The more surprising aspect of Jeff Maggert’s streak of five consecutive birdies during Friday’s second round of the U.S. Senior Open was not that Maggert matched the championship record for longest stretch of birdies, but where.
Maggert’s run included the 16th, 17th and 18th holes, the challenging closing stretch at Del Paso Country Club. Through two rounds, the three holes had played among the six most difficult relative to par. No. 16 was rated the third-most difficult, No. 17 the sixth, and the closing hole the most difficult.
As of Friday, Maggert and Scott Dunlap were the only players to birdie all three holes in the same round. Only one other player, local favorite Kevin Sutherland, had birdied all three in the championship. And with the leaderboard still packed at the top through three rounds, the stretch probably will produce a dramatic finish Sunday.
“I think it’s going to be interesting coming down (to) 18 and 17 and 16,” said Fred Funk, who sat at 4 under par after his round Saturday. “Those three holes are really tough.”
Reprieves during the final round are unlikely. Tees at the par-4 16th were moved up because of forecasts for wind Friday, but players used the back tees Saturday and likely will do so for the final round, said Jeff Hall, the United States Golf Association managing director of rules and competition.
230 Possible yardage for the par-3 17th hole in the final round – the longest it has played all week.
Hall said the par-3 17th will be played Sunday from the more distant of its two tees, and that pin placement could create a hole in “the 230-plus (yard) range,” the longest it has played all week. And the par-4 No. 18 has remained a challenge despite only minor changes to its tee placement.
From the 16th tee, the fairway opens slightly to the left, but approaches are complicated by a pond to the front left of the green. One grouping of players Saturday illustrated the decisions it poses. After landing his tee shot on the fairway, Tom Byrum hit a short iron over the water onto the green, settling within about 15 feet of the pin. But Geoffrey Sisk and Mark Wiebe hit their tee shots into the deep right-hand rough.
Sisk opted for a safer play, forgoing an attempt at the green in favor of getting back onto the fairway. Wiebe, however, gambled a bit by using a wood to aim for the narrower part of the fairway that meets the green to the right of the pond. Wiebe executed the shot and left himself a short chip shot to the pin.
Maggert said the difference from the shorter tees on No. 16 Friday had been notable: He reached the green using a driver and 8-iron, as opposed to a driver and a 4-iron from the back tee Thursday. He was one of 16 players to birdie the hole Friday, after just five did so from the longer tee in the first round.
Tee placement on the par-3 17th changes not only the distance to the green but the angle. The longer tee is considerably more to the player’s left, which can make the small bunker to the front left of the green a more direct issue. Because it is relatively long for a par-3, Duffy Waldorf said Friday: “(You) never feel like you have the right club.” Bart Bryant, who birded No. 17 in the second round, said he’d hit his first shot with a 4-wood hybrid, an uncommon club that “was perfect” for the distance of 225 yards that day.
No. 18, however, has been the toughest. Dunlap, who birdied the hole again Saturday, described it as “not brutal in its length, but a really awkward angle.” From the tee, the fairway is marked by bunkers on the left and a distant tree to the right before it juts abruptly left, across a narrow creek and onto an elevated green.
Dunlap said it feels natural to aim “inside the tree,” but in fact that is “way too far right” and likely to land a player in the rough, where an effort to reach the green is risky. Even from the fairway, Hall, the USGA official, said the hole requires “a very precise second shot.”
“They know if they carry it too far and it goes into the back rough (behind the green), the up and down is very difficult,” Hall said. “And if they keep it short, it goes in the water hazard.”
Therein lies the danger – and the thrill, as Dunlap waxed over the possibility of a several-shot swing on No. 18: “Put it in the fairway, 7-iron in your hand, 3 is maybe an offer. (Hit it) from the right rough (into) the hazard, and you make a 6. It’s fantastic.”
Germany’s Bernhard Langer finished the third round tied for the lead but might have held it outright. After his tee shot on No. 18 found the rough, Langer tried for the green with a 3-wood hybrid and “thought I hit it exactly the way I wanted to.” But he landed short of the green in a deep rough and settled for a bogey.
“It’s a good, strong finishing hole,” said New Zealand’s Peter Fowler, who stood at 3 under par. “The last three are. They’re real rippers.”