Paul Simson has played in USGA championships all over the country, 67 of them, from the U.S. Junior Amateur to the U.S. Open. and just about everything else. For all that, this week he’ll get to do something he’s never done before.
Play a home game.
Simson is one of 156 competitors in the U.S. Senior Open, a tournament he won in 2010 and 2012, and the Raleigh insurance broker will have the shortest trip of anyone. It’s at Old Chatham Golf Club in Durham, the first time the Triangle has ever hosted a USGA event.
North Carolina has been the site of 33 USGA events, with most of them in the Sandhills, for obvious reasons. Charlotte has hosted several, as have the Triad and the mountains. But never the Triangle.
It’s a little hard to believe.
It’s also a long time coming for Simson, playing in his 13th Senior Amateur and coming off a fourth-place finish at the British Seniors Amateur in North Berwick earlier this month.
“I’m pretty keyed up about it,” Simson, 68, said in a telephone interview with the News & Observer. “I’m very excited about it being in the area. We’ll be able to showcase the Raleigh-Durham area and all the wonderful things we have to showcase. I’m so proud of the area and so pleased to be at Old Chatham. I’m excited for some of the golf folks I’ve known across the country to see what is not normally an area they’d go to.”
Old Chatham has been preparing for this tournament -- which starts with stroke play qualifying Saturday and Sunday followed by four days of match play -- for four years, but the genesis of this tournament goes back farther to when former USGA president and founding Old Chatham member Jim Hyler, the driving force behind the back-to-back Opens at Pinehurst in 2014, suggested what was then his home course as a potential USGA venue.
After a brief delay due to House Bill 2, Old Chatham’s moment has finally arrived.
This isn’t the biggest tournament the USGA hosts -- Pinehurst gets those, like the U.S. Amateur last week -- but it’s a national championship all the same, and it’s the biggest ever played in the Triangle, by default.
“It’s incredible,” Old Chatham director of golf John Marino said in a telephone interview with the News & Observer. “The USGA has such a rich history, and to be part of that history now, to be part of that lineage and pedigree, it’s a great honor. It speaks volumes to the club itself, being here for 18 years.”
Designed by Rees Jones in 2001 and retooled by the architect in 2012, it’s a golf club, with no swimming pool or tennis courts, enclosed by woods on all sides. Dean Smith was a founding member; North Carolina athletic director Bubba Cunningham has won the club championship.
It’s long and difficult but exceedingly fair, without blind shots or forced carries, classic and subtle. The rough has thickened during the hot, humid summer and set up at 7,134 yards it’s a marathon by Senior Amateur standards. The signature holes are probably the 13th and 14th, a par-4 and par-5 that wrap around a pond like a pair of commas, but the water only penalizes a bad shot.
Simson knows all of that better than anyone. Even as the fifth-oldest player in the field, he’ll still be expected to contend. He was the runner-up in 2017, and no one in the field has more local knowledge.
“People say there’s an advantage since it’s so close,” Simson said. “I don’t know that’s the case. Yes, I’ve been fortunate to be able to play out there quite a few times. I do know the golf course pretty well. Sometimes a little more difficult playing close to home so many people expecting so much out of you.”
To an extent, that’ll be the rare new experience for Simson in a long and distinguished amateur golf career. A first for him, and a first for all of us.