CREVE COEUR — Jay Haas will garner plenty of attention and be a popular man during this week’s U.S. Senior Open at Bellerive Country Club in suburban St. Louis for good reason.
Haas, who in December turned 50, the minimum age to compete on the Champions Tour, is not only No. 22 in the World Golf Ranking and on the cusp of earning a berth on the United States’ Ryder Cup team this fall, but he also is a hometown favorite.
Having grown up across the Mississippi River from St. Louis in Belleville, Ill., Haas was greeted with plenty of fan support during his practice round Tuesday.
“On the course I heard ‘Belleville, come on, St. Louis, come on’ and all these towns around this area that I’ve grown up in and played golf in,” Haas said. “I signed a ton of autographs and it was fun to be here and be a fan favorite.”
After several years of mediocrity on the PGA Tour, Haas, a top player during the 1980s and early 1990s, affirmed his return to golf’s upper echelon with a ninth-place finish at the U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills in Southampton, N.Y., last month.
Haas finished 15th on the PGA Tour’s money list in 2003, earning $2.5 million. This year, Haas has five top-10 finishes on the PGA Tour to go along with a second-place finish at the Senior PGA Championship in May and is 27th on the money list.
Haas couldn’t pinpoint one aspect of his game that helped spark his re-emergence, but he said extra time practicing has helped. During a slump several years ago, Haas said he became complacent with his game, but as he began playing better he began spending more time at the driving range and on the putting green, which in turn began his comeback.
“I wish there was one secret but it is nothing more than really hard work,” Haas said. “When I play poorly, I kind of lose my zest or passion for the game, and now that I’ve started to play better I have a real passion to play and that as much as anything keeps me going.”
Haas said despite being the center of attention and having an onslaught of old friends, some of whom he hasn’t seen in decades, approaching him this week, shouldn’t disrupt his game.
“It is a positive to be here and know the course a little bit,” Haas said. “Being home and being comfortable with this area certainly outweighs any negatives playing here could pose.”
Although Haas is a favorite to be near the top of the leaderboard Sunday, he will have plenty of competition in his quest to win his first major golf tournament. A world-class field of 156 players, including Bruce Lietzke, the defending Senior Open champion, will vie for the national championship on a course that the players agree will be a fair but taxing challenge.
At 7,117 yards, Bellerive is the longest course in Senior Open history, but despite the length several players mentioned the tournament’s winner will likely be someone who is able to come up with the best strategy to maneuver the par-71 course’s tricky layout.
“It looks like it’s going to benefit the long hitter and the big hitter, but there is a lot of strategy out there,” Arnold Palmer said. “The condition of the golf course is so good that if you just keep it in the fairways off the tee and hit the greens you’re going to have a chance to win this golf tournament.
The golfers will complete one final practice round today before the tournament begins Thursday morning.