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Bruce Lietzke understands that fans are disappointed with legendary golfer Tom Watson's decision to skip the U.S. Senior Open that begins Thursday at Inverness Club, but the Texan has Watson's back.
Because of his relationship with the Greenbrier Resort in West Virginia, where he is pro emeritus, the 61-year-old Watson opted to play in the PGA Tour's Greenbrier Classic this week and ended a streak of 11 consecutive appearances in the Senior Open.
"He's the big draw out here and he's still so competitive, and I know he gave this a lot of thought," said Lietzke, the champion the last time the Senior Open played at Inverness in 2003. "I bet the fans, a lot of the fans would love to see Tom Watson here. And that's fair. You want to see the top guys.
"But if you let me talk to those people and [tell] them the loyalty he has shown to the [United States Golf Association], man, there is no doubt about it. He's been a huge supporter both on the PGA Tour and out here.
"I believe he has earned the right to pick and choose his own tournaments and he's been very loyal to the USGA. I don't think you can question his decision to be at the Greenbrier this week.
"I understand … it's a fair assessment that a lot of the [fans] would love to see him out here. But you can't question Tom Watson's judgment. He's been too solid all these years."
OPEN SEASON: The president of the USGA was noncommittal Wednesday on the subject of a future U.S. Open at Inverness.
The course has hosted four Opens, but none since 1979. The next available U.S. Open is in 2020, which coincidentally would be the 100th anniversary of Inverness' first Open in 1920.
Jim Hyler, the USGA president, acknowledged that it has "certainly been talked about and we've received an invitation to come back [just] as we've received invitations from lots of other people. But adhering to a long-standing policy at the USGA we really don't comment any further than that. We've announced through 2019 and that's where we are."
When the question was raised again, Hyler said, "We are focused on this week. We want to focus on the Senior Open … we'll get through this week and think about the future in the future."
Hyler did say the USGA has three criteria for judging a potential Open site -- the golf course, the infrastructure of the club, and the market.
"Is the course stout enough to handle a challenge for the best players in the world? Does it have room to accommodate the outside-the-ropes demands, which are enormous? And can the market support the tournament from an economic standpoint? We're very open about how important that is. It is an expensive undertaking."
FEELING GOOD: Peter Jacobsen said it is "a pleasure to be back at Inverness. This was the site of my first USGA championship back in 1973 when I qualified for the U.S. Amateur."
Thirty-eight years later, the affable Jacobsen has lost count of the championships, but not of the surgeries.
"This week marks the one-year anniversary since my last back surgery," he said. "I hadn't gone more than eight months since I turned 50 without having some sort of major surgery. I think since I turned 50 I've had like 13 or 14 surgeries; knee replacement, hip replacement, shoulder, back. So this is kind of a milestone. I'm feeling pretty good."
The Golf Course Superintendents Association of America announced Wednesday that Jacobsen would be the recipient of its highest honor, the Old Tom Morris Award saluting lifetime commitment to the game, in 2012.
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DIALED BACK: Tom O'Toole, chairman of the USGA's championship committee, said Wednesday that while the Inverness setup for the Senior Open tops out at 7,143 yards, officials "will not use all of that yardage on any one day."
Jeff Hall, managing director of rules and competitions, said there is not a specific yardage in mind, but that the setup would reflect "taking from one hole, giving to another."
He said that would especially be the case during the first two rounds Thursday and Friday.
"With 156 players, we want to be sure that we can get everybody around the golf course," Hall said. "I think it's unlikely, for instance, [on] holes 16 and 5, that you'd see us play both at their full yardage Thursday and Friday. We'd likely play one slightly shorter … to find the right balance."
HOMETOWN BOY: John Cook, a Toledo native who is second on the Champions Tour money list with $1,060,202, feels like he has what it takes to make a run at a U.S. Senior Open championship.
Cook finished 11th last weekend at the Senior British Open and has won three times this year, so his confidence is merited.
"Then coming to a place that I have good vibes with, definitely I feel like it's the makings for a good week," Cook said.
Although he spent only the first year of his life in Toledo, Cook still considers himself an Ohioan.
Cook was part of the 1979 national championship golf team at Ohio State and still wears his scarlet and gray proudly. He also has a long history with Inverness, playing as an amateur in the 1979 U.S. Open here, and holds it in high regard.
It's easy to see why hoisting the Ouimet Memorial trophy on Sunday evening would mean a great deal to him.
"Absolutely, there's no question about it that this is a special place, and Ohio is very special to the Cook family," said Cook, whose father was the football coach at Maumee for one season in 1957. "It certainly would be a great notch on your belt. I would give it a double notch just because of where it is."
THUMBS UP: As he looks to repeat this year, defending U.S. Senior Open champion Bernhard Langer has an entirely different perspective coming into first-round play Thursday at Inverness Club.
A freak accident several months back - a left thumb injury sustained while trying to push a button at a crosswalk during a bicycle ride - required surgery and has basically put his career on hold.
This after winning the British Senior Open and U.S. Senior Open in back-to-back weeks in 2010, and finishing as the Champions Tour player of the year.
Until he had made it through the British Open and British Senior Open the past two weeks without experiencing an increase in pain, Langer had pretty much been on the shelf in recent months. It is his longest stretch without playing golf since he was 18 years old.
After his practice round here Wednesday, Langer said he is optimistic about having perhaps finally turned a corner in his recovery process.
"It's not perfect but it's good enough to play right now," Langer said. "It still needs to get better in the long run. I played the last two British Opens without it getting worse. That's a good sign because weeks ago, whenever I started playing, it got worse.
"It seems to be OK and holding up for this week. It's just something I have to deal with."
-- Dave Hackenberg, Steve Junga, Zach Silka