What many local golf fans saw from Don Pooley in the final round of last year's U.S. Senior Open at Caves Valley Golf Club was a strong will and a hot putter. It helped him hold his composure and beat legend Tom Watson in a spectacular five-hole playoff.
What no one knew was that the former PGA Tour journeyman, on the cusp of his greatest professional achievement, was playing hurt. Even Pooley didn't know the extent of his right shoulder injury until he underwent surgery five months later.
"I kept seeing doctors," Pooley said last week. "I had a cortisone shot [a few weeks before the Open], and that kind of got me through the summer. It got progressively worse. I kept trying to figure out what was going on. I wasn't able to pinpoint the problem until the end of the year."
Hindered by neck and back injuries throughout his career, Pooley had been bothered by pain in his shoulder since swinging through a shot in dense, wet grass at a tournament in Alabama in April. A contrasting magnetic resonance imaging in December showed that Pooley had a torn labrum.
"It was torn off the bone from 12 [o'clock] to 6," Pooley said. "It was a lot more major when they got in there than they thought it would be."
Seven months after undergoing surgery in Columbus, Ga., and 3 1/2 months after returning to the Champions Tour, Pooley is both on top of his game and his world heading into this week's $1.5 million Constellation Energy Classic, which begins Friday at Hayfields Country Club in Hunt Valley.
Not only is Pooley feeling better than he was when he came to Baltimore last year after qualifying for the Senior Open, but he is also playing better, as evidenced by his victory in the Allianz Championship last month in Des Moines, Iowa. The win helped erase any fears Pooley had about his shoulder.
"You have a major surgery like that and you always wonder whether you'll be able to come back from it," said Pooley, 52. "You don't know how much mobility you'll lose. You don't forget how to play golf. It's a question of whether your body can make the same swing or not."
Pooley said he played much of last year, including the week at Caves Valley, adjusting his swing to his injury. It made him shorten his backswing and cock his wrists more to compensate for not being able to make a full, natural shoulder turn.
Winning the Senior Open, particularly in such a dramatic way over a Hall of Fame player, renewed the confidence that had waned toward the end of Pooley's 15-year PGA Tour career, which included victories at the 1980 B.C. Open and the 1987 Memorial Tournament.
"I think it's helped me a great deal with confidence," he said. "You never know if you can do it. You think you can do it. When you actually do it, that gives you an inner confidence that you can never have without doing it. I thought that was huge."
In a different way, so was his win last month in Iowa.
"In a big way," he said. "That kind of came out of nowhere. I had one good round the week before. I shot 63 the second round in Minneapolis and I thought, 'That's about as well as I can play right there.' Then to come back after a week and play three really good rounds in a row, that was a little surprising."
Pooley finished tied for sixth at last week's Kroger Classic.
While his second senior victory didn't bring Pooley as much acclaim as his first, it served to validate what he had done last year. Not only did he hold off accomplished players such as Bruce Fleisher, Jim Thorpe and Gil Morgan, but he also beat a former major league pitcher named Rick Rhoden.
"When I walked up to the 11th green, Rick Rhoden was 12-under and I was 11-under," Pooley said. "I've always been a Dodger fan and he used to play for the Dodgers and I was one of his big fans back then. I was thinking at the time [of the final round], 'I kind of wish he was still pitching for the Dodgers.' "
Pooley regained the lead with an eagle on the 11th hole and then was surprised to see his lead was three strokes by the time he reached the 14th green. He made a 6-footer for birdie to increase the lead to four and won by three.
"It was kind of fun coming in the last few holes with a big lead," he said.
It was certainly easier for Margaret Pooley than it had been in Baltimore, where she watched her husband of 27 years try to protect a three-shot lead with Watson chasing him. Watson birdied six times in eight holes to force a playoff, which Pooley won with an 8-foot birdie putt on the fifth playoff hole - the second hole of sudden death.
"It was pretty nerve-wracking," Margaret Pooley said. "Just to watch him seem so confident of himself, it was great."
She will join her husband in Baltimore for this week's tournament. They will be staying in one of the cottages at Caves Valley since Pooley was made a club member last year during a dinner in his honor at the club in November.
"It's a very nice perk and I'm certainly going to take advantage of that," Pooley said. "I'll have a lot of positive thoughts going into the week."
He will likely be reminded many times in the next few days of his Senior Open victory, which shouldn't be much of a shock considering that it has happened nearly everywhere he has gone in the past 14 months.
"There hasn't been a week that's gone by when somebody hasn't come up to me and said what a great win that was or what a great TV drama that was or that was the best playoff they've ever seen in golf, comments like that," Pooley said.
Aside from the golf course itself, the biggest difference this time for Pooley is that his caddie during the Open, longtime golf teacher Cliff Moore, underwent hernia surgery back in July and is out for the year. Pooley has used five different caddies since, including daughters Kerri and Lynn.
"I'm kind of finding people as I go here," Pooley said. "So far it's worked out fine. I'm playing well. Every caddie is a little different. It takes a little while to get used to. It's kind of been a tough year for Team Pooley."
But who's complaining?
His shoulder is healthy, his game has returned, just in time for a trip back to Baltimore where, for one day last summer, Don Pooley was king.
At a glance
What: Constellation Energy Classic
When: Friday through Sunday
Where: Hayfields Country Club, Hunt Valley
Length: 7,031 yards
Purse: $1.5 million
2002 winner: J.C. Snead
TV: The Golf Channel (Friday-Sunday, 1:30-4 p.m.)
Tickets: Practice round (today-Thursday), $10; championship round (1 day, Friday-Sunday), $15; grounds pass, $70; clubhouse pass, $125.