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Playing the Field: Five for Fighting at the U.S. Senior Open

Devil Ball Golf

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There are two things you need to know about Sahalee, the course in Sammamish, Wash., where the 31st U.S. Senior Open Championship will he held this week. First, it is a ridiculously vertical tree-lined course — the fairways and doglegs will widen a bit as you go, but half the time, you feel as if you're hitting your tee shots at the doorway of a very large broom closet. If you have an aversion to your precious drives hitting a tree every now and again, you'd best stick to links golf.

Second, there isn't a Stimpmeter these greens couldn't offend — I don't yet know how they will be calibrating the greens this week, but whenever I've played Sahalee, it's been like putting on a tile floor.

This ain't no muni, this ain't no disco, this ain't no fooling around. Sahalee is an Indian word that means "High Heavenly Ground", and the course lives up to its name — it's an absolutely beautiful place, which distracts from, and numbs the sting of, the 9 you just took on the last hole. Of course, such provisos apply far more to duffers like me; I saw a PGA field fight this course to a draw during the 2002 NEC Invitational World Golf Championship, and it wouldn't surprise me to see a few of the old pros in this field give the course a good upbraiding. One name in that NEC field is worth mentioning most of all:

Fred Funk: Funk tied for second behind Craig Parry at that NEC, and appeared undaunted by the constraints of the layout — he spent the week walking around with a confidence reminiscent of Bruce Dickinson in the "More Cowbell" sketch. Can Funk emerge as the "cock of the walk," so to speak? Sahalee rewards accurate hitters above all, and Funk currently ranks sixth in fairways hit among Champions Tour golfers with more than 400 possible fairways this year. Funk won last year's Open with a 20-under 268.

Others to consider:

Bernhard Langer: Langer beat Corey Pavin by one stroke at the British Senior Open last week, picking up his first major title on the Champions Tour and moving ahead of Fred Couples for the lead in Charles Schwab Cup points with 1,450. His wire-to-wire finish, despite losing momentum on the final day with three-putts on the eighth and ninth holes, should give him the confidence needed to play a course like this. Carnoustie is a world away from Sahalee from a design perspective, but belief is half the battle.

Fred Couples: The honorary chairman, Couples obviously knows the lay of the land rather well. The Seattle native cut his teeth at Jefferson Park, and he's always had a strong affinity for the area — a feeling that is entirely mutual. He's currently above tour average in driving accuracy and greens in regulation; probably the two most important non-putting numbers at this course. And there's no doubt whatsoever who the crowd will be pulling for. Couples and Langer are the tour's only three-time winners this season.

Corey Pavin: He's been a bridesmaid all year; finishing just behind Langer last week and losing a playoff at the Travelers on the PGA run. Where Pavin comes into play on a course like this is in his driving accuracy (196 out of 252 fairways hit), his No. 1 rank in scrambling, and his T11 in putts per round.

Dan Forsman: Ladies and gentlemen, your Greens in Regulation leader also has the most top-10 finishes this year (eight in 14 events). He ranks 48th in driving accuracy (which tells us that he doesn't mind blowing it out of the rough) and 60th in putts per round, so he'll have to put the little things together for a shot at this course.

Who has the edge? Having seen the way Funk dealt with this course last time he played it, and given the T-3 283 he put up last week in Scotland, I'd be hard-pressed to project this trophy into anyone else's hands. I like Couples as a sentimental favorite, and goodness knows I'll be following Tom Watson around wondering if another miracle is in sight, but whatever adjustments need to be made by others through practice rounds may have Funk working more on specific things and less on the whole-game approach. That will come in very handy on a precision course that is less about recovery and more about execution.

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