BELLEVUE-"It's a pretty cool deal," Willapa Harbor Golf Course pro Louie Runge said after he qualified for the 26th U.S. Senior Open Golf Tournament last weekend. He will be competing against the likes of Hale Irwin, Greg Norman, Tom Watson, Tom Kite, and a guy named Arnold Palmer.
Runge, who turned 50 just a few days before, was one of 60 golfers who began the tournament at Bellevue's Overlake Country Club with an opportunity to earn one of only two berths to the elite U.S. Open. When Louie triple-bogeyed the third hole, a 140-yard par three, he says, "I was ready to get in the car and go home."
Instead, the former professional at Surfside Golf Course for 12 years, used his resolve to go on. "You never know what may happen in golf. I'm pretty proud of myself for hanging in there and playing well on the back nine and now I'm going to the show."
Runge finished with a 74 and tied with four other golfers for the second berth to the show, the U.S. Senior Open. Ironically one of the other four linksters thought his score wouldn't be good enough to qualify, so he did leave early. Runge had a great drive on the first sudden-death playoff hole and 2-putted from 40 feet as one player was eliminated. A second was gone after the second hole as Runge 2-putted from 20 feet to remain alive.
On the same hole he had triple-bogeyed earlier Runge drove pin high, but left his 20-foot putt two inches shy of victory. The fourth playoff hole found Runge in a sand trap after two shots and his chip from the bunker rolled 20 feet past the cup. Needing the putt to stay alive, Runge calmly rolled it in to force a fifth and final playoff hole.
"I drove my 3-iron 220 yards and two-putted for the win," Runge related. "This was a professional style course and I had to adjust by going for greens and not always shooting directly at the pin. I'm excited about being one of the 156 guys who have the chance to go after the $1 million first prize at the Open."
Runge is realistic about his chances for first place, as most of those competing will be senior tour professionals. However, Runge is not going to Dayton, Ohio just to have the experience of playing for fun. "I am going to the Open to be competitive," he said with conviction. "I want to see just where I stand among the best senior players (in the world). They are all very good, but I can play good, too."
Runge, a Raymond native, is used to winning on the golf course. He was State Junior Champion when he was seven, eight, and nine years old. He was voted athlete of the year at Grays Harbor College for his golfing feats and played for the University of Washington varsity as well.
His parents and grandparents before them owned the golf course in Raymond. "The course was built in 1925, my granddad bought it in 1950 and we've had it in our family ever since," Runge explained. His son Mitch will attend Columbia Basin College in the fall on a golf scholarship and his daughter Chance was second in the state last season as a junior in high school.
Runge said the strength of his game is being an excellent ball striker. "It's ironic that I putted well to qualify for the U.S. Open. About five years ago I got a case of the yipps and just couldn't putt right-handed anymore. It was either switch to putting left-handed or quit playing golf." Needless to say the switch has paid off as the right-handed swinging Runge dropped in the crucial 20-footer on his fourth playoff hole while putting left-handed.
Runge is hopeful of making the cut at the Senior Open by shooting well the first two rounds July 28 and 29. "The top 60 make the cut and are in the money," he said. "It will be a lot of pressure, but so was the qualifying round." The final two rounds will be played July 30 and 31 and up-to-the-minute results can be found at www.2005usso.com when the tournament begins. The event will be televised on ESPN the first two days and NBC for the final rounds.
Runge's immediate plans after the U.S. Senior Open include the Oregon Open and the Kenai Open. He and wife Pat, a mortgage broker in South Bend, will travel from Dayton to Pendleton to Alaska over the next two weeks. Later Runge will compete in Portugal with hopes of spending a year on the European Senior Golf Tour.
"Ultimately I'd like to make the American Senior Tour, but there are only six openings so I'm hoping to adjust my game by playing in Europe first," Runge related. "Turning 50 is like a rebirth for me," the newest kid on the senior golf block says with an excited smile.
Competing against Palmer, Norman, and Fuzzy Zoeller would make anyone smile - even if there wasn't a million bucks to shoot for.