At one point Saturday in the U.S. Senior Open at Oak Tree National, the leader going in Colin Montgomerie built up a 5-shot lead.
But that didn’t even faze Gene Sauers.
Sauers, who shot 69 in the first two rounds, fired up his engine despite bogeying the first hole.
On the par 5 12th, he zeroed in an approach shot and with a smooth putting stroke, dropped in a 12-footer for birdie.
At the par 3 13th, he missed the green right but nearly chipped in and tapped in for a par.
On 14, he hit the fairway bunker right, then went into the rough left before going into a greenside bunker, where, he chipped up and down for par.
The confidence was built.
And, it persevered to 16 and the final hole where he collected his final two birdies on the day to lead the U.S. Senior Open by 3 strokes over Germany’s Bernard Langer and Scott Dunlap of Duluth, Ga.
“Hit a bad tee shot there (No. 14) in the bunker,” Sauers, from Savannah, Ga., said in the post-round press conference. “But I hit a decent (a different bunker shot) bunker shot, what, 12 feet and made the putt for par which I think that kind of perked me up a little bit.”
Sauers, a four-time winner on the PGA Tour before coming down with arthritus and Stevens-Johnson Syndrome, actually didn’t pick up a club for seven years but had a two-year exemption to play on the Champions Tour. His last PGA Tour win was in 2002 at the Air Canada Championship.
“I’ve been struggling this year with my swing a little bit and putting and I’ve got some help back home, some friends and some teachers have been helping me a little bit,” he said. “They got me hitting the ball solid now.
“Building my confidence is mainly what they do. They know I still have it. You know, it’s just go out there and do it ... try not to put too much pressure on myself and try to have fun.”
Sauers (-7) pulled ahead of playing partner Langer (-4) by 3 shots and the duo will be paired again Sunday in the final grouping at 12:40 p.m. Montgomerie, who picked up a pair of early birdies to go to minus-8 with a 5-shot advantage, fell back to 3-under par and will be just in front of Sauers/Langer playing with Dunlap at 12:30.
On 13, Langer hit his tee shot just 4 feet from the hole but lipped out the putt and had to settle for par. At the time, Langer was in a tie at the top of the leaderboard at minus-5 with Montgomerie and could have taken sole possession of the lead with the potential birdie.
“I like the greens, the pace of the greens and I feel comfortable with my putting,” Langer stated. “I know one or two of the putts I misread slightly, like I putted them straight and they were definitely left-to-right breakers and lipped out on the right edge.
“It could have been one or two that I pushed a little bit so I’m going to spend 10 minutes on the putting green, hit a few 6 to 10-footers and then go stretch and go home and rehydrate.”
Langer is tied for second with Dunlap at minus-4, Montgomerie stands alone in fourth at minus-3 and there is a three-way tie for fifth consisting of Vijay Singh, Jeff Sluman and Marco Dawson at minus-2.