SAMMAMISH — The fans following Fred Couples and Tom Watson early Thursday morning were sometimes six- and seven-deep, wedging themselves between tree trunks and ducking under limbs.
Very quietly, and without much attention, Bruce Vaughan was the player taking early control of the U.S. Senior Open.
Taking advantage of cool morning conditions and mostly avoiding the canopy of trees engulfing Sahalee Country Club, Vaughan opened with a 4-under 66 on Thursday to take a two-stroke lead.
The 2008 Senior British Open champion — his only victory on the Champions Tour — made just two bogeys in a steady round, while favorites such as Couples and Watson were far more shaky.
“It’s just the first day. I mean, there is a lot of golf left and a lot of trouble out there for the next three days,” Vaughan said.
Trouble seemed to be the story of the day.
Whether it was the firm greens sending irons from the fairway hoping 2 feet in the air, or the sprawling limbs in the sea of cedar, fir and pine trees gobbling up wayward shots, the U.S. Golf Association made certain Sahalee was no easy hike through the woods.
About the only favorable bounce went to Mark Calcavecchia, who glanced his side-hill second shot on No. 18 off a green side tree. Instead of bouncing into trouble, Calcavecchia’s ball stopped just short of the green, and he rolled it up to the front pin for birdie.
Otherwise, Sahalee was unrelenting.
“It seems like the top 100 players in the world were here, rather than a 156 old guys,” Calcavecchia said after his 69. “This is probably the hardest pin placements I’ve seen in years. It was tough.”
Couples, the hometown favorite playing 20 miles east from where he grew up, nearly saw his round unravel when a blocked tee shot on No. 1 — his 10th hole — plugged in a fern bush at the base of two cedars. After taking an unplayable lie, Couples managed bogey, but made another two holes later to fall to 3 over.
Then came Couples’ one run. The 50-year-old star, playing in his first U.S. Senior Open, strung together three straight birdies to salvage an even-par round of 70.
“I think the score I shot is phenomenal,” Couples said. “I would have taken 70 before the round started. … I was very, very mediocre. I don’t know what else to tell you. I can tell you I birdied three holes in a row, three good holes.
While Couples was riding a roller coaster of bogeys and birdies, Vaughan was steady. He birdied the 16th and 18th holes — the 18th a brutal, uphill 465-yard par 4, converted from a par 5. Vaughan added birdies at the second, third and sixth holes on his back nine, before bogeying the par-3 ninth, his final hole of the day.
“More shocked probably than anything,” Vaughan said. “I did everything you were supposed to do. It was nothing crazy.”
Loren Roberts and amateur Tim Jackson, the leader a year ago after two rounds, shots 68s. Bernhard Langer, the British Senior Open winner Sunday, and Tom Lehman were another stroke back along with Calcavecchia, Joe Ozaki and Michael Allen. Ozaki hit a tee shot on the par-5 second hole that traveled 50 yards before finding the limbs of a cedar. He still managed par.
Other favorites were far off the leaderboard. Defending champ Fred Funk shot 76. U.S. Ryder Cup captain Corey Pavin needed a birdie on his final hole to shoot 72. Jay Haas was 2 under on his first nine, before a trio of bogeys coming home. He had a 70.
“The rough is not brutal, but you almost can’t get to the green anyway because there is always a tree in the way,” Haas said.
Watson and Couples were the marquee group teeing off before 8 a.m. The 60-year-old Watson said earlier this week he thought there would be a number of high scores during the tournament. But with cool, receptive conditions, Watson was aggressive and found himself in a tie for the lead at 3 under after dropping a downhill birdie putt on the third, his 12th hole, to go with birdies on Nos. 12, 17 and 2.
Watson said the fatigue of traveling eight time zones from the Senior British Open to the West Coast finally caught up with him, though. He made bogeys with poor iron shots at Nos. 6, 8 and 9 to close his round of 70.
“I’m tired and hurting,” Watson said. “When you wake up at 1 o’clock in the morning and can’t go back to sleep, it’s tough to play.”