OMAHA, Neb. – Kenny Perry has toured Omaha Country Club three times at this week’s U.S. Senior Open and he’s still trying to figure out the proper strategy for the 10th hole.
The 483-yard, dogleg-right hole plays as a par-5 for the membership, but has been converted to a par-4 for the championship. It starts with a severely downhill tee shot to a fairway that slopes upward. A creek at the fairway’s nadir adds to the challenge.
In the first round, 16.7 percent of the field hit the green in regulation and the hole ranked second in difficulty (4.56) behind the 469-yard eighth (4.71). It recorded nearly as many bogeys (70) as pars (74).
“I don’t know how to play it,” said Perry, who managed an up-and-down par in Thursday’s first round. “I’ve tried driver. I’ve tried iron, I’ve tried hybrid [off the tee]. That green was designed for a short-iron [approach] as small as it is and undulating. I tried hybrid today, and I hit it in the left rough. Tomorrow I might try driver and be a little more aggressive.”
Making the challenge tougher is the fact that half the field starts on the hole in the first two rounds.
“It’s a pretty tough opening hole at 8:20 in the morning at a major championship,” said Perry. “That’s not the hole you want to see when you wake up.
“I made par on it today. I hit a good third shot and made about a 4-footer for par. I don’t know how anybody plays that hole.”
Jay Don Blake, who like Perry opened with a 3-under 67, used a driver on Thursday and had a 9-iron for his 129-yard approach. He also missed the green and managed to get up and down for par.
“I didn’t like the uphill lie, so I tried to hit an easy 9-iron and pulled it just a little bit,” said Blake. “I chipped it to 2 feet away and made that [par putt]. I don’t know why the drive went so far, but I got it way down there. It made the hole short.”
Horrobin (70) Steadies Himself, Salutes Omaha
Peter Horrobin, the first native of Jamaica to qualify for the U.S. Senior Open, managed to channel his emotions on Thursday as he turned in a solid round of even-par 70.
“I think I was two or three under at one time,” said Horrobin, 52. “I gave it back. But my goal was to shoot 70 or better. So that’s the second dream that came true.”
Horrobin’s first dream was to qualify for this championship after a hardscrabble upbringing in Kingston in which he played his first golf with a broken club affixed to a PVC pipe. He wept during an interview on Tuesday, and the support and encouragement he received from the gallery on Thursday touched him greatly, leading to more tears during the round.
“Hello, Omaha,” said Horrobin after his round. “You guys showed me so much love. I appreciate it. I mean, everybody knows my name out here. … I feel like I was born right here.”
Horrobin started with four pars, then leaped to the top of the leader board at three under with a birdie 2 and an eagle 3 on holes 5 and 6. He offset a double-bogey 6 on No. 9 and three incoming bogeys with two more birdies to end the day tied with major champions Tom Watson, Tom Kite and Steve Elkington.
“Today, I think, was my toughest day, but I overcame it and I played pretty good,” said Horrobin. “I think tomorrow might be a little easier. I’m more relaxed. But this is golf. You never know.”
Asked about his early starting time on Thursday, Horrobin joked, “Yes, that’s why I wore the black pants today because I figured it would be a little chilly for me. You know, I’m Jamaican. Tomorrow, I got 2:19, so I got to wear something a little lighter.”
He credited his caddie, Arnel Smalley, for keeping him from getting too emotional, even as he admitted, “On No. 2, tears came in my eyes again. I’m just a crybaby. I still can't believe I’m here playing along the best senior players in the world. I played 18 holes today, drying my eyes from tears.” But, he reminded the media, invoking fellow Jamaican Bob Marley, “I’m also a Buffalo soldier, dreadlocks Rasta. … Just focus, focus, focus. That's what I tried to do.”
Utley Puts His Lessons to Work
The George Bernard Shaw play “Man and Superman” includes the well-trodden line, “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” Stan Utley, who came in with an even-par 70 in his first U.S. Senior Open appearance, seems capable of doing both.
