OMAHA, Neb. – Fred Funk had some unusual preparation for this week’s U.S. Senior Open.
Instead of spending time at a practice facility or coming in early to play Omaha Country Club, Funk decided to go hiking.
The 57-year-old from Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., spent nearly a week in the Shenandoah Valley and the Appalachian Trail in the eastern panhandle of West Virginia/western Virginia. For a golfer who has dealt with a variety of maladies – back, feet, thumb and knees – such strenuous activity wouldn’t seem appropriate.
But it definitely helped Funk get ready for the terrain of Omaha Country Club, which some golfers have called the hilliest venue they’ve ever played.
“This golf course is flat compared to that Skyline Drive,” said Funk. “We went on three-hour hikes. This thing looks like a desert compared to what the Shenandoah Valley looks like, so I haven’t had an issue with [Omaha C.C.].
“I have way more trouble with the steps in the locker room than the hills out on the golf course.”
Funk hasn’t shown any signs of fatigue on the course, posting rounds of 67-70, which trails 36-hole leader Michael Allen by seven.
Take away a few loose wedge shots and Funk might be six or seven under.
“I can’t make those mistakes on those par-5s,” said Funk, referring to the two bogeys he has posted, on No. 2 and No. 6. “There’s some other tough holes out there. [But] the par-5s are where you need to play under par.”
Loren Goes Low
As he stepped toward the interview podium, Loren Roberts wondered what he was doing there in the first place.
After a first-round 76, Roberts was well off the pace set by the seven golfers who posted 67. But on Friday, Roberts matched the second-lowest round of the championship under windier conditions than the competitors faced on Thursday at Omaha Country Club.
So that meant doing a post-round interview session.
“I was a little perturbed after yesterday,” said the 58-year-old Roberts, a four-time senior major champion, including a pair of Senior British Opens (2006 and 2009). “I came out and hit the ball much better.”
Roberts hit 14 of 18 greens, a vast improvement over Thursday when he only hit half the greens and six of 13 fairways. On Friday he found 10 fairways, which led to more scoring chances. One of the game’s best putters, Roberts needed five fewer putts than Thursday and he registered four birdies against just one bogey, which came at the 400-yard ninth hole.
“And I made a couple of huge up-and-downs at 10 and 11 to keep it going,” said Roberts, the runner-up at the 1994 U.S. Open and 2005 U.S. Senior Open. “I didn’t drive it good enough yesterday. That’s the thing here. If you get the ball in the rough at all, you’re pretty much hacking it out. You’re not going to get it on the green, especially out of the primary [rough].”
One of the special things about the Senior Open is its open nature. Any 50 and over professional or amateur with a USGA Handicap Index not exceeding 3.4 can attempt to qualify.
Several of those sectional qualifiers will be enjoying the weekend at Omaha C.C., seven of whom are among the top 20 through 36 holes.
Jeff Brehaut, of Los Altos, Calif., who turned 50 on June 13, leads the list at 3-under 137, which puts him in a tie for fourth, seven shots behind leader Michael Allen.
“I know all of these guys,” said Brehaut, who had 228 starts in eight seasons on the PGA Tour. “I’ve played against them a long time. I know if I’m playing well, I can get in there with those guys.”
Gary Koch, 60, of Tampa, Fla., also made the cut, in his second U.S. Senior Open start. Ten years ago at Inverness Club, the 1970 U.S. Junior Amateur champion missed the cut. He hasn’t been able to attempt to qualify in recent years due to his regular job as a golf analyst for NBC, which is one of the USGA’s broadcast partners.
Koch is tied for eighth after rounds of 71-68.
“I shouldn't say I've surprised myself because I have been playing well when I've played,” said Koch. “I haven't played much. I've played some golf at home. I was actually in Ireland last week with some buddies on a little guys' golf trip, and I got to play four rounds over there.
“I just haven’t played competitively, and I can promise you there’s a big difference between just playing and playing competitively.”
Koch said a few of his fellow NBC announcers were out supporting him, including lead analyst Johnny Miller and play-by-play man Dan Hicks. It was Miller switching to the Senior Open in 2012 that enabled Koch to play the Senior Open again. Koch had been the lead analyst on the Senior Open for several years, while Miller worked the U.S. Women’s Open.
“It was great just to know they were out there kind of watching and rooting me on,” said Koch, who has been at NBC since 1997. “So it makes me feel good that they're encouraging me as well.”
The other sectional qualifiers currently in the top 20 are Jeff Freeman, Bart Bryant (younger brother of 2008 U.S. Senior Open champion Brad Bryant), David Eger (1988 U.S. Mid-Amateur champion), John Riegger and Steve Pate.
None of the 25 amateurs who went through sectional qualifying made the cut.
Lehman Receives Honor
On Wednesday night, 1996 British Open champion Tom Lehman was honored by Boys Town with the Father Flanagan Award for Service to Youth, named for the organization’s founder, Father Edward Flanagan.
The organization’s national headquarters is in Omaha, so with Lehman in town for this week’s U.S. Senior Open, it seemed like the appropriate time to honor the Champions Tour player.
Lehman, one of seven golfers tied for the first-round lead at 3-under 67, said Thursday afternoon that he was flattered by the award, especially given the company he is now in. Previous winners include Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Bob Hope, Dr. Jonas Salk, Nancy Reagan, Danny Thomas, Laura Bush and Michael Jordan.
“When you look at the list of people they’ve given it to, people like Mother Teresa and Laura Bush … I’m not sure what they’re doing giving it to me,” said Lehman, known for his charity work in the Greater Phoenix area. “But it was very nice. I’m involved in my community with inner-city kids, at-risk kids, which is right up the alley of what Boys Town does.
“So there’s a very strong link there between what my passion is and what they do here and they’ve done here. It was a very nice evening, and I’m very, very humbled by it.”
Lehman, 54, of Scottsdale, Ariz., currently serves on the board of Elevate Phoenix, a civic program providing long-term, life-changing relationships with urban youth. He is also involved with numerous charitable initiatives and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.
Two More Withdrawals
Graham Marsh, the 1997 U.S. Senior Open champion, and 1976 U.S. Open champion Jerry Pate each withdrew on Friday for medical reasons. Marsh, who was the second-oldest player in the field at 69, suffered a hip injury. Pate, 59, had a shoulder issue. He had opened the championship with a 1-over-par 71.
With temperatures expected to reach into the 90s on the weekend, spectators attending either Saturday's third round or Sunday's final round at Omaha C.C. are permitted to bring one bottle of water per person into the grounds.
David Shefter is a senior staff writer with the USGA. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.