Advertisement

Bernhard Langer outlasts Steve Stricker and Jerry Kelly to win 2023 U.S. Senior Open

STEVENS POINT – Generally speaking, there isn’t a “homefield advantage” in golf tournaments. Galleries root for popular players and good shots, and there usually isn’t someone playing spoiler.

The 2023 U.S. Senior Open at SentryWorld in Stevens Point was anything but the usual in that regard. Madison’s Steve Stricker came as the hottest and best player on the PGA Tour Champions. Fellow Madison resident Jerry Kelly was in good form.

If ever there was a homefield advantage in the sport, they had it this week.

And Bernhard Langer was the perfect foil. Opening the day with a two-shot lead, the 65-year-old steadily won his record 46th PGA Tour Champions title with a 7-under-par 277 for the tournament, capped by a solid 1-under 70 final round.

“It feels awesome,” he said. “It's been a long time coming, but very, very happy. Never thought it would happen at a U.S. Senior Open, but I'm very thrilled that the record of 46 wins happened this week.

“It's certainly one of the greatest tournaments we ever compete in, and to beat this field, where everybody was here, especially Stricker and Kelly on their home grounds, is a very special feeling. Very grateful.”

Jerry Kelly and Bernhard Langer embrace as they walk to the 18th green during the final round of the 2023 U.S. Senior Open on Sunday, July 2, 2023, at SentryWorld in Stevens Point, Wis. Langer won the tournament at 7-under par to claim his 46th career PGA Tour Champions victory, a new tour record. Kelly finished in 3rd place at 4-under par.Tork Mason/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin

Knowing he had to overcome the rooting interests of nearly everyone on the grounds, he muffled the galleries with consecutive birdies to start his round and quickly push his lead to four shots over Kelly and five over Stricker.

Langer effectively turned the lights out on the party before it could really get started.

“I knew it was going to be a tough day just because Steve Stricker has been in top form,” Langer acknowledged. “He's winning basically every time he tees up or thereabouts. I knew he would want to have his streak going of three majors in a row, and I knew he was going to give it his all.

“The same with Jerry Kelly. He's one of the best ball strikers, very underrated golfer. I knew he would do well because he is one of the straightest hitters. The key this week, I think, was hitting the fairways. If you could keep it out of the cabbage, you had a chance.”

And if he wasn’t already considered the greatest player over the age of 50, Langer put that debate to bed in breaking Hale Irwin’s longstanding record for most wins on the PGA Tour Champions.

“I'm proud of the way I battled again, but having a front row seat to 45 and 46 as a really good friend of Bernhard's, that was special,” Kelly said. “He can retire now.

“But that was very special. I'm happy to be a part of it. He deserves it. It was incredible watching him pick apart the golf course methodically and making birdies.”

Leaderboard: 2023 Senior Open scores

Langer already had the record for most senior majors won, and this was his 12th overall and second U.S. Senior Open title. It marks his 11th straight season with multiple wins on the PGA Tour Champions, tying Irwin’s mark.

The 13 years between U.S. Open titles for Langer is also a record for multiple-time winners of the event. Kenny Perry waited four years between championships.

“Having won more majors on this Tour than anybody, even Jack Nicklaus or Arnold Palmer, Lee Trevino, Gary Player, you name them all, that's incredible,” Langer said. “Now to add one more at age – I'm almost 66. My caddie just told me the average age of the U.S. Senior Open winner is 52, and here I am at 66. So the odds were definitely stacked against me, but I don't always go by odds and what's written on paper.

“The golf ball doesn't know how old we are, and we do the best we can.”

Langer is now 9 for 16 in closing out senior majors when he entered the final round with a lead or co-lead. He was clinical through 15 holes on Sunday where his steady play forced Stricker, playing a group ahead, and Kelly to make birdies.

And while the course did yield some scoring on Sunday – Steven Alker went 6-under and Brett Quigley went 5-under – the hometown duo could not put together a rally.

Stricker tried, though.

Steve Stricker reads a putt on the 11th green during the final round of the 2023 U.S. Senior Open on Sunday, July 2, 2023, at SentryWorld in Stevens Point, Wis. Stricker finished the tournament in 2nd place at 5-under par.Tork Mason/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin
Steve Stricker reads a putt on the 11th green during the final round of the 2023 U.S. Senior Open on Sunday, July 2, 2023, at SentryWorld in Stevens Point, Wis. Stricker finished the tournament in 2nd place at 5-under par.Tork Mason/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin

From the fairway of the par-5, fifth hole he tried to reach the green in two. But his approach found the water fronting the hole. Instead of an eagle putt to put pressure on Langer, Stricker made bogey to fall six shots back and out of the mix.

He was 2-over on the front.

“I just didn't get off to the start I needed to get off to today,” Stricker said. “I was really excited to get out there and play. I was feeling good. I just didn't hit very many quality shots to start with. Drove it well at the 1st hole and hit kind of a mediocre 7-iron. My tempo seemed a little off. I was a little quick just because I guess I was so excited, I felt like I had a good round in me. Just didn't hit some good shots.