Utley, who won the 1989 Chattanooga Classic on the PGA Tour and had three victories in the 1990s on the Nike Tour, later turned his focus to golf instruction. He has written four instruction books, and his students include touring pros Darren Clarke, Bill Haas and Kevin Streelman, along with Champions Tour players Jay Haas, Rocco Mediate and Peter Jacobsen, all of who began play in this year’s U.S. Senior Open.
Despite his commitment to teaching, Utley, who lives in Scottsdale, Ariz., has dipped his toe back into the competitive golf waters since turning 50 in January 2012. He competed in six Champions Tour events last year, tying for 12th in the Toshiba Classic, and shot a 3-under 69 to qualify for this year’s Senior Open. Still, he isn’t kidding himself.
“My focus is helping people with their golf games,” he said after his opening round. “It’s fun to try and compete and play a little bit, but I know that’s not my main job.”
Still, he’s in position to survive the 36-hole cut if he can follow his opening round with a solid effort on Friday. What was the key to his play? Not coincidentally, it was a short-game lesson given to him by his father and brother, who he spent time with before his sectional qualifying round.
“It was fun to get to hang out with the ones you love and the ones that know what you looked like a long time ago and kind of get tuned up,” he said about the time with his family.
Sometimes even the best teachers need a lesson themselves.
Better Start For Koch
It's been 10 years since Gary Koch played in his last U.S. Senior Open. He was 50 years old and ready to see if he could rejuvenate his competitive career while juggling his television analyst duties for NBC.
Instead, he shot 79-82 and missed the cut at Inverness Club in Toledo, Ohio.
On Thursday, Koch was much more proficient. He was around the top of the leader board until a bogey, double-bogey finish, the latter coming when his drive plugged into the face of a fairway bunker, dropped him to a respectable 1-over-par 71.
"You hate to finish that way, but I did OK," said Koch, 60, who lives in Tampa, Fla., when he is not traveling for his TV job.
A six-time winner on the PGA Tour, Koch qualified for this year's Senior Open by shooting a 2-under 70 in a sectional qualifier in Dunedin, Fla., then surviving a playoff. Koch wasn't so much amazed by the 10 years between starts in this championship as he was by the fact that he first qualified for a USGA championship when he was 15 years old, playing in the 1968 U.S. Junior Amateur at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass., the site of next month’s U.S. Amateur.
“You talking about 45 years there," he said with a bit of wonder. "A lot of time competing and being in the game. I still enjoy it. I think I probably enjoy it more because my perspective was different. I was trying too hard and it meant more to me than it should have. My expectations aren't nearly what they were 10 years ago.”
If Koch makes the cut, he might not have much in the way of TV duties this weekend. NBC golf producer Tommy Roy has encouraged him to do all he needs to do to prepare for competition and will shuffle his talent accordingly.
“If I'm playing well enough, I won't have to work at all,” said Koch. “That wouldn't be too bad.”
Peter Jacobsen, the 2004 champion, withdrew after nine holes on Thursday due to heat-related issues. USGA officials confirmed that Jacobsen, 59, wasn’t feeling well on Tuesday when temperatures soared into the 90s and the Heat Index reached triple digits. During his first round with fellow competitors Gary Koch and Barry Lane, Jacobsen felt light-headed. On No. 16, he told walking Rules official Jim Moriarty the he didn’t know how made a 20-footer for par because he couldn’t read the putt due to his condition.
When Jacobsen walked off the 18th hole – his ninth of the round – Championship Committee chairman Thomas O’Toole Jr., and paramedics from the Omaha Fire and Rescue Department escorted him into the clubhouse to check his vitals. Jacobsen was later released.
USGA staff members David Shefter, Ron Driscoll and Greg Midland, along with Ohio-based freelance writer Dave Shedloski, contributed to this notebook.