EDMOND — While most players were trying to post pars and move on to the next hole Saturday afternoon at Oak Tree National, Gene Sauers went on a birdie binge to grab the lead heading into the final round of the U.S. Senior Open.
Sauers, a veteran player who didn’t play golf for seven years, shot a 3-under-par 68 to build a three-shot lead over Bernhard Langer and Scott Dunlap.
“Being a U.S. Open champion is a dream for everybody, even as a Senior Champion,” Sauers said. “I lost to Nick Price at the ’92 PGA but after everything I’ve been through the last three, four years it’s remarkable I’m in the position I’m in right now.”
The only player to shoot under-par all three rounds, Sauers first stepped away from golf because of burnout. Then three years ago, he thought he would never play golf again when blackened skin spots started appearing on his arms and legs.
Informed he probably only had a 25 percent chance to survive, Sauers was hospitalized for two months. Doctors took skin grafts from various parts of his body, using staples to attach good skin to raw areas where blackened patches were removed.
“At first they thought I might have lupus or Wegener’s” Sauers said. “They were treating with me all these drugs. The next thing you now, six or eight months later the drug interaction burned me from the inside out, but I pulled through.”
That’s why Sauers views being atop the U.S. Senior Open leaderboard as a blessing after he leapfrogged Langer and Colin Montgomerie during Saturday’s third round.
The native of Savannah, Ga., who notched birdies on Nos. 7, 12, 16 and 18, compared trying to navigate Oak Tree’s demanding par-71 Pete Dye designed layout to playing in the Masters.
“This course makes you concentrate more,” Sauers said. “You have to hit your tee shots in certain areas and pick specific points on the greens. It’s like the greens at Augusta, sort of like putting on this table top.”
Sauers paused knocked on the table and added: “At the end of the day you’re worn out because you concentrated so much.”
When asked about Sunday possibly being the hottest day of the tournament, Sauers confessed he played Saturday with a cold.
“I’ve got a little fever and scratchy throat and achy body,” Sauers said. “They always say beware of the sick guy. Hopefully that will come true.”
It’s been 12 years since Sauers’ last win, when he captured the 2002 Air Canada Championship in the Vancouver area. His other two wins were both on the PGA Tour — the 1989 Hawaiian Open and the 1986 Bank of Boston Classic.
To end his lengthy drought, Sauers most likely will have to hold off several veteran players.
Montgomerie, who owned the lead after the first and second rounds, started missing fairways on the back nine. Montgomerie, who won the Senior PGA earlier this year, got to 8-under early in his round but six bogeys resulted in a 74 that left him four shots off the lead.
Dunlap, who had only one bogey in the first two rounds, bogeyed Nos. 2 and No. 3 but was 1-under the rest of the day and has only five bogeys through three rounds.
Langer, the leading money winner five of his six years on the Champions Tour, posted an even-par 71.
“I actually played better today than I did (Friday),” Langer said. “I had a bunch of lip-outs. I probably should have had a 69. I played well enough for that score … I’m going to take one shot at a time, play the best round I can and hopefully put some pressure (on Sauers) and see what happens.”
Sauers experienced some success his rookie season on the Champions Tour, making the cut in all 22 events, including six top-10 finishes to earn roughly $1 million. But this year he hasn’t had a top-10 finish in 11 tournaments.
He hopes to collect the $630,000 top prize on Sunday but said it’s easy to keep golf in perspective after battling a disease that threatened his life.
“I used to beat myself up back when I was on the PGA Tour… but I’ve told a lot of friends a bogey doesn’t matter much anymore,” Sauers said. “The good Lord touched me and said I’m going to give you another chance. Hopefully I can play good (Sunday) and pull it out.”