"I saw some good scores from this morning before I teed off, and it looked like there were birdies to be made out there," said the 52-year-old Stricker, who made his Senior Open debut with seven birdies and a 30-foot eagle putt on the 17th hole to catch Toms.
Toms had 10 birdies, a record for the U.S. Senior Open, playing in the morning. They were two strokes ahead of Kirk Triplett and Jerry Kelly. Stricker has split his time this season playing the PGA Tour and the PGA Tour Champions, where he won his only major in the Regions Tradition last month. He had to put behind him the disappointment of last week at the American Family Insurance Championship — the Champions event he hosts in Madison, Wisconsin — when Stricker missed the winning putt and then lost in a playoff won by Kelly.
"I didn't sleep well Sunday and Monday — it was eating at me," Stricker said. "I was cranky and so was my wife (Nicki, his caddie). My focus was to get rest and get re-energized." Toms, winner of the 2001 PGA Championship and a one-stroke winner at last year's U.S. Senior Open at the Broadmoor, just wanted to get off to a good start.
"When you are the defending champion, you just want to get out there, play golf and try to be in the tournament after the first day and not shoot yourself out of it," said Toms, whose morning round matched previous 62s posted in past Senior Opens by Loren Roberts, Brandt Jobe and Triplett.
Stricker just missed a birdie putt on the 18th hole for a 61. The course, designed by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, didn't put much of a defense from an inch of rain that fell overnight, and 15 inches of rain since May 15. A total of 42 players were under par — 23 in the afternoon — to set a U.S. Senior Open record. The previous mark was 40 rounds under par at Salem Country Club in Massachusetts two years ago.
"I certainly hope it dries up a little bit," said Toms, who birdied his last four holes — all in the 12- to 15-foot range — for a 29 on the back nine. "Yesterday afternoon the golf course was perfect. For a guy that doesn't hit it very far, I didn't want to see it rain last night. The shorter the golf course can play, the better I feel about it."
The 57-year-old Triplett, who is still searching for his first major, squeezed seven birdies against one bogey out of his morning round of 64 that Kelly, who was one of the runners-up last year to Toms in Colorado, matched in the afternoon with his seven birdies and a three-putt bogey.
"I think this course in some ways just forces you to shoot at the flag because you can't really figure it out," Triplett said. "You're going to struggle to make pars anyway. You might as well go at it. The pins are such you're not going make a lot of 30-footers, but you can make some 15-footers, and I made a bunch of those."
Kelly liked his position despite reaching 6 under with six birdies before his three-putt bogey at No. 7 — his 16th of the round — slowed his momentum. "I still get the ball in the fairway, I managed myself well when I did get in the rough and I got the ball on the green," Kelly said. "These are tricky greens. They held up well for how soft they were."
Three players shot 65s — Duffy Waldorf and Toru Suzuki of Japan in the afternoon and Vijay Singh in the morning. Bernhard Langer and Retief Goosen, who was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame two weeks ago, were among those at 66. Two-time Senior Open champion Kenny Perry was another shot behind.
Tom Watson shot his age with a 69. Gary Nicklaus opened with a 68 while watched by his parents, Jack and Barbara Nicklaus.