A day before leaving for his first U.S. Senior Open Championship, Bill Israelson was stuck in a grocery store talking on his cell phone.
It was one of the weekly chores Israelson needed to finish before packing his golf gear and heading east to Whistling Straights in Kohler, Wis., site of this weekend's tournament. He just finished his Saturday shift at The Vintage in Staples as the head PGA professional.
Israelson, who turned 50 on Feb. 21, was in a good mood, which is nothing new. On this day, however, he was happier than usual after shooting a 66 during a member pick-up game at his home course. It was one reason he felt confident heading into his first golf major since the 1996 PGA Championship.
Turned professional: 1980
Wife: Dr. Sarah Israelson
Children: Zach (14), Emily (11) and Andrew (9)
Position: Head PGA professional at Vintage at Staples
"I wasn't surprised that I qualified for the tournament," said Israelson. "I knew when I turned 50 that my game had held up over the years and I was still playing competitive golf. If I ever was going to qualify for another major, it was going to be this one or the Senior PGA. The regular events are getting tougher because I don't hit it as far any more.
"I was maybe a little surprised because there are only 40 spots open through qualifying so the odds aren't good. But luckily I played one of my better rounds. My game hasn't been really that sharp."
Israelson shot 72 June 11 at the Wayzata Country Club to qualify for his first Senior Open, but fourth Open. In 1982 he shot 20-over-par to place 65th at Pebble Beach. He tied for 52nd with a 13-over-par in 1985 at Oakland Hills and in 1986 at Shinnecock Hills he placed 55th with a 16-over-par. He's made a total of $7,101.50 in the three majors.
The confidence of making the cut in the previous three Opens might offset Israelson's past struggles on Pete Dye designed golf courses.
USGA US Senior Open Championship coverage
1 p.m., ESPN, preview
2 p.m., ESPN, first round
2 p.m., ESPN, second round
3 p.m., NBC, third round
3 p.m., NBC, fourth round
"I've never played (Whistling Straights) before and I've never played Pete Dye courses particularly well," said Israelson. "My game has held up relatively well under U.S. Open conditions though. I'll get a feel for the course during the practice rounds and see how it suits my game. I'm more of a feel player. Dye's courses look really difficult, but if you look a little closer you'll find room to play."
Israelson admitted he hasn't put in the practice time that he used to while playing on the PGA Tour 13 years ago. Because of family obligations this summer he hasn't played in as many tune-up tournaments as he would like.
He said the strength of his game has been his ability to scramble. His weaknesses are his driving accuracy and short putting, two things that would normally spell doom on a USGA setup.
"At the other U.S. Opens I was able to make birdies to offset my bogeys," said Israelson. "Usually a player has the mindset of par, par and par. For me I've been able to get my birdies. It's just been a matter of getting enough to offset the bogeys."
The three-time Minnesota Player of the year tees off at 2 p.m. Thursday from hole 1. On Friday he tees off at 8:45 a.m. off on hole 10. He'll play with Gary Robison and amateur Keith Kitchens.
Zach Israelson, Bill's son, will carry the bag. Israelson's parents and former golf coach at Bemidji High School will also be in the gallery watching.
"I'm more excited than anything," said Israelson. "It's going to be fun playing in another national championship. I feel like I've proven that I'm a good player and this is just a reward for keeping my game up.
"Playing in a national championship is always fun. Playing in the U.S. Open is even that much more special."
JEREMY MILLSOP may be reached at email@example.com or 855-5856.
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