Pair shoot 69s to qualify for U.S. Senior Open

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Mark Brooks was on the tee for his 18th and final hole of the U.S. Senior Open sectional qualifying round Tuesday at Sewickley Heights Country Club when a player in the group ahead retreated to retake an errant drive and whispered to Brooks that the leader in the clubhouse was at 3 under.

It was very last thing Brooks, at 5 under, wanted to hear.

“I immediately snipe-hooked my drive into the rough, choked it to the front and barely two-putted,” Brooks said, smiling, after his 18th-hole double bogey. “Wish he’d have said nothing!”

Brooks, 53, of Fort Worth, Texas, and Lonnie Nielsen, 60, of Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., turned in identical rounds of 69 to secure the two automatic qualifying spots for the U.S. Senior Open July 7-13 at Oak Tree National in Edmond, Okla.

Doug Garwood of Stevenson Ranch, Calif., and Gary Hallberg of Parker, Colo., carded 2-under 70s to claim the two alternate spots. The top local golfers in the field of 57 were Bob Friend (71) and Sean Knapp (72).

Nielsen’s day, which featured just one bogey, was a welcome return to form for the former Champions Tour staple. Nielsen hasn’t played on tour since 2012, when lingering knee problems led him to have a second knee replacement.

Nielsen had his right knee replaced in the fall of 2010 and bounced back pretty quickly, he said. He had the left knee replaced in October, and that’s been a longer recovery.

“It’s been a long road back,” Nielsen said. “It just seemed to take forever for my game to come around. Just in the last month or so I started to find it. This [qualifier] helped give me some encouragement.”

The beaming Nielsen noted that his appearance in the U.S. Senior Open will be an historic event.

“Nobody’s ever played with a left knee replacement on any tour,” Nielsen said. “I’ll be the first. It’s my claim to fame!”

Whereas Nielsen took a practice round Sunday at Sewickley Heights and another warm-up Monday at Oakmont Country Club, Brooks was a late arrival and only managed to drive by the Sewickley Heights course late Monday evening, with dusk already fallen on empty fairways.

After his round, Brooks admitted, “I didn’t know where I was going a few times out there.”

And if this course was a mystery to him, well, he knows what’s next. Brooks called the U.S. Senior Open berth “a double-edged sword” and offered a good-natured assessment of what to expect next month at Oak Tree National.

“There will be 50 guys come Friday afternoon wondering, ‘What in the hell was I doing qualifying for this?’ ” Brooks cautioned. “This is the hardest golf course I’ve ever played in my life. They’ll have red clay on their shoes, and they’ll be permanently scarred.”

Brooks laughed at himself. He’s speaking from experience, he said, but he’s excited, too … just as long as he doesn’t catch a peek at the leader board from the 18th tee box.

Stephen J. Nesbitt: and Twitter @stephenjnesbitt.

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