As he often has, Don Baucom met Kevin Sutherland at his house Sunday morning and hitched a ride to the Del Paso Country Club with his longtime pupil. Sutherland was characteristically calm during the short ride, Baucom said. They talked about the A’s. In a few hours, Sutherland would tee off in the final round of the U.S. Senior Open, but on such commutes, said Baucom: “We try not to talk about golf.”
They did not discuss the fact that Sutherland began Sunday two shots off the lead, though Sutherland later said he knew he “needed to play really, really well” to remain among the leaders at the end of the afternoon. There was no need to parse the course that Sutherland, a lifelong Sacramentan, knew well enough to call this championship a “home game.”
And having approached the first tee – where fans lined the ropes and stood on steps in the bleachers – to a roaring ovation, Sutherland came out hot. He birdied the first hole, rattled home a birdie putt on No. 4 after reaching the par-5 green in two, and generated another whoop when his birdie putt on No. 7 rolled to the lip of the cup and dropped in.
Sutherland’s momentum seemed to slow as he made the turn to the back nine – yet after birdieing the long par-5 15th, he sat at 7 under, two shots back of the lead. He would come no closer. A missed fairway and short approach into the rough on No. 16 resulted in a double bogey that dropped Sutherland back to 5 under par, where he finished the Senior Open.
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“I think I played well enough to maybe get right there where the leaders are,” Sutherland said after his round of 68, tying him for seventh place at 275. “I played really well the front nine (Sunday), I hit every shot right on the button … I just couldn’t get to that 6- or 7-(under) number I needed to.
“I played my heart out. I was giving it everything I’ve got and just came up a little short.”
Beginning at the first tee, Sutherland’s movements Sunday generated a ripple of applause and cheers that followed him down fairways and announced him at greens. He later said the double bogey on No. 16 “kind of took the wind out of my sails.” But as he made the short walk to the 17th tee, fans did their best to buoy him.
“Keep it up,” one said.
“Let’s go, Kevin, birdie the last two,” said another.
“Do something special.”
Sutherland, in his own way, made sure to accomplish the latter. After his approach shot on No. 18 feathered down just to the left of the pin, Sutherland smiled and slapped hands with fans just outside the ropes on his way to the 18th green. Emerging onto the green, he doffed his white cap to the crowd, and after tapping in a par putt to end his tournament, he acknowledged the fans’ applause by applauding back.
“I said at the beginning of the week that when I go up 18 the last day, I was really going to enjoy it and not be so focused on everything, just kind of give a wide lens and really enjoy it,” Sutherland said. “I did that on 17 and 18. The ovation and the people were just amazing, and I can’t put it into words, really.”
Baucom describes Sutherland as a creature of habit, and there are signs of it on the course in the way that Sutherland walks up to each tee shot – a sort of skinny “S,” first right, then left into his crouching stance over the ball – and carries a towel onto every green, tossing it away moments before striking his putt. The routine starts well before Sutherland sets foot on the course, Baucom said, as a way to prepare himself for play. But this weekend could not help but feel different.
“So many people wanted to shake his hand and say ‘Good luck,’ and all of that,” Baucom said as he watched Sutherland’s final round. “There has been pressure, I think much more than he thought it was going to be. I think he was feeling it at the beginning, but now he’s kind of used to it.”
Bill Sutherland, Kevin’s father, saw the week weighing on Kevin differently. As a Del Paso member and native son, Sutherland saw his home opened to national TV broadcasts, his sport’s governing body and 150 of his most talented peers.
“I think a lot of the conversation doesn’t realize how emotionally invested he is in this tournament,” Bill Sutherland said. “He’s been concerned with everything, whether the people would come, would it be a success, would the fairways be good. So having it turn out like this, I can’t even imagine the emotions he’s feeling.”
Sutherland said the response to this week’s Open had made him “really proud.” Players spent much of the week praising the course to the media, and Sutherland said some had told him they would return simply to play the course for fun.
Sutherland did not win his “home game,” and as he talked to reporters Sunday afternoon, players remained on the course. Already, though, he was prepared to declare a victory.
“The big winners, I think, were Sacramento and the golf course,” Sutherland said. “So it’s been an amazing week.”