“Then really the shot at the par-5, No. 5 kind of; that was a killer really. We got the wind wrong, and then I overhooked it. Hindsight, I should have just been aiming way to the right and chip it across the green.”

He didn’t make his first birdie until the 11th hole, which started a strong closing kick that included four birdies on the back nine. Stricker ended the day with a 2-under 69 and finished 5-under for the championship, alone in second place.

“I knew he wasn't going to back off today, and that's why I thought I needed to shoot a 5-under round, get it to 8 or 7 or something like that,” Stricker said of Langer. “And he didn't. He came out strong and made some birdies and got it to 10 really quick.”

Langer also found the hazard on his approach to the fifth, but his ball was sitting up on a mud bank. So, he shed his socks and shoes, rolled his pants up and hit it out to a few feet. He then made birdie.

The highlight up-and-down effectively ended the tournament as it gave Langer a five-shot margin over Kelly with 13 holes to play. So even though Langer bogeyed his final three holes, the championship was never really in doubt as he missed just two fairways and four greens.

For the week, Langer was No. 1 in driving accuracy in hitting 48 of 55 fairways (87.3%), No. 1 in greens in regulation in hitting 52 of 71 (73.2%) and No. 1 in scrambling (73.7%).

Playing alongside Langer on Sunday, Kelly never got it going with three birdies against three bogeys for an even-par round of 71. He finished the championship in third place at 4-under.

Jerry Kelly acknowledges the crowd after finishing the final round of the 2023 U.S. Senior Open on Sunday, July 2, 2023, at SentryWorld in Stevens Point, Wis. Kelly finished the tournament in 3rd place at 4-under par.Tork Mason/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin
Jerry Kelly acknowledges the crowd after finishing the final round of the 2023 U.S. Senior Open on Sunday, July 2, 2023, at SentryWorld in Stevens Point, Wis. Kelly finished the tournament in 3rd place at 4-under par.Tork Mason/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin

“I know I was way too amped up,” Kelly admitted. “I was trying to be settled and calm, but I was talking more than I have all week. I was moving a little bit faster than I have all week. Just wasn't – I could tell it wasn't, OK, I'm really tired. I'm just going to pass out. I was up a little bit last night too. I didn't have the strength as much today to stave off that.

“We want to be in those situations. We want to push our mind and our bodies into those uncomfortable spots and see how we do in them. I did well without my best stuff today. There have been times, there's going to be times when I have it on that Sunday, and I didn't today.”

Rob Labritz and Quigley finished tied for fourth at 2-under. Alker’s strong round put him at 1-under for the tournament and tied with Dicky Pride and Retief Goosen for sixth place.

Y.E. Yang and Alex Čejka finished at even par for the tournament to round out the top 10.

Langer’s victory also ended Stricker’s own bid for history, as he was looking to become the first player to win the first three PGA Tour Champions majors in a year (Jack Nicklaus won The Tradition, Senior PGA Championship and U.S. Senior Open in 1991, but they were ordered differently).

Though Stricker or Kelly did not win the tournament, it was a memorable week for the duo. Both had their families in attendance, and their Saturday pairing featured excellent shots and long birdie putts that got the thousands in the galleries in an uproar.

“I just think the receptions that I've got, the support that I've got and received from this week, it blows me away really,” Stricker said. “We played a long time, Jerry and I, through our career. To see the support that we get here is really something special.

“We came up a little bit short, but all in all, we had a ball yesterday, the two of us yesterday had a great time. Just another feather in Wisconsin's cap really, to have a major championship here. We've had other major championships here on the regular Tour, but Wisconsin shows up.

“It's cool to see. I'm lacking a word, but it's just neat to see the support they give, not only Jerry and I but the whole field, and how they show up and support. They've done it from day one here in our state. It's cool to see.”

What is next for Wisconsin?

As for what’s next on the golf calendar, the U.S. Women’s Open will head to Erin Hills in 2025.

On the men’s side, the U.S. Senior Open was the last scheduled event. The next available U.S. Senior Open date is 2026 and the next available U.S. Open date is 2031.

The PGA Championship has been moved to May, which likely rules out any Wisconsin sites as a host.

“Golf in the Midwest in the summer, it just doesn’t get any better than that,” NBC golf analyst Mark Rohlfing said. “Major championships have to appear from time to time in the Central Time Zone. There are certain events that will get support tin the Midwest much greater than they will get at some other sites around America.”

Rohlfing thought the USGA might bring a men’s U.S. Open to the Midwest twice a decade going forward, switching off between Oakland Hills Country Club in Michigan and Erin Hills in the Town of Erin. He also thought a Solheim Cup, the competition between the United States and European players on the LPGA Tour, could be held at SentryWorld.

This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Bernhard Langer outlasts Stricker, Kelly to win 2023 U.S. Senior Open