Amateur field relishes U.S. Senior Open experience

Jim Knoll watches his drive on the first hole during the opening round of the 2006 U.S. Senior Open Championship golf tournament at Prairie Dunes Country Club in Hutchinson, Kan., July 6, 2006. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
Jim Knoll watches his drive on the first hole during the opening round of the 2006 U.S. Senior Open Championship golf tournament at Prairie Dunes Country Club in Hutchinson, Kan., July 6, 2006. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel) The Associated Press file

A one-time standout for the George Washington University basketball team, Patrick Tallent has experience playing in front of crowds. Yet when he approaches the first tee Thursday at the Del Paso Country Club, it’s quite possible that the eyes of most spectators will not be focused on him.

Tallent secured a berth in this year’s U.S. Senior Open by winning the 2014 U.S. Senior Amateur Championship, his first victory at that event. As part of his reward, Tallent will be grouped for the first two rounds this week with defending U.S. Senior Open champion Colin Montgomerie, as well as the 2014 Senior British Open winner, Bernhard Langer.

“They’re the No. 1 and 2 favorites, and I’m way down there at the bottom somewhere,” Tallent, 61, said with a grin Wednesday. “I’m going to try to stay out of their way, keep a low profile, and hopefully I won’t do anything to aggravate them.”

For the amateur element of this week’s tournament, goals can be a little different than for the rest of the 156-player field. Last year, just two of 17 amateur entrants made the Open’s 36-hole cut. In 2013, it was one of 28. Only twice in the tournament’s history has the lead through 36 holes been held by an amateur, which the United States Golf Association defines as a golfer who plays for the challenge the game presents, not as a profession or for financial gain.

As of Wednesday this year’s Senior Open field featured 27 amateurs. They include Tallent, who shot the lowest score by an amateur at the 2004 tournament and is competing in his fifth U.S. Senior Open; Erik Hanson, a former major-league pitcher who was an All-Star in 1995; and Ian Harris, the tennis pro for a club in Michigan who cracked the main doubles draw at Wimbledon in 1981.

They include a Sacramento native, Patrick Carrigan, who once narrowly avoided a freak accident when a small airplane crashed into his golf cart mid-round, and the aptly named Dave Bunker, a physical education teacher from Canada who’s playing in his first U.S. Senior Open.

Bunker on Tuesday recounted how he had shown up for a practice tee time booked two weeks in advance and found himself playing with former U.S. Open champions Corey Pavin and Scott Simpson. Bunker described that as “pretty awesome” – and said it didn’t take long for the topic of his surname to arise.

“It took about three minutes before Corey said something, and about a minute before Scott said something when he joined us on the back nine,” Bunker said. “It happens more often than you might think.”

Bunker and Hanson, the former pitcher, both turned 50 on May 18, making them eligible for the Senior Open. Hanson said it wasn’t until after he retired from an 11-season big-league career that he found a love of tournament golf. He now plays in about 12 to 15 a year – mostly local tournaments to stay sharp for USGA event qualification.

To crack this year’s Senior Open field, Hanson had to win a one-hole playoff at a qualifier early this month in Blaine, Wash., which sent just two entrants from a field of 61. Because he was “born with a gift” to play baseball, Hanson said, facing big-league hitters was “not as nerve-wracking” as the competition he favors now.

“It’s amazing I get to even play in an event at this level. It’s an arena I’m definitely not used to,” Hanson said. “It’s like fantasy league for me, you know what I mean?”

That’s not to say the amateur entrants don’t take it seriously. Jim Knoll of Sunnyvale and Terry Foreman of Brentwood both qualified while playing the same event (Green Valley in Fairfield) and in the same grouping in May. While Knoll was trying for his third Open, Foreman was aiming for his first. Foreman logged a triple bogey on the front nine, but he rallied to shoot a qualifying score.

“He wasn’t saying a word (down the stretch), he was quiet as a mouse,” Knoll said about Foreman. “I didn’t want to jinx him, so I just kept quiet.”

Even after their round ended, Foreman said, he avoided contact with others while several groups were still on the course. In 1982, Foreman recalled, he had been in position to qualify for the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, only to watch himself be overtaken by later finishers. He missed that cut by one shot.

“I held onto the head cover of the ’82 U.S. Open for years,” he said Wednesday, “just to remind me of that.”

Knoll played the U.S. Senior Open in 2006 and 2007, then waited seven years for another shot. Qualifying, he said, is something of a crapshoot. A player must be on his game for the 18 holes of the qualifier, and even then might lose out to a hotter player. Knowing that, combined with his age (63) and the fact he has family in the Sacramento area, makes this year’s tournament “more meaningful,” Knoll said.

“It’s like a home game for me,” Knoll said. “I’m sleeping in my mom’s guest bedroom (in Folsom), I don’t have to travel, stay in a motel and eat out. That’s the real highlight. It’s like I died and went to heaven.”