Omaha, Neb. – Dressed as if they were attending a University of Nebraska football game in November, officials from the USGA, Omaha Country Club and the 2013 U.S. Senior Open event team gathered at the first tee on the first Sunday in May.
A few days earlier, a bizarre mid-spring storm rolled through eastern Nebraska, dropping several inches of snow. A few clumps remained just outside the clubhouse entrance as temperatures hovered in the upper-40s with a brisk north wind.
“Based on the nine holes I walked Sunday with [general chairman and club member] Patrick [Duffy] and [superintendent] Eric [McPherson], it looks like the snow had a positive effect on the rough,” quipped Jeff Hall, the USGA’s managing director of The Rules of Golf, Competitions & Amateur Status while speaking at media day on May 6 for the Senior Open. “I’ll keep that in mind for our [USGA Green Section] agronomists going forward.”
Added McPherson: “Last year we were in a drought and the golf course was extremely dry … so any kind of moisture we get is fantastic, [even] if it happens to be snow. We’ll work around the weather.”
Twenty-four hours following that walk-through, this 1951 Perry Maxwell design, which underwent an extensive renovation by Keith Foster seven years ago, was splashed in sunshine and temperatures had jumped some 20 degrees. Sixty-six days away from the first ball being struck at the 34th U.S. Senior Open, the course, despite the wild spring weather, was on schedule to host the best 50-and-over golfers in the world and just the third USGA championship ever contested in Nebraska.
By mid-July, the classic green complexes – or “Maxwell Rolls,” as members like to say – should be rolling between 12 and 12½ on the Stimpmeter with the primary rough heights measuring 3 to 3½ inches. Of course, Hall and his team will be hoping Mother Nature takes a backseat to allow for the firm and fast conditions the USGA desires for all of its 13 national championships.
Omaha Country Club, hosting its first USGA championship, should supply a stern test, not only from a mental and emotional perspective, but from a physical standpoint as well. Each of the 156 competitors, most of whom have never set foot on the property, might be surprised to see how much elevation change they’ll face on the 6,711-yard, par-70 layout. Virtually every hole is either uphill or downhill, leaving few level lies. And if, as expected, temperatures rise into the 90s and humidity reaches 90 percent, physical conditioning will play an important role.
“The players will have to adapt to the golf course in very short order,” said Hall, who oversees the course setup for the Senior Open. “There will be a few shots that don’t meet the eye or the comfort level.”
Defending champion Roger Chapman of Ascot, England, who turned 54 on May 1, saw the course for the first time at media day and quickly surmised that being in shape could be a key intangible. Chapman had already dropped 22 pounds between the 2011 and 2012 Champions Tour seasons and has credited that fitness regimen to winning his two senior major titles last year in Michigan. In addition to the U.S. Senior Open he also claimed the Senior PGA Championship, joining Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Hale Irwin as the only golfers to win both titles in the same year.
“You have to be fit,” said Chapman. “Caddies are going to be tired at the end of the week.”
It was at another classic Maxwell venue where Omaha C.C. first drew the attention of the USGA. Duffy ran into Tim Flaherty, the senior director of the U.S. Senior Open, seven years ago at Prairie Dunes Country Club in Hutchinson, Kan. Chatting near the sixth green, Duffy told Flaherty about this wonderful course and how Omaha would be an ideal place to contest the competition.
Ten minutes into his visit, Flaherty knew Omaha C.C. was going to host a future Senior Open. And when Hall saw it, he couldn’t believe the amount of “movement” in the routing.
“I was expecting this field of dreams,” said Hall, referring to the topography most often associated with this region of the country. “No disrespect to that remark … [but] boy was I surprised. It’s a real gem that the world is going to learn a whole lot more about over the course of the next few months.”
Subsequently, figuring exact yardages will be challenging.
Most of the par 4s demand precise approach shots to greens that sit above the level of the fairways. Conversely, three of the five par 3s play severely downhill.
Then there are the greens, which average 5,000 square feet. Hall points out that once the USGA gets them to the desired speed, the Maxwell subtleties will take over.
“Go take a look at the fifth hole,” said Hall of the uphill 188-yard par-3 that has a distinct back-to-front tilt. “You have to hit precise shots. The challenge is to not only hit the green, but to find the right spots.
“Even a good shot to 15 feet above [the hole] will require a deft touch.”
In order to create better spectator flow and allow for corporate hospitality, the USGA slightly changed the routing with holes 14-17. The par-5 16th hole will be No. 14 for the championship. The club’s 17th hole will be No. 15 and the club’s 15th hole will play as the 16th hole. Finally, the club’s 14th hole will be No. 17. The other holes remained unchanged.
Other than that, Hall says Omaha C.C. should be more than ready for its USGA debut.
“A lot of hard work has gone in to the preparation of the golf course,” said Hall. “You don’t just flip the switch to get a golf course ready for a championship of this nature. And with a little bit of luck, Mother Nature won’t be interested in playing a role in the setup.”
David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.