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Albany's Skinner set to tee off at first Senior U.S. Open

Photo by Danny Aller

Photo by Danny Aller

TOLEDO, Ohio -- If anyone's ready to attack the historic Inverness Course in the Senior U.S. Open, it's Albany's Sonny Skinner.

"I'm so excited that I got up here last Friday,'' Skinner said by phone Wednesday afternoon.

Why not?

Skinner has waited a lifetime to play in a U.S. Open event.

"No, I've never played one,'' said Skinner, who qualified for the Champions Tour when he turned 50 last August. "This is my first U.S. Open Championship of any kind. I never played in the U.S. Open Amateur. Now I'm 50, and I finally get to play in one.''

That's just one of the reasons Skinner, who is the club pro at River Pointe in Albany, is looking forward to teeing off today against some of the legendary names in golf.

Skinner had played in two PGA Tour Championships (2008 and 2010) before joining the Champions Tour. He played in his third major in May after turning 50 -- the qualifying age for pro golf's senior circuit -- when he competed in the Senior PGA Championship.

There he fired a 73 on the final day to finish 6-over and win the distinction of being the low club pro in the event, which carried a lot of prestige and a $6,000 paycheck. He was 45th overall.

Now on to another big one.

"I came early and started practicing on Saturday,'' Skinner said. "I'm a little tired, but I know the golf course. I'm (teeing off late today) so I will get a good night's rest. It's always good to be in a big tournament like this. All the big names are here. I've got a lot to look forward to the next few days. I've just got to go out and make some shots and make some putts.''

Defending champion Bernhard Langer, Tom Lehman and Paul Azinger are just a few of the golfing greats entered in the field that doesn't include Tom Watson, who won the Senior PGA Championship in May, and then congratulated Skinner afterward on his being the top club pro.

Skinner said the course is going to be soggy.

"It's been playing a little soft,'' Skinner said. "They've had a lot of rain, and the greens aren't as firm and the fairways aren't as firm, and the rough is pretty high. They trimmed the rough back but it's plenty long enough.''

And the heat?

"They've really had some high temperatures here,'' he said. "The heat index has been from 95 to 104.'' Then he laughed, adding, "It feels like home.''

He has one advantage. Skinner didn't fly to Great Britain last week to compete in the Senior British Open, and the top golfers on the senior tour will be battling jet lag and playing in back-to-back majors.

John Cook, who finished 11th last week at the Senior British, isn't a fan of the majors being so tightly grouped.

"I'd rather them not be together, I promise you that," said Cook, an Ohio native and Ohio State grad who has won three times on the Champions Tour this year. "It's probably our two big events. Unfortunately, that's the way the schedule is, and that's what they give us."

That schedule changes next year when there's a two-week gap between the two tournaments. But that won't make things easier for anyone who has played on both continents the past two weeks.

Fatigue is just one small concern. The grueling Inverness layout presents a world of problems for the international field of 156 players.

The heavy rains have made the 7,143-yard course even longer. Most agree that birdies can be found on the par-37 front side, but it's a matter of survival on the par-34 back nine, which doesn't include a par-5 hole. Factor in tiny greens -- averaging just 5,700 square feet -- and it's no wonder the players are a bit apprehensive.

"The course is very demanding. The greens are probably the toughest you'll find anywhere, as difficult as Augusta -- maybe even harder at times," said Langer, who has won the Masters twice. "It's almost impossible to find a straight putt. And the greens are the smallest you'll see on any golf course anywhere in the world."

Yet several players embrace a return to an old-style course that has hosted many unforgettable moments. Inverness hosted U.S. Opens in 1920 (won by Ted Ray), 1931 (Billy Burke), 1957 (Dick Mayer) and 1979 (Hale Irwin). The 1920 Open was the first to not only permit but welcome pros to play for the title.

The course, on the National Register of Historic Places, also was the site of Bob Tway's hole-out from a bunker on the 72nd hole to win the 1986 PGA Championship, and Azinger beating Greg Norman (also victimized by Tway) in a playoff in the 1993 PGA.

"Winning the PGA Championship in the fashion that I won it and making that shot, that's what everybody remembers," said Tway, who's been besieged by many autograph-seekers who swear they were present for his dramatic shot. "That, by far, is the highlight of my golf career, no doubt about it."

Lehman said it's only natural for the sponsoring U.S. Golf Association to bring the Senior Open to an old club with such a rich history.

"You put those two entities together like peanut butter and jelly," he said.

Skinner may need the best week of his life. But he is no stranger to success. He is the only player to be named the PGA America Player of the Year and the PGA America Senior Player of the Year, which he won last year.

He hopes his game matches the big stage he is on now.

"I don't have a perfect game right now,'' Skinner said. "But I'm hitting consistent shots and putting consistently.''

Skinner's strong finish in the Senior PGA Championship should help him this week.

"It all comes down to going out and being relaxed,'' Skinner said. "Sometimes you end up on a big stage like this and you try too hard. I think that's normal for everyone, even the real experienced players. You try to be too perfect. Whoever keeps a good, calm, level head and strategizes and plays through his shots has a better chance.

"My goal is to stay calm and think my way through and stay out of the rough and hit the ball in good spots. Having some moderate success in the Senior PGA Championships should help.''

Skinner's early work on the course won't hurt, either.

"I got here and walked the golf course,'' Skinner said. "I know how the greens slope. I know where to hit it and where not to hit it. That's all you can do. I've just got to stay confident, and try to do that for the next four days.''

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The Associated Press contributed to this story.