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Wide-open field, demanding Caves Valley stand between Bernhard Langer and senior golf history

In golf, as in politics, history has a way of repeating itself. The most dominant players tend to find themselves in contention week after week, just as the most difficult courses typically identify the best performer — or at least the hottest putter — particularly in major tournaments.

Will it happen for Bernhard Langer and the Caves Valley Golf Club at the Constellation Energy Senior Players Championship?

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Langer comes into Thursday's opening round having won the tournament the past three years at different venues, trying to become the first player in the history of what is now called the PGA Tour Champions to make it four straight wins at a major.

Kenny Perry, 56, wants to replicate his two-major stretch in 2013.

Yet the soon-to-be 60-year-old German also comes in after lackluster weekend performances in his past two events, including the recent U.S. Senior Open. Kenny Perry's victory there prevented Langer from winning the season's first three majors.

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Asked at a Tuesday news conference whether he is thinking about making history in Owings Mills this weekend, Langer said, "I try not to focus on four in a row. I try to focus on the next shot and today and the best possible score every day and then put myself hopefully in a situation where I might have a chance to win the championship.

"But I think it could be detrimental to be just thinking about, you know, I might make history or I might win four in a row or this or that. I need to focus on the task at hand and that's always the next shot or the next putt."

That's where Caves Valley comes in. The par-72 course, which also hosted the 2002 U.S. Senior Open, is among the most challenging Langer and his fellow pros have played in recent history. It's not just for the fact that it's one of the longest (playing at a robust 7,196 yards this week), but also among the most physically demanding to navigate on foot.

"This is a big golf course," Perry, who is ranked third in driving distance, said Wednesday. "I played 18 [Tuesday], I teed off around 9:30 and when I got done I went back and went to bed. I was whipped. This is a big, hard walk. It's going to be challenging. The guys that are in shape are going to have a huge advantage."

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Training and treatment are part of the daily regimen on the PGA Tour Champions, especially for three-time defending Senior Players Championship winner Bernhard Langer.

Considering the weather forecast, with expected temperatures approaching or even reaching triple digits on Thursday and Friday, a player's overall fitness could be as much of a factor as his length or consistency off the tee, as well as his ability to roll in enough birdie (and par) putts, as Perry did in winning the U.S. Senior Open at Salem (Mass.) Country Club by two shots.

"I didn't have any knowledge of Salem Country Club and I'm telling you, they're Donald Ross courses and they had so much break on them it was unreal," said Perry, 56. "But you could see the break. I notice here they're subtle, they're more subtle, and it's going to be a lot harder to kind of learn the nuances of these greens."

What is setting up nicely as a four-day duel between Langer and Perry, who is hoping to win the U.S. Senior Open and Constellation Energy Senior Players Championship in back-to-back starts as he did in 2013, could begin at the first tee since the two will be in the same group at 8:40 a.m Thursday (and 11:03 a.m. Friday) along with Brandt Jobe.

Jobe, who broke a 19-year drought in winning last month's Principal Charity Classic, could be this year's Don Pooley, the PGA and Senior Tour journeyman who outlasted legend Tom Watson in a five-hole playoff to win the 2002 U.S. Senior Open. That week began with 15 different players having won at least one of the 20 tournaments leading into the Senior Open.

"I think he had a hot week, and he was certainly a very good player," said Tom Kite, who at 67 will be the oldest player in the field of 78 players and the only one to have played at Caves Valley in 2002. "[But] the golf course was certainly different at the time, it was faster and shorter. Now it's all through the air. No matter how low you hit it, the ball's not going to run."

Still, Kite sees a wide-open field this year despite what Langer has done in recent years and what Perry did in blistering all but Kirk Triplett outside Boston two weeks ago in winning his fourth major on the PGA Tour Champions. A reporter mentioned to Kite that there were probably only "a handful" of players with a reasonable chance to win.

Senior golfers to watch at the Constellation Senior Players Championship at Caves Valley

"It's more than a handful [who can win], but it's not more than three handfuls, I wouldn't think," said Kite. "You always have some who can pop up and win a tournament, like where did that come from? Realistically, you just sit there and say, 'Kenny Perry is playing really well, Bernhard Langer is playing pretty well.' You go down the money list."

But not too far down.

The list of legitimate contenders was shortened by one earlier this week, when former Masters champion Fred Couples, who won earlier this year and was in contention at the U.S. Senior Open before finishing tied for fourth, withdrew because of a recurring back injury. Because of his length — and putting — Couples might have been as much of a favorite as Langer and Perry this week.

"This is playing right in their hands," Kite said before Couples withdrew. "If they drive the ball straight, which they have been, it's going to be tough."

History is against Langer, who has won 32 events after he turned 50, to keep up the pace much longer. Hale Irwin won 42 times on the PGA Senior Tour before he turned 60 and twice in the months following that milestone, but only once after that. Lee Trevino, who is third on the PGA Tour Champions' list of winners with 29, also won just once after his 60th birthday.

"You look at the thing and realistically you have a five-, six-year window [to win]," Kite said. "The guys that are in shape can stretch it out a little more. I won my last tournament when I was 58. There are only a few guys that won in their 60s. It's like 18 or 19 tournaments have been won by guys in their 60s. Historically it doesn't happen, but I think you're going to see more and more of it."

Given that Langer still has more than a month until he turns 60, his clock is still ticking.

"He's unreal," said Perry. "He's such a technician. He's always practicing. He's a great man to look to up to."

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