Irwin makes statement for the older guys

Hale Irwin and Dave Eichelberger were born during World War II, making them the elder statesmen at the U.S. Senior Open. And Tom Watson is the only other player in the 156-player field at Del Paso Country Club born in the 1940s (1949).

So when Irwin, 70, shot his age in the first round Thursday, it made a statement for the older guys. Watson just missed shooting his age (65) when he missed a 35-foot putt on No. 18, and Eichelberger, 71, shot a 77.

Irwin has matched his age 10 times in Champions Tour major championships and has shot better than his age nine times.

“If I could post four 70s, I would be very happy with that,” said Irwin, who has won the U.S. Open three times (1974, 1979 and 1990) and U.S. Senior Open twice (1998, 2000). “I probably would not win, but it would be a good, achievable score for me. So I’m one leg of the quadruple crown there.”

Irwin, who turned 70 on June 3, said playing in Thursday’s heat was difficult even though he teed off at 8:13 a.m. when it was about 75 degrees. But by the end of his round, the mercury was pushing 100.

“I wish I could say I was less than 70 years old, but I’m 70 years old,” Irwin said. “That’s not over the hill, but the hill’s real close. There’s a lot of hills out there. This course may look flat to some, but I see a lot of mountains out there. You have to kind of pace yourself, certainly. I don’t care who you are.”

Watson wasn’t looking for hills or mountains. He was looking for shade.

“The main thing is, where’s the shade?” Watson said. “Usually, you have your diagram on your book that says all right, here’s the bunker, here’s the green like this. Now you have a diagram, here’s the shade over here, the shade over there, there’s a shade behind the tee over there. That’s what you’re looking for right now.”

Watson is five years younger than Irwin and six years younger than Eichelberger, who won the 1999 U.S. Senior Open. So it’s no surprise to Irwin that Watson nearly shot his age Thursday.

“He’s just a kid,” Irwin said of Watson. Watson, who has a locker right behind Irwin’s, turned around and gave Irwin a huge smile.

Lucky bounce – Irwin got a fortuitous bounce on the par-3, 228-yard fifth hole Thursday.

His tee shot came in low and hot, bounced once on the right side of the green, careened past the hole and hit a Fox Sports 1 microphone on the back fringe. The ball bounced straight back and settled 15 feet from the pin. The shot looked like Irwin was playing on a miniature golf hole.

He missed the birdie putt but made par and was miffed after his round about the placement of the microphone. It easily could have cost him a stroke rather than helping him avoid the deep rough behind the green.

“I’ve told the (USGA) referees many times before that they should move those microphones farther back away from play,” Irwin said. “We’ve all seen someone hit a piece of equipment and things don’t go well. I got lucky today.”

John Vanderborght, a USGA manager of the rules of golf, said the microphone is considered an “outside agency” and sometimes comes into play. He said the USGA always consults with the network covering the event to go over placement of equipment such as TV towers, power generators and microphones.

Niger gets nice honor – El Dorado Hills pro Bob Niger hit the first tee shot Thursday at 7 a.m. that officially kicked off the 36th U.S. Senior Open. He received the nod from the USGA, which occasionally selects a local player for the honor.

“That was nice,” Niger said. “I appreciated that opportunity. So that was great.”

Niger shot a six-over-par 76.

“I haven’t scored well here since I’ve been practicing on it for a year,” he said. “So it’s a tough golf course. If you hit it off the fairway, it beats you up. It’s hard to get close to the hole with the greens being firm and hard to make putts. But somebody’s going to do it today. It just wasn’t me.”

Siravo steps in – Bobby Siravo, a Del Paso Country Club member and former professional golfer, was a last-second replacement for Bernhard Langer’s caddy, Terry Holt, who suffered a reaction to an insect bite on his leg and couldn’t make the start.

Siravo, a former Del Paso club champion, is the volunteer caddy coordinator this week for the championship. He caddied for one season for Kevin Sutherland on the PGA Tour.

Mark Billingsley:

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