Haas in his element at familiar Westchester CCAugust 18, 2011
Vartan Kupelian, PGATOUR.COM correspondent
HARRISON, N.Y. -- Jay Haas is in his element. He's relaxed and he's back at Westchester Country Club. By the way, it's also the Constellation Energy Senior PLAYERS Championship. That's the trifecta.
Golf is about traditions and the notion that history matters. Certainly, that's true at Westchester Country Club where Thursday's opening round was all about reconnecting with the splendor of bygone days. There are 78 players in the Champions Tour event. Nine of them have played tournaments on the West Course at Westchester Country Club for 20 years or more.
Haas is valedictorian of the Westchester class. He is making his 28th appearance here and he celebrated the reunion with a solid 4-under-par 67. It left him 2 shots behind leader Jeff Sluman's 65, with Gary Hallberg and Peter Senior in with 66s. Haas is tied for fourth with Corey Pavin and Michael Allen.
The timing is excellent for Haas. He won the 3M Championship two weeks ago, his first victory in nearly two years since the 2009 Senior PLAYERS. Haas has finished in the top six at the Senior PLAYERS three times in six years.
For someone with the expectations of a Champions Tour major winner, the drought was much too long.
"For a year-and-a-half I just didn't play very well," Haas said. "Every part of my game was not good. It was frustrating because I didn't think that was my best golf."
It was at the First Tee Open at Pebble Beach Golf Links in July that something clicked in his game. Haas made a discovery and it had to do with relaxing his right arm at address. A small thing, maybe, but very big in the scheme of things.
"I started hitting a lot of good shots, as many good shots in one week that I've hit all year," said Haas, who despite a final-round 75 tied for second behind winner Sluman at Pebble Beach.
If relaxing is the key, Westchester is the place. The positive vibes are palpable. The familiarity with the Walter Travis design (circa 1922) takes the generation of Champions Tour players back to their golf roots. It's old style and deliciously appetizing. A grand hotel is just a flip wedge from the first and 10th tees, and even nearer to the ninth and 18th greens. Everything about the place is old school and tranquil and stately.
"I've played it a hundred times and Mark (O'Meara) and I have probably played it over 200 times combined," Haas said.
There have been changes at Westchester since the PGA TOUR was last here in 2007. New greens in 2010 are the most significant revision but the essence of the course remains intact. It's about putting the ball -- even the misses -- in the best possible places. Westchester allows players to choose their approach. It's not one size and one shape of shot fits all.
Haas, O'Meara and the others know all about Westchester. It has some blind shots, a concept golfers generally don't appreciate. At Westchester, the blind shots aren't necessarily blind.
"Because I know exactly where the shots are supposed to go," Haas said.
The irony is that while there's much familiarity with Westchester, it's not the kind of course that demands it. It's right there in front of you. No tricks. No guessing. Trees line the fairways, framing the fairways and the challenge.
"I love it when the fairways are defined," Senior said. "Off the tee you can see every fairway."
Senior said the soft conditions from heavy rains last weekend, and the use of the Champions Tour's preferred lies policy, resulted in the low scores and largely negated any disadvantage he may have from lack of repetitions at Westchester, a course he played once before in 1996.
The PGA TOUR's Westchester Classic, in its various incarnations, was held from 1967 to 1989. It was followed by the Buick Classic from 1990 to 2004, then the Barclays Classic and The Barclays, in 2007. Bob Gilder's four-round total of 19-under 261 at Westchester in 1982 was the tournament record and included one of the most famous shots in golf, a double-eagle two on the 509-yard 18th hole on the third day with a driver and 3-wood. In addition to Gilder, four other former winners at Westchester are competing this week: Scott Simpson (1984), Bob Tway (1986), Hale Irwin (1990) and David Frost (1992).
"It's great to be back here to such a wonderful golf course," said Sluman, who estimated he's played 80 rounds or more here. "I first played it in 1983 and, like every pro, fell in love with the place. Absolutely, you have a comfort zone."
That's because Westchester is a lot like their home courses for players on the Champions Tour.
"A lot like the courses in Seattle," said Fred Couples, a native of the Pacific Northwest.
"Good memories here," Gilder said.
"Great to play a venue I know," Kenny Perry said.
That's what Westchester is and does. It puts the Champions Tour players smack in the middle of their element.