Three years ago Gene Sauers did not know whether he would ever pick up a golf club again, yet now the American debutant leads The 2013 Senior Open Championship Presented by Rolex following a superb first-round 67.
Sauers, a three-time winner on the US PGA Tour, only returned to golf less than two years ago after suffering from a potentially fatal skin condition, but has shone since joining the Senior ranks across the Atlantic at the end of last year.
Making his maiden Senior Open appearance this week at a bright and breezy Royal Birkdale, the 50 year old finished Thursday one shot clear of a four-strong group including 2010 Champion Bernhard Langer.
Also at that mark following an intriguing and testing first day on the north west coast of England, where only ten players broke par in round one, were 2012 MCB Tour Championship winner David Frost of South Africa, Australian Peter Senior and Frankie Minoza of the Philippines.
Defending champion Fred Couples, meanwhile, struggled to a four over par 74 while Senior Open debutant Colin Montgomerie went two better to finish the day five shots off the lead.
After reaching the turn in a serene, bogey-free 34, Sauers made his first birdie of the day at the par four tenth before immediately handing the advantage back with bogey at the following hole.
However, a hat-trick of gains in succession from the 15th – including a nine iron that lipped out for eagle at the 16th – saw the Georgia native go top after the first day’s play in the 27th edition of The Senior Open in Southport.
“I'm very proud of that,” said Sauers, who played in two Open Championships in his regular career, finishing tied 58th at Royal Troon in 1989. “I just made sure I hit a lot of solid shots. If you hit it really solid then the wind won't really mess with it too much and so I’m pleased with the way I played.
“It's a great place and a privilege and honour to be here. I’ve not played an awful lot of links golf but I like the different challenge; you don't know which way the ball is going to bounce so you're kind of hitting and hoping sometimes but I’m really enjoying it.”
Sauers was initially diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis in 2009 but it was the myriad medications he was prescribed that caused the dangerous Stevens-Johnson Syndrome, triggering his skin to start burning from inside-out.
“It's a second chance,” he continued. “Both arms, both legs were burned up. After Duke University diagnosed me, I spent seven weeks in hospital, had seven lots of skin grafts and it was torture. I tell you, I don't want anybody to go through that. I'm blessed and I'm glad to be here.”
Langer, who won this title at Carnoustie in 2010 and came close again at Turnberry 12 months ago, was one over par for the day through 14, having looked rock solid in making 13 pars and just the one drop to that point.
But the German put his foot down over the closing four holes to finish strongly, birdieing the par five 15th and 17th before a wonderful approach to eight feet at the last set up a finish with a flourish.
“How I finished was very pleasing because 18 is not a simple hole,” said Langer, who eventually finished tied sixth last year after leading by one stroke with 18 holes to play. “I wasn’t totally happy with my first seven or eight holes, because I had a number of chances to make birdies, and just didn't putt well.
“But it was very tight. I played very well off the tee and into the greens and gave myself opportunities, kept it out of these pot bunkers and out of the long grass. I had opportunities and finally the putter started working at the end.”
It was also a remarkable round and finish for Minoza.
Having opened with a bogey at the first and a triple bogey at the third, the seven-time winner on the Japan Golf Tour traversed the back nine in 31 blows, gaining shots at four of the last five holes to also finish two under for the day.
He said: “I stayed patient today which is important as I'm still learning how to play the links courses. You never know what the weather is going to do but I like it because you have to learn how to hit the ball low, how to hit a high ball, how to putt 50 yards off the green.”
Frost, meanwhile, hit a splendid second to three feet at the par five 17th to set up an eagle en route to his two under par total, while Senior could have led out right but for a bogey at the 18th after three wayward shots.