Back when he was just another kid with big dreams and not so much game, Olin Browne and his then-girlfriend used to go to a hardscrabble par-3 course nearby and imagine what it would be like to win a national championship.
Now Browne and his wife, Pam, know.
The 52-year-old journeyman captured the biggest victory of his life Sunday, holding off Mark O'Meara down the stretch to win the U.S. Senior Open by three strokes.
"This goes back a long way for us," Browne said of the aspirations he and Pam had first considered some 30 years ago.
Avoiding major mistakes, Browne had pars on the first seven holes. After a bogey dropped him into a tie with O'Meara, he played the last 10 holes in 1 under, while O'Meara made two costly bogeys.
"I guess from the middle of the back nine on it became a match-play situation, and I've got zero experience in match play," Browne said, chuckling about his 0-1 record in head-to-head competition. "But it's about putting your ball in play, keeping it out of the junk. The bottom line is minimize your mistakes, maximize your effort, and that's all you can do."
After Browne rolled in an anticlimactic 30-foot birdie putt on the final hole to touch off a loud roar from the large gallery ringing the green, the usually stoic Browne raised his arms in triumph. He had gone 141 consecutive tournaments since his last victory at the 2005 Deutsche Bank.
His even-par 71 followed rounds of 64, 69 and 65 and left him at 15-under 269.
Browne said he struggled with nerves on the front side, but still was able to sidestep any gaffes. He had made 15 birdies and two eagles to blitz the field and take a two-stroke lead into the final round. But in the last 18 holes, he played within himself and was content to craft pars while everyone else tried to catch him.
O'Meara, winner of the 1998 Masters and British Open, caught up but couldn't hang on.
"This is a huge victory for him," O'Meara said. "I know it's his first win out here on the Champions Tour. It's a major championship. You look at the leaderboard, there's a lot of quality players up there at the top of the leaderboard. I think Olin should be very proud of himself."
Mark Calcavecchia shot a 69 and was alone in third at 273. Ageless Hale Irwin had a 68 was another shot back along with Joey Sindelar (70). Peter Senior (71) was at 275, with Corey Pavin (69) and Michael Allen (70) another stroke off the pace. The group at 277 included Steve Pate (68), John Huston (69), Nick Price (70) and defending champion Bernhard Langer (70).
It was O'Meara who blinked in the final-round, winner-take-all matchup in the last pairing.
With the two sharing the lead, O'Meara dropped back for good when his drive on the par-4, 461-yard 13th ended up behind a tree left of the fairway. He was forced to hit a low draw around the tree that hit another tree and ended up in the deep rough right of the green. O'Meara muscled the chip out of the high grass, but it rolled 45 feet past the pin, leading to a two-putt bogey.
Browne, only the fifth player to win on the Nationwide, PGA and Champions tours, said when O'Meara's drive found trouble he tried to not get ahead of himself.
"No, because there are still six holes to play," he said. "It could have just as easily gone the other way. And I just knew if I stayed patient and hit the best shot that I could that when it came down to the last couple holes, I'd have a chance. That's all I was asking for."
Browne maintained his one-stroke lead until Inverness' most difficult hole, the long, uphill par-4, 488-yard 16th. While Browne was splitting the fairway and hitting a hybrid-3 pin high, O'Meara's long-iron approach came up 30 yards short of the green. He chipped to 20 feet below the hole and failed to make the par putt as the advantage doubled.
Playing keep-away with the lead, Browne made a 12-foot par putt on the 17th green. At the 18th hole made famous by Bob Tway's sand shot that broke Greg Norman's heart to win the 1986 PGA Championship, Browne drove into the first cut of rough and calmly put a wedge on the green. Safely below the hole, he stroked the putt into the middle of the cup.
"I don't think it matters how you win," he said. "I don't think it matters whether you shoot 63 coming from the pack. I don't think it matters if you shoot 75 after having a six-shot lead. This will be a confidence boost for me to know that I can hang in there when I don't have my game, and I sure as heck didn't have my game today."
Browne, who did not begin playing golf until he was 19, became just the second player in tournament history to go wire-to-wire by matching the accomplishment of Dale Douglass (1986).
O'Meara was thwarted in his bid for a second senior major to go with his Senior Players Championship he won last year in Maryland. Instead, he finished second for the 10th time in his five seasons since joining the over-50 circuit.
"I'm disappointed. I certainly had a chance to win, and I didn't get it done," he said. "But I'm happy for Olin."