OMAHA, Neb. – Players who did their homework in advance of the 34th U.S. Senior Open Championship already knew that the topography of Omaha Country Club is nothing like what most expect of Nebraska and the Great Plains. Yet, seeing is believing, and the practice rounds are proving to be eye-opening for players who had only heard about the layout’s terrain.
“The hills are definitely going to be a factor for some players,” said 1996 British Open champion Tom Lehman, 54. “Especially combined with the heat, it becomes more of an endurance test than you might expect.”
“The biggest surprise to me was the amount of walking up to the tee boxes,” said two-time (1998 and 2000) U.S. Senior Open champion Hale Irwin, 68. “On some holes you probably have to walk 50 to 100 yards just to get to the tees, and then back downhill, so that takes a toll.”
And if you think those downhill treks are a piece of cake, think again.
“The downhill walks are always tougher on me,” said Gary Koch, who will be pulling double duty this week as an analyst for NBC and as a competitor. “When I was playing on tour, there was only one course where I ever got shin splints, and that was Augusta National because of all the walks off the elevated tees.”
Many of the professionals in the field are accustomed to the Champions Tour, where carts are available and most of the events are 54 holes. The prospect of playing practice rounds plus 72 holes in a national championship means that the player who ends up holding the trophy on Sunday evening will likely be one who is in good physical shape.
“Fitness is a big factor,” said 59-year-old Mark McNulty of Zimbabwe. “I eat well and keep myself reasonably fit, and that definitely helps on a course like this.”
The terrain doesn’t present just a physical obstacle, but also a mental challenge in terms of club selection and course management. Four of the five par 3s play significantly downhill, and many approach shots on the longer holes are played uphill into the fairly compact, well-guarded greens.
“You can easily end up mis-clubbing and putting yourself in a really bad spot if you’re not careful,” said Lehman.
Omaha Country Club’s myriad challenges are what make it an outstanding site for the most important championship in senior golf. They are also no surprise to those who know the place best. The club has an active caddie program and most members walk when they play, so they know first-hand what the competitors are facing this week. Head golf professional Tony Pesavento, in his 20th year at the club, says the rolling topography translates into members’ games traveling well.
“For the members, it’s not only a stamina thing but it’s also a place where you get a lot of sidehill lies,” he said. “The good thing is that when they go to other courses they find it easier.”
Pesavento noted that the ninth and 18th holes play significantly uphill, ensuring a tough finish to the round no matter which tee a player starts from. He also said he’ll be keeping an eye on the par-4 10th hole this week, which will play as long as 494 yards.
“No. 10 goes from an elevated tee and then back up to an elevated green, and it’s hard to drive the ball far enough to where you have a flat lie,” he said. “The longer guys will be able to do it, but a lot of the guys will have a slight downhill lie for their second shot to an uphill green.”
Many players in the field are limiting their practice to nine holes a day to stay reasonably fresh, and drinking lots of fluids to stay hydrated in the hot, sticky weather. But Irwin says all the precautions go out the window once play begins on Thursday morning.
“There’s a mindset when you play competitive golf,” he said. “Regardless of what the conditions are out there, you have to play, and you get into that mindset. Once we get into the tournament I don’t think you’ll hear anyone complaining about the heat and terrain.”
That will certainly be the case for the player who overcomes both of those factors to emerge as the 34th U.S. Senior Open champion.
Greg Midland is the USGA’s director of editorial and multimedia content. Email him at email@example.com.