Sunningdale set for Senior Open

For many years, they were intense rivals on The European Tour and trusted colleagues in numerous Ryder Cups. This week, Bernhard Langer and Colin Montgomerie can prove that the unquenchable desire for silverware which defined their main careers remains as strong as ever during their post-50 phase in the Senior Open Championship Presented by Rolex.

The two greats of the European game return to a venue with which they are both very familiar – the Old Course at Sunningdale – for the 2015 edition of the Championship which once again packs a substantial punch in terms of the Major winners on parade from July 23-26.

A truly world class field of no fewer than 32 Major Champions with 77 Major titles between them will tee up over one of the most iconic heathland courses on the planet. This year’s line-up contains more Major winners than ever before, with 17 players who have won Majors on the main Tours and 15 who have captured Major titles after reaching their 50th birthday.

Only five can claim entry to a very exclusive club for Major success before and after reaching Senior age – namely Fred Couples, defending champion Langer, Tom Lehman, Mark O’Meara and the evergreen Tom Watson, who last week ended a 40 year association with The Open by bowing out at St Andrews.

After the nostalgia comes the serious stuff, which sees Langer and Montgomerie both setting out in search of a fourth Senior Major. The German, just a month shy of his 58th birthday, has won two Senior Open titles (in 2010 and 2014) as well as the US Senior Open five years ago.

Montgomerie, a comparative youngster of 52, has won three times in the space of 15 months by capturing the last two editions of the US Senior PGA Championship Presented by KitchenAid while his bid to defend the US Senior Open title three weeks ago just came up short when he finished runner-up to Jeff Maggert.

Langer cannot wait to return to the scene of his 1985 victory in the European Open. “It’s great for us to come back to Sunningdale to play this prestigious event and see who the Senior Open Champion will be,” he said.

“It’s one of the all-time great courses. It’s a wonderful heathland course and it’s always in great condition. I don’t know anybody who doesn’t like Sunningdale” added Langer, who fired a 64 on his way to victory in the European Open there 30 years ago.

A winner of 42 titles on the European Tour, Langer has triumphed three times on the European Senior Tour and 24 times on the Champions Tour, including a recent success in the Constellation Senior Players’ Championship.

His sensational 13 stroke victory over Montgomerie  in the 2014 Senior Open Championship at Royal Porthcawl eased the disappointment of 12 months earlier, when he let a two stroke lead slip on the final hole at Royal Birkdale and then lost a play-off to American Mark Wiebe.

Montgomerie, who has found a new lease of life at Senior level since the start of the 2014 season, is now determined to complete the haul of Senior Major titles over a course he adores.

“We’ve got a great field, and that’s what Sunningdale does – it brings this type of field together. My first competitive round at Sunningdale was in 1987, which was the Walker Cup,” he said. “Ever since I first played it I’ve loved the place and I’ve always said it’s a gorgeous place to be, not just to play golf but to walk round.

“Some of the American players have not had chance to play courses like Sunningdale before, and I tell them it is how golf should be. It is unique and it brings out the child in you. You have to play with the bounce and the challenge is to get the ball to go the right distance. You have to embrace that challenge.”

One person eager to embrace the challenge is Sandy Lyle, winner of the 1985 Open – the same year that Langer won the European Open at Sunningdale – and who is still searching for his first Senior Major. Lyle rolled back the years with a fine 71 in the opening round at St. Andrews and spoke of his pleasure in playing Sunningdale.

“You never hear one complaint about it and it creates a real buzz with the Americans who haven’t experienced it,” said Lyle. “It’s not a course you can over-power. It’s subtle with the trees, the bouncy and fiery fairways and the uphill par threes. You can’t be too brash off the tee and you certainly can’t afford to find the heather.”

Lyle, the 1988 Masters Champion, added: “I have done some really good work recently with Dave Stockton Jnr on my putting and I am enjoying it right now. You are never too old to learn – just look at Monty. He’s found his putting touch and he’s competitive every time he tees it up. Hopefully I can give him a run for his money at Sunningdale.”

The four surviving members of European golf’s ‘Big Five’ will be competing this week, with Langer and Lyle joined by six-time Major Champion Sir Nick Faldo and 1991 Masters Champion, Ian Woosnam from Wales. Both know Sunningdale like the back of their hands and Faldo is hoping that some of the rust will have been eradicated from his game following his Open experience at St Andrews.

“I first visited Sunningdale as a teenager,” said Faldo. “To return some years later to win the European Open at the same venue was a huge thrill. It is the perfect example of a beautiful, pure, heathland course, where the ball can run and run if it’s dry.”

Back in 1992, he delivered a real masterclass at Sunningdale, shooting rounds of 67-66-64-65 to win that European Open, one of six victories during a remarkable season in which he topped the European Order of Merit and in the process became the first player to complete a season with total earnings in excess of £1 million.

Woosnam comes into the event having claimed his first victory on the US Champions Tour earlier this season, while Watson has vivid recollections of that previous trip to Sunningdale six years ago, when he finished tied eighth the week after he came agonisingly close to becoming the oldest Major Champion in history at Turnberry at the age of 59.

Now 65, Watson recalled:  “I only had one hour of sleep after losing in the play-off to Stewart. I got a flight straight down to London as I had scheduled a practice round, which I always do to get good knowledge of the golf course before I play a tournament.

“I had a wonderful practice round, played very well and I had a wonderful night’s sleep that night, ready to play another golf tournament. I finished eighth that week and actually played very well, but I putted poorly. I remember having five or six three-putts which stopped me from winning that week.”

Among the favourites to land the title next Sunday will be the indefatigable Spaniard, Miguel Angel Jiménez, who continues to thrive on the main Tours of the world and also at Senior level in America and Europe.

The oldest winner on The European Tour said: “I’m looking forward to returning to Sunningdale for my second Senior Open Championship. It’s a great golf course – an old fashioned heathland layout – and I am really looking forward to going back there to have another crack at winning my first Senior Major after being eighth last year on my debut.”