil, he canned a 10-foot par putt at the 18th to escape a fourth playoff hole and claim the crown.
He shot 69.
Other than Perry and Durant, that was about as good as it got.
Montgomerie’s story doesn’t pull at your heart strings the way Sauers’ does, but there’s something about it that’s pretty amazing and really unlikely.
He spent his prime winning money title after money title on the European Tour, yet somehow managed to never win a major and never win in America.
The guy most like him in modern times is Lee Westwood, but even Westwood’s won twice on these shores.
Yet here Montomerie is. Older, wiser and, even a little heavier, he might be playing the best golf of his life.
“I think I felt (in the past) that in majors, when I was contending, that I had to play perfect golf. I had to go out and score 64 and it’s amazing the quality of the golf courses and the the toughness of them … You don’t,” he said. “You have to play intelligent golf and I think I’ve matured enough to realize that and play more within myself.”
At Oak Tree National, in the wake of Sauers’ amazing story, in the heavy Oklahoma heat, after four long days, it was just enough.
CLAY HORNING is sports editor of The Norman Transcript.