Laoretti wins big one after his 0-for-84

July 13, 1992|By Joe Juliano | Joe Juliano,Knight-Ridder

BETHLEHEM, Pa. -- Four days ago, if you had selected Larry Laoretti to win the U.S. Senior Open over guys named Nicklaus, Trevino, Player, Rodriguez and Stockton, you would have been banished to the practice range to pick up golf balls.

A Senior Open championship just isn't supposed to be claimed by someone who never has won a regular tour event or who never has experienced the pressure of leading a major on the last day.

But, on a damp, muggy day at Saucon Valley Country Club, Laoretti was unflappable in his swing and his emotions and confident in his game, wrapping up his unlikely weekend yesterday with a 3-under-par 68 for a runaway, four-shot victory in the national championship for players 50 and older.

Laoretti, who turned 53 on Saturday, had the kind of final round you'd expect from a superstar of the game, not from someone who was 0-for-84 in his Senior PGA Tour career going into the championship.

He didn't make a bogey. He hit 17 greens on Saucon's Old Course in regulation. He hit 11 of 14 fairways. On the 18th hole -- the only one on which he missed the green -- he made a 20-foot putt from off the green to punctuate his victory.

All the while, he smiled and puffed his cigar and tipped his cap as the crowd that cheered him on "made it sound like Wrigley Field," he said.

Nervous? Who was nervous?

"I had no apprehension whatsoever," he said after receiving the winner's trophy and $130,000 check. "I felt real relaxed out there. I didn't feel any pressure from anything. I had a few glasses of wine last [Saturday] night, went to bed and got a good night's sleep. I never really thought about it."

Laoretti's three birdies enabled him to finish the tournament with a 9-under 275 and tie for the second-highest winning margin in Senior Open history. Jim Colbert, who shot a 69 yesterday, birdied the 17th hole to sneak into second place at 279.

"To withstand the pressure in the final round of a U.S. Open and play a bogey-free round -- that's something," Colbert said. "It's really hard to do. I would have bet a lot of money that he wouldn't do it. But he did it. That's terrific."

Defending champion Jack Nicklaus started one of his patented charges a little late but still shot a 67 -- tying him for the best round of the day -- to surge into a four-way tie for third at 280 with Dave Stockton, Gary Player and Al Geiberger. Stockton and Player each shot 70, and Geiberger shot a 72.

Chi Chi Rodriguez, who lost the Senior Open title to Nicklaus in a playoff last year at Oakland Hills in Birmingham, Mich., was another shot back at 281 after a 68.

Laoretti, who began the round with a one-shot lead, dueled with Geiberger -- his partner in the final twosome -- for most of the day. Laoretti was steady, hitting every green on the front nine, but he missed at least three makable birdie putts, including a 3-footer at No. 8.

"It didn't bother me," he said. "But when I was walking off No. 8, I asked Bob [O'Brien, his caddy] if he saw anything wrong. He told me I was stroking the ball good. I made a little correction -- my hands were a little behind the ball -- and I putted better on the back nine."

The key hole was No. 12, a downhill, dogleg, 574-yard par-5. Geiberger, who had been tied with Laoretti since making a birdie at the sixth hole, found the trees with his tee shot and made a bogey. Laoretti knocked an 8-iron to within 18 inches and sank the putt for a birdie.

"That really got me going," Laoretti said.

Laoretti picked up another shot with a 15-foot birdie putt at the par-4 16th.

"I was on the 18th tee when I heard the roar on 16," Colbert said. "I was hoping that was for [Geiberger]. But when I got to the 18th green and looked at the scoreboard and saw that Larry was 8-under, it was over."

Indeed, it was. But Laoretti provided a fitting conclusion when, after being given a champion's greeting -- a standing ovation -- as he approached the 18th green, he made his 20-foot birdie putt. He then was almost tackled by his wife, Susan, who ran onto the green to hug her startled husband.

"She blindsided me," he said.

Laoretti worked as a club pro in Long Island, N.Y., and in Florida before joining the Senior Tour. When he embarked on the circuit in 1990, he and Susan, who had given birth to a son in October 1989, had $110 in their pockets.

"In my second tournament, I won $15,000, which was more money than I had ever seen," Laoretti said. "My wife has got a lot of guts. I always regretted that I didn't go try [to qualify for the regular tour]. When I qualified for the Senior Tour, I knew that last place in every tournament was $500, so I knew I could almost survive on that."

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