OMAHA, Neb. – From the moment he arrived at Omaha Country Club for the 2013 U.S. Senior Open, Gary Hallberg instantly loved the layout.
The rolling topography reminded the 55-year-old Castle Rock, Colo., resident of the course he played regularly at Wake Forest, where he was a four-time All-American.
“There’s a course called Old Town [Club], very up and down, very hilly, and I always played well on that course,” said Hallberg, one of seven golfers to share the first-round lead on Thursday at 3-under 67. “Very similar here.”
Old Town and Omaha Country Club share more than similar topography. They were both designed by Perry Maxwell.
Hallberg, who has yet to post a top-10 finish in 12 Champions Tour starts in 2013, recalled his halcyon days in Winston-Salem, N.C., and tried to have fun.
That philosophy worked on the 6,659-yard, par-70 layout, as he joined 2013 Constellation Senior Players champion Kenny Perry, 2009 Senior PGA champion Michael Allen, 1996 British Open champion Tom Lehman, 2013 U.S. Open qualifier Jay Don Blake, 2010 Senior Players champion Mark O’Meara and 2009 U.S. Senior Open champion Fred Funk atop the leaderboard.
The seven players tied for the lead after Round One surpassed the previous mark of five from the 1997 U.S. Senior Open at Olympia Fields (Ill.) Country Club. That number matches the most in any USGA Open championship; seven were tied after 18 holes of the 1977 U.S. Open at Southern Hills C.C. in Tulsa, Okla., another Maxwell design.
It’s also the highest first-round score to lead a Senior Open since the 2006 championship at the Maxwell-designed Prairie Dunes Country Club in Hutchinson, Kan.
The group of four players a stroke back included 2010 U.S. Senior Open champion Bernhard Langer, Chien Soon Lu of Chinese Taipei and Peter Senior of Australia, who joined O’Meara with the only bogey-free rounds on Thursday.
Among the nine golfers two strokes back are recent Hall of Fame inductee Colin Montgomerie, 2008 U.S. Senior Open champion Eduardo Romero and 2013 Senior PGA champion Kohki Idoki.
Defending champion Roger Chapman carded a 74.
Despite being statistically the best putter on the Champions Tour in 2013, Hallberg has struggled to produce results. His best finish leading into this week was a tie for 21st at the Encompass Championship in suburban Chicago three weeks ago.
So Hallberg decided to change his strategy for the Senior Open.
“I’m just going to go play like a kid and get up there and hit the ball,” said Hallberg after a five-birdie, two-bogey effort. “This is a great course for that [philosophy] because it’s very hilly, and every shot is different and unique. It allowed me to get creative. So I played that well, and it was really fun.”
Fun wasn’t tossed around much this week when it came to walking Omaha Country Club. Perry called it the hilliest course he’d ever played. Others said the course was harder to walk than to play.
“You think of Nebraska, you think of cornfields,” said O’Meara. “Practice rounds on Tuesday, I was like blown away. There’s such an elevation change.”
Throw in the heat and the championship looked to be as much about stamina as performance.
But 20 golfers broke par on a day when the competitors were given a reprieve from the high temperatures and humidity.
Lehman, who avoided playing Omaha C.C. on Tuesday when the Heat Index reached triple digits, took advantage of being fresh and rested. The 2012 U.S. Senior Open runner-up capped off his round with a 45-foot chip-in at No. 18 to join the logjam at 67.
“I don't think I could have shot a lot higher,” said Lehman. “I hit a lot of fairways, hit a lot of greens, but I made a few putts to save par, which was nice. It was about right.”
Grouped with Lehman, O’Meara played a near-flawless round, hitting 15 of 18 greens. It might have been 16 had his tee shot to the 216-yard, par-3 16th not ricocheted off Mark Calcavecchia’s ball. He managed to get up and down for par. O’Meara also holed a couple of clutch par putts at Nos. 4 and 10.
“No, I wasn't very happy,” O’Meara said of the unfortunate bounce. “I hit a good shot. It would have probably been about pin high, about 14 feet left of the hole. Instead, I'm struggling to make a par. It would be one thing if I didn't hit a good shot, but I hit it pretty solid.
“I'm happy with three under. I wish I would have maybe made a couple of putts there at the end. It’s a tough golf course. The scores reflect that. It’s a major championship. It’s our major Senior U.S. Open. Glad to get off to a good start, but there’s a lot of work left to be done.”
Perry, Allen and Blake each shot their 67s in the morning when conditions, especially the greens, were a little more benign. By the afternoon, the greens had dried out and some brown spots were visible.
Nevertheless, Allen felt quite comfortable on the layout. Growing up playing The Olympic Club in San Francisco, Allen frequently saw uneven lies. Many of the fairways at Omaha mirror the cant of the five-time U.S. Open venueand Allen learned at a young age to play a variety of shots.
“I always enjoyed that,” said Allen. “It’s nice to play it back and choke it up to play shots. I think that kind of [shot] comes up here. You have to be able to adapt a little bit and I’ve been able to do that for a long time.”
Allen took advantage of the par-5s with a birdie (No. 14) and an eagle, which came on his second hole-out of the outward nine. At the par-3 third, the 54-year-old resident of Scottsdale, Ariz., made a 20-foot chip for a 2, and on No. 6, he holed a 25-yard shot from the rough.
“If you can get the ball in play, there's a lot of wedge holes out here,” said Allen. “You can make some birdies for sure. And the par 5s, if you're driving it straight, you can reach most all of them.”
Blake, 54, said he benefited from having qualified for last month’s U.S. Open at Merion Golf Club, where the demanding course setup, especially the thick rough, was excellent preparation for the Senior Open. Several of the competitors this week have said the primary rough at Omaha Country Club is some of the toughest they’ve seen.
“It helped a lot,” said Blake, the 1980 NCAA champion who missed the cut at Merion with rounds of 74-80. “I lost my patience out there. I was trying to be aggressive instead of just executing one shot at a time and trying to play my game. I learned quite a bit.”
Blake, who totaled 25 putts, took advantage of the three par 5s at Omaha, playing them in four under par. At the 545-yard sixth hole, he holed a 12-footer for eagle after leaving himself a 6-iron second shot into the green. Blake called his par-save at the 320-yard 17th hole crucial. He short-sided himself in a greenside bunker with his approach and holed his longest putt of the day – a 15-footer – for a clutch 4.
“Coming down the stretch, I finished with some good scrambling pars,” said Blake.
One of the longest drivers on the Champions Tour, Perry used his length to advantage. At the par-5 sixth, he needed only a 9-iron for his second shot, which he stuffed to 4½ feet, but missed the eagle putt.
He finished with five birdies against two bogeys, one coming on a three-putt at the par-3 fifth hole.
Perry, who had left-knee surgery in February, said the steep downhill walks from several of the teeing grounds have been a challenge. Playing golf shots, however, has not been an issue for the 52-year-old Kentucky native.
“I managed it OK,” said Perry, who made the cut at last week’s PGA Tour stop at The Greenbrier. “So we'll take some Tylenol and keep on trucking.
“I've been driving it great all year. [I] drove it great at Fox Chapel [at the Senior Players Championship], drove it great last week at The Greenbrier. It’s been this new driver [that] I put … in play about two months ago. It automatically put length on me, and [added] accuracy. It's really freed me up off the tee. That's why I'm playing more aggressive.”
David Shefter is a senior staff writer with the USGA. Email him at email@example.com.