TULSA, Okla. – The friendly folks of Oklahoma do love their golf. You can bet that even the limited crowds (8,000 per day) that return to Southern Hills Country Club this week for the KitchenAid Senior PGA Championship will bring a great spirit and enthusiasm to viewing many of the top 50-and-older golfers in the world. They’ll have their favorites, too.

This week’s Senior PGA on a classic 1930s Perry Maxwell layout – deftly restored by Gil Hanse two years ago – will be a precursor to next year’s 104th PGA Championship, which returns to Southern Hills for the first time since Tiger Woods won his fourth PGA in 2007. Big events. It’s what Southern Hills does, and has done for decades, with Okie golf fans pining to take part.

“It’s super cool for everybody, for the town and for the golf course to be a showcase to be seen around the world in back-to-back years,” said PGA Tour player Bo Van Pelt, a longtime Tulsa resident and a member at Southern Hills. “Pretty neat, and pretty unique.”

Van Pelt is 47, too young to be playing this week against the seniors, but he was on the grounds Tuesday to say hello to old friends, a few of whom he’d invited over to dinner at his house Tuesday night. Van Pelt attended Oklahoma State, as did Scott Verplank, Willie Wood and Bob May, all part of this week’s field. Glen Day and Todd Hamilton, the 2004 British Open champion, played at rival Oklahoma. Cary Cozby, Head Professional at Southern Hills, has long ties to Oklahoma; his dad Jerry was a well-known professional, and Cary played for the Sooners. Brandt Jobe is Oklahoma born. The list goes on and on.

Willie Wood, who is 60, still spends his summers and autumns in Edmond, about a 90-minute drive from Southern Hills. Until last week, when he visited to sneak in a practice round, he hadn’t seen Southern Hills since the 2001 U.S. Open. He smiles when he says he doesn’t have many fond memories of that week (“I drove it in the rough all week long,” he said) and looks forward to making some better ones this week.

To play golf at Oklahoma State, the nation’s preeminent program, is to be part of a fraternity that stays very close. Wood still spends lots of time with Bob Tway, the 1986 PGA Championship winner who retired a couple of years ago. Wood was one of the players headed to Van Pelt’s place just around the corner from Southern Hills on Tuesday night.

“It started years and years ago with Labron Harris (OSU coach from 1947-73) and then Coach (Mike) Holder took over,” Wood said. (Holder ran the OSU golf program for 32 years, then moved on to become athletic director until retiring.) “We were just a really tight-knit group. Many of us went to professional golf, and we always spent time traveling together, playing practice rounds together. Bob Tway and I winter in Arizona now, then come back here and go to (OSU) football games with everyone in the fall. We still have a lot of fun.”

Verplank, 56, won five times on the PGA Tour (winning the 1985 Western Open as an amateur in 1985) before he joined the PGA Tour Champions in 2014. He finished T4 in the first Senior PGA he played in 2015, but hasn’t shown much form this season, slowed by the diabetes he has worked to control for years as well as a few injuries. He spent last week at Kiawah Island at the PGA, microphone in hand, calling three of Phil Mickelson’s rounds.

To compete again in Oklahoma, just 90 minutes from his home, is a treat. 

“I mean, it's kind of my area,” he said. “Not really ‘my’ area, but it's ‘our’ area. Oh, it would be awesome (to play well). Southern Hills is such an iconic place. The people of Tulsa are great. There are lots of Oklahoma State people here, which will be good. I think it would be very exciting. It's up to me to figure out how to play again.”

Verplank had the thrill of playing in the final group on Saturday afternoon alongside Woods at the 2007 PGA, when Woods, in Verplank’s words, was “full throttle.” A great memory for Verpank is seeing one side of the fairway off the downhill, par-4 first hole filled by gallery clad in Woods’ trademark red and black; the other side was filled with fans sporting Verplank’s black and orange – OSU Cowboys colors.

“It was kind of like a football game,” Verplank said Tuesday, remembering walking off that first tee with Woods. “I might have said something like, ‘You’ve never had this many people against you, have you?’ He laughed. Of course, then he kicked my rear.”

Van Pelt also plays and practices at Cedar Ridge Country Club in nearby Broken Arrow, but he joined Southern Hills about eight years ago and says he is glad he did. Between the Gil Hanse restoration which has been well-received by members and competitors this week, and the prospect of two big championships in two years, there is plenty to be excited about. He said he needs to get his own game in gear in order to make it into the PGA field next May. This week, he’s happy to see so many of his old pals here preparing to take on a great test of golf.

History is something you feel around Southern Hills, and Van Pelt feels it, too.

“There have been so many historic moments here,” Van Pelt said. “A lot of courses are lucky to get one, so the fact you have a course like this, in the middle of the country, it reminds you that a lot of great players have been here.

“I know it’s fun for Willie, and Verplank, and the Oklahoma State guys,” he said.  “I saw Bob May. Oklahoma rolls out for golf. They support their golf and they’ve done that forever. No doubt that will be the case this week, too.”

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