BETHLEHEM PENNSYLVANIA — BETHLEHEM, Pa. -- In the end, it was the veteran stars who were left in the wake of unheralded Larry Laoretti and his ever-present cigar.
Those who expected him to give away a one-stroke lead in the face of expected challenges by such names as Nicklaus, Player, Geiberger and Stockton are still waiting.
Instead, it was Laoretti, standing much taller than his 5-foot-11, 185-pound frame, who was in command, riding three back-nine birdies to a 68, a 72-hole total of 275, and a four-stroke victory in the U.S. Senior Open at Saucon Valley Country Club yesterday.
The champion, who came to the Senior tour from the club pro ranks in 1989, ended an 0-for-84 streak in Senior events with his stunning triumph. It turned out to be a belated birthday present, as he had turned 53 Saturday.
"The key? Driving the ball well all week, and a final round with no bogeys and no 3-putts," said the new champion. "Patience prevailed. Ahead of time, there was no apprehension. I didn't feel pressure."
While Laoretti, who smokes about six or seven cigars a round, may have made a statement for the tobacco industry, he made a much more important one for the game of golf -- the value of fast play.
"I've always been a fast player. The more time you take to think about a shot, the worse you hit it. I'm always ready to go, with no negative thoughts. The longer you take, the more negative thoughts you get."
Laoretti acknowledged a regret for not having tried the regular tour (lack of money, as much as anything), so after qualifying for the Senior tour in the fall of 1989, he knew he was exempt for 1990. "I had a wife, a new baby, and $110, but I knew last place was worth $500, and I figured we could survive."
Survival led to steady improvement -- three seconds last year, three top-five finishes this year. Now, a $130,000 first-place check has nearly doubled his season's earnings.
Although Laoretti pretty much ensured himself this one when he hit a 7-iron shot to 12 feet at the 16th -- a 382-yard uphill par-4 with the green sloping back to front -- and made the birdie putt, the first appreciable daylight came at the 57-yard 12th.
Laoretti hit an 8-iron shot to 18 inches, and Al Geiberger, who had been in and out of a share of the lead for 11 holes, slipped back with a bogey. Another bogey at the 13th completed his fall.
After that, the chase was for second place, and Jim Colbert got up with a four-foot birdie putt at the 17th to wind up 69-279. There was a four-way tie for third among Jack Nicklaus (67, a piece of the day's low score), Dave Stockton (70), Gary Player (70), and Geiberger (72).
Laoretti put an exclamation point to his final round when he rolled in a 20-foot putt at the final green. "I was just trying to get it close. It took a big right turn and I was surprised to see it go in."
Nicklaus, last year's winner, made an early bid with three birdies, but he was coming from six shots back. "I was close all day, and had a good opportunity to shoot a low score," he said. "I had eight very short birdie putts and made only three. I needed to make more of them."
Colbert said he could think of maybe 15 putts (missed birdie chances during the week), but so could somebody else. "And after 15, nobody was going to get to him."
NOTES: Stockton, in the lead the first two days, then three back after a 77, rallied with birdies at Nos. 8-9 but bogeys at 11 and 13 left him just another pursuer. . . . Moss Beecroft, of Newport News, Va., ended 76-291, low amateur by 13 strokes. . . . This event goes to Cherry Hills CC in Denver next year to be followed by Pinehurst, N.C.; Congressional CC; and Canterbury CC in Cleveland.
Larry Laoretti, a former club pro, joined illustrious company yesterday as a Senior Open champion. Some former champions, with the year they won the Senior and their wins in major
Name .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. Year .. .. .. .. .. .. Maj.
Arnold Palmer .. .. .. .. .. 1981 .. .. .. .. .. .. .. 8
Billy Casper .. .. .. .. ... 1983 .. .. .. .. .. .. .. 3
Gary Player .. .. .. .. .. . 1987 .. .. .. .. .. .. .. 9
Orville Moody .. .. .. .. .. 1989 .. .. .. .. .. .. .. 1
Lee Trevino .. .. .. .. .. . 1990 .. .. .. .. .. .. .. 6
Jack Nicklaus .. .. .. .. .. 1991 .. .. .. .. .. .. ..20