SPECTATORS may have been surprised to see Gary Hallberg’s name at the top of the leaderboard at the halfway stage in the Senior Open Championship, but not those in the know.
Tom Watson and Tom Lehman, for instance, were quick to sing the praises of the man in pole position in the $2 million event after Hallberg matched the best score on this majestic course with a seven-under-par 63 on a windy day on the Ayrshire coast.
“He’s a great player, but he doesn’t know it,” said Turnberry specialist Watson of his fellow American after Hallberg’s morning effort, which was illuminated with eight birdies. It left the five-times Open champion facing a tough task just to keep in touch at the halfway stage as he headed out as one of the afternoon starters. In true Watson fashion, he battled to a 75 but trying to make up ten shots on Hallberg already looks to be a daunting task.
Lehman is closer to the leader – he’s three back in joint second alongside first-round pacesetter leader Bernhard Langer – but the former Open champion also identified Hallberg as a man with talent and good enough to go on and win this event. “Did he play the par-3 course across the street here?” said Lehman in trying to highlight what an impressive score Hallberg had signed for in winds gusting to more than 25mph. “He’s immensely talented and because of that nothing he did on a golf course would surprise me.”
As a college player, the man from Berwyn, Illinois, was regarded as being the next big thing in American golf, the Wake Forest scholar having been the first four-time All-American (a feat later achieved by Phil Mickelson). He was the PGA Tour’s rookie of the year in 1980, won three times on that circuit and tied for sixth in both The Masters and the USPGA Championship. His career went off the rails, however, and, in Lehman’s eyes, a special talent went to waste.
“In college golf at one time, Hal Sutton, Bobby Clampett, Fred Couples and Gary Hallberg were the elite of the elite, but Gary was the best,” added the 2006 US Ryder Cup captain. “He is a creative kind of guy who, for some reason, tinkers a lot with his swing. Usually guys like that play by feel and just wing it. But he tends to be concerned about whether his swing is right so he messes around with it. He has has a fly by the seat of his pants approach. I wish he would forget about his swing and, being one of my close friends, I often tell him that. But he only listens for a couple of days.”
After 13 holes in his opening round on Thursday, when he limped out in 40, Hallberg was five-over and looked to be heading for an early exit. A change of approach, however, saw him cover his next 23 holes in 11-under to sit six under for the tournament. Yesterday’s sparkling effort, which contained an early bogey at the second but was flawless thereafter, was five shots better than any other in the testing second-day conditions. So tough, in fact, that Hallberg and Fred Couples, who had that 68, were the only players to break the par of 70. After two rounds, just seven players are still in red figures.
“I think the 40 helped me because it turned me around mentally to play more aggressively,” admitted Hallberg, a 54-year-old who lost to Dundonian Steve Martin in the 1977 Walker Cup match at Shinnecock Hills. “Today I started to choke a bit near the end because I haven’t been nervous in a while and it was nice to feel like that.”
As part of his preparations for this event, Hallberg spent some time last week practising at The Renaissance Club in East Lothian and revealed he’d benefitted enormously from having John Harris, a caddie from Dunbar, on his bag there. “I asked him, ‘how do you handle the wind over here?’ He said, ‘We lean on the wind’, which I took as meaning using the wind.”
Hallberg also liked the caddie’s wit. “He said some classic things,” added the American, who shared the lead with Andrew Oldcorn and Mike Harwood in the 1991 Open Championship at Royal Birkdale before finishing in a tie for 32nd behind Ian Baker-Finch. “I hit it in the bunker on one hole and he said, ‘there’s only room in there for an angry man and his niblick’. That’s the greatest thing I have ever heard.”
Lehman, who won the Traditions, another of the over-50s majors, for the second time earlier this season, is definitely a danger to Hallberg over the closing two rounds, as is Langer, even though the two-times Masters champion relinquished his lead after a 73 that included a triple-bogey 7 at the 13th.
“I hit a really bad tee shot when I caught my 3-iron fat and it only travelled about 150 yards and didn’t carry the long grass,” said Langer of a rare blunder. “I couldn’t find it, so I had to reload and make bogey with the second ball. It’s amazing how quickly it can happen out there.” He, too, heaped praise on Hallberg. “I think Gary’s 63 is the round of the year,” declared the German. “Shooting seven-under today is like ten or 11-under on a decent day – that’s how good it was and I take my hat off to him.”