BETHESDA -- As much as it is for golf's rich and famous and over-50 crowd, the 16th Senior Open at Congressional Country Club is for another, larger constituency: the not-so-rich and relatively obscure.
It's for players such as David Oakley, who five weeks ago underwent surgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital for prostrate cancer and today will be teeing off in his first major championship since he missed the cut in the 1973 U.S. Open at Oakmont.
It's for players such as Bob Hullender, a former Air Force general who reportedly can hit 300-yard drives despite playing with two artificial hips. It's for players such as E. Reiersgord, a casino manager from Jackpot, Nev., who hopes to hit one here this weekend.
As much as this year's tournament is for the favorites -- players such as recently eligible Hale Irwin, two-time Senior Open champion Jack Nicklaus, Dave Stockton and Ray Floyd are among those expected to be contention -- it's also for players who have a chance to become the next Larry Laoretti.
"It's going to happen again," said Laoretti, who three years ago won the Senior Open in his first try and still is looking for his second Senior Tour victory. "It's a little harder with guys like Hale Irwin coming over from the regular tour. You just have to keep it in the fairway for four days and make a few putts."
Considering where he was a little more than a month ago, it's amazing Oakley will get that chance. Three months ago, he was diagnosed with prostrate cancer. On May 23, a month after he turned 50, he underwent surgery. On June 19, he shot 71 at nearby Columbia Country Club to lead five local qualifiers into the 156-man field.
"I imagine I am going to be very nervous," said Oakley, one of 69 in his first Senior Open. "The last couple of tournaments I've played in, after playing all winter down in Florida, it was great preparation. I have kept my [emotions] in check much, much better than I used to."
Oakley is like a lot of good players who approached their 50th birthday with anticipation, not trepidation. After working for 20 years, first for a company that liquidated hotels and later for a national retail furniture outlet, Oakley quit last winter to concentrate on his game.
He began playing a number of mini-tour circuits in Florida, including the Senior division of the Tommy Armour tour. Oakley, a college teammate of Bob Murphy and Steve Melnyk at Florida, suddenly became the dominant player he was trying to be back in the early 1970s.
"About two years ago, after seeing some friends that I have known doing real well on the Senior Tour, [he thought] that it might be a possible avenue to try," said Oakley. "I talked with my wife, and she said, 'I'd rather have you doing something besides working retail,' where I was working as a manager and working every day of the week, weekends, holidays from 9 in the morning to 9 at night."
But Oakley's plans were put on hold when the cancer was discovered. His wife, Doris, and their friends told him to follow doctor's orders. He did, and was putting with a catheter %J attached two weeks after the operation, hitting wedges within three weeks and taking his first full swing with a driver in a month.
"Actually, first I asked him what do we do about sex, when do I start thinking about sex again?" said Oakley. "He said, 'You are going to have to wait about six weeks after the operation.' I said, 'Now the important part: Can I play golf next week?' "
Hullender, 58, had to give up other sports such as fast-pitch softball and racquetball when osteoarthritis set into his hips in the early '70s. He kept playing golf through two hip replacement procedures. Hullender, who retired a one-star general, qualified for his first Senior Open two years ago and missed the cut.
Asked if his condition could affect him on this hilly, long and now wet course, Hullender said: "Maybe I am wrong about this, but I feel like I'm in better condition to walk this course than at least 75 percent of the players. I walk every day. I'm not sure they do."
Somewhere between the legions of Oakleys and Hullenders and the legends named Nicklaus and Palmer are others who'll be searching for the spotlight.
There's former PGA Tour commissioner Deane Beman, who helped create the Senior Tour 17 years ago and is playing in his first Senior Open. There's Steve Sloan, the former Alabama quarterback and college football coach who's now athletic director at the University of Central Florida.
Then there are the players who share their names with the rich and famous. There's Adolph Trevino, a 58-year-old postal clerk from San Antonio whom somebody here called "Lee's evil twin." There's Al D'Amato, the 55-year-old forklift company owner from California, not the senator from New York.
Someone asked Nicklaus about the chances of an obscure player winning.
"Every year at major championships like the PGA and U.S. Open, we have someone come out of the pack who people haven't heard of," he said. "But it's the name players that generally win, because they're the ones with the experience. You always want to see the local pros do well."
"You called them obscure," he said. "I didn't."
16TH SENIOR OPEN
Where: Congressional Country Club, Bethesda
When: Today through Sunday. In case of tie, an 18-hole playoff will be held Monday.
Who: 156 of the world's best 50-and-over golfers.
CTickets: Individual tickets are $18 for practice rounds and $30 for regular rounds. Season and grounds, $110; clubhouse and grounds, $175; daily ticket book, $225. All packages include parking; season and daily also include official program. For more information, call (301) 469-2305.