Bellerive May Not Favor Lietzke
Defending Senior Open Champ Says Course Sets Up Better For Irwin, Watson
By Ken Klavon, USGA
St. Louis, Mo. – It might surprise some that Bruce Lietzke isn't picking himself as a favorite when the 25th U.S. Senior Open rolls around in July.
Don't get him wrong. He undoubtedly wants to successfully defend, but after taking a tour of the par-71 7,117-yard Bellerive Country Club Monday he was preaching pragmatics. In fact, he wasn't taking any bets that he could duplicate the 64 he posted in the third round of last year's championship at Inverness.
"This is a golf course that doesn't favor anybody and that's what you want in a championship," said Lietzke on Senior Open Media Day. "But I have a list of two guys who probably will have an advantage. Unfortunately, I'm not one of them."
For various reasons, the names of Hale Irwin and Tom Watson rolled from his lips. Irwin for his hometown St. Louis roots, familiarity with the course and uncanny ability to fade the ball; Watson for his splendid iron play, which is what the Robert Trent Jones-designed course demands since its super-sized greens make for eye-widening targets.
Other factors also figure into the equation. The Senior Open concludes a brutal July schedule that sees the Champions Tour play three majors in the month. Most players may be psychologically worn out by then, setting up an only-the-strongest-shall-survive scenario. Irwin and Watson, who have been through the wars, gain the nod in that respect.
"The rest of us will be fighting for our own recognition," said Lietzke, motioning toward the Bellerive course that served as his backdrop while he spoke.
The 378-yard 11th hole is the shortest of the par-4s at Bellerive Country Club. The course, at 7,093 yards, will be the longest ever in U.S. Senior Open history, surpassing Edgewood Tahoe (1985) in Stateline , Nev.
Bellerive, which opened in 1960, is set to pass Edgewood Tahoe Country Club (Stateline, Nev., 1985) as the longest in Senior Open history. The course presents a challenge unlike others normally seen on the Champions Tour. For one thing, many of the courses used on the Champions Tour are ubiquitous – they are constructed on new real estate, said Lietzke. Or in other words, courses with unfulfilled tradition and little sense of uniqueness.
Even though Bellerive hasn't been around long, it has assembled a modest history by hosting the 1965 U.S. Open, the inaugural U.S. Mid-Amateur in 1981 and the PGA Championship in 1992. It was also scheduled to host the 2001 American Express Championship when the 9/11 tragedy put a sudden halt to everything in the world.
And if one wanted to stretch it a bit, Bellerive was part of a watershed moment in television. The 1965 Open, won by Gary Player, was the first time the event was broadcast in color. It was also the first year the Open went to a four-day format.
As innocuous as that may seem, such trivial matters aren't lost on Lietzke.
"What the USGA does is it finds the old, great courses," he said. "They find great old tradition-rich courses for its tradition-rich events."
The last time Lietzke played Bellerive was in the '92 PGA Championship that Nick Price won. Lietzke tied for 73rd, saying he didn't remember much about the layout.
USGA President Fred Ridley, who played in the '81 Mid-Amateur, said the same. "I don't remember much about the golf course, but it has matured," he said after taking a morning tour.
That it has. In preparing for the Senior Open, course superintendent Tony Mancuso has adhered to USGA championship specifications. Fairways on holes four, five, seven, 12 and 17 have been narrowed in the landing areas. They will measure between 28-30 yards wide.
Some bunkers have improved drainage; others required sand replacement where there was contamination. Select tree removal has taken place. And re-sodding around several greens is currently in the works.
The hope is to get the greens to 12 on the Stimpmeter by the start of the championship. And if the normal oppressive St. Louis heat pays a visit, putting could be more like curling.
In contrast to the Inverness greens last year, there is no comparison. The greens on the 6,983-yard Inverness layout were miniscule.
"What separates Bellerive from other courses in our region is that our greens average around 8,900 square feet," said Mancuso. "They make for great big targets for the players, but it's important for them to get close to the hole."
Which is why there will be an emphasis put on short-iron play and shot-making, another reason why Lietzke favors Watson, the runner-up the past two years at the Senior Open.
Finally, there is the matter of the rough. Bermuda grass, growing in with cool season turf, has taken root. Now Mancuso intends to leave it alone.
"The rough will be U.S. Open rough that is 4 inches high," said USGA championship agronomist Tim Moraghan.
All in all, each facet of the course poses tests. Last year Lietzke lamented that the driver, his best club, was left in the bag. Even more unusual was that, for boasting his best club was the driver, Lietzke ranked 58th in fairways hit.
This year he'll get to use it a whole lot more. But that's where the similarities between last year and this year end.
"The USGA could not have picked out two more different golf courses," said Lietzke. "The only thing in common is that we'll be playing the game of golf."
Ken Klavon is the USGA Web Editor. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org with questions or comments.