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July 13, 2014

Sauers plays the underdog role at U.S. Senior Open

EDMOND — Here’s the deal.

The biggest event of its kind ITALICS in the world END ITALICS arrives in your backyard and you want so much for it to be unforgettable.

You want a big name, a local name or an absolutely out-of-nowhere name to come lay claim to it.

Colin Montgomerie, Bernhard Langer and Vijay Singh qualify on the big meter. Bob Tway, Willie Wood and Scott Verplank qualify on hometowny familiarity. Scott Dunlap and Marco Dawson qualify on obscurity.

Gene Sauers qualifies on none of the above.

Winning three times on the PGA Tour kills the obscurity angle. Those three wins, being what they are — Bank of Boston Classic, Hawaiian Open, Air Canada Championship — kill the big name angle. And the dude’s from Savannah, Ga., which is neither exotic, interesting nor cool to Sooner state golf fans.

That his three PGA tour victories spanned 14 years from first to last is pretty amazing, all things considered, but you’ve got to be really into golf to care.

That he bears a striking resemblance to Gil Morgan, the so-dubbed “honorary Sooner” is interesting, yet meaningless.

On the face of it, there’s nothing particularly fantastic about Gene Sauers. Also, you’ve just got to root for the guy. Because there’s so much more to his story. And, even the parts of it that don’t include his giving up on the game and almost dying are pretty meaningful, too.

Beginning in 2005, he went seven years without touching a golf club.

“I was playing bad, wasn’t having a good time, pulling my hair out,” he said after shooting a back-nine 33 to take a three stroke lead at the Senior U.S. Open at Oak Tree National.

Then he got sick.

What had been thought to be rheumatoid arthritis worsened considerably as his skin began burning from the inside out. It has been called Stevens-Johnson syndrome, but Sunday, explaining it in the interview room, Sauers admitted, “I don’t think they were really sure. I think they just called it that.”

What it means was his skin was dying on his arms and thighs. It led to a seven-week hospital stay. Sauers told the Golf Channel he was given about a 25 percent shot at survival.

He made it.

Also, in his mind’s eye, laid up on a hospital bed, he began to play golf again, just thinking the game. Actually playing it would have to come on the back side of the two months he spent just to get back on his feet and to learn to walk again.

But, Sauers said, still just months out of the hospital, and seven years after putting his clubs away, “I went out and shot 71 on a tough golf course.”

A comeback began.

So, yeah, there’s that.

An amazing, tear-jerking story of the first order, don’t forget the rest of it.

The Champions Tour may be a money-grab of an invention. Hatched when it became clear folks enjoyed watching past idols, Arnold Palmer among them, back on the course, it has grown and grown and grown since first coming to life in 1980. Win any event on it and you’ve proven yourself one of the best over-50 players in the world. The only problem is it can seem like little more than a weekly old-timer’s day, free of all historical significance.

But what’s going on at Oak Tree this week is nothing like that. This is the U.S. Open, run by the USGA. The Senior PGA Championship is in the same boat. Ditto the Senior (British) Open Championship.

The Tradition and Senior Players Championship also carry major status on the Champions Tour, but only because somebody decided they should. There are but three that really, really matter and no other quite as much as the one in which Sauers will tee off at 12:41 p.m. today.

He’ll be playing with Langer, who’s won two Masters and seems to have spent a lifetime among the last groups of major championships.

“I would say it certainly helps to have been in that position a number of times,” he said.

Sauers only knows a little about that, having finished second to Nick Price at the 1992 PGA Championship at Bellerive in St. Louis.

Yet here he is, a journeyman in the game, who looks a lot like Morgan, a local favorite, whose flesh on his forearms, caught in the right light, looks something like a patchwork quilt, who bogeyed his first hole Saturday before completing his scorecard with a  bunch of pars and birdies at Nos. 7, 10, 16 and 18.

Had he never been quit the game and had he never been sick, this would still be his moment. But he did and he did, making today all the more compelling.

“Hopefully, I can just play well … opand finish it out,” Sauers said.

Hopefully, he can.

It would be great.

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