Midwest puts heartbeat in U.S. Senior Open

The 2013 U.S. Senior Open at Omaha CC could come down to its 18th hole Sunday.

The 2013 U.S. Senior Open at Omaha CC could come down to its 18th hole Sunday.

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— How about a little recognition for golf in middle America?

The U.S. Senior Open has been resurrected -- if not saved -- by the common folks of America’s heartland. They love their country, and they love their golf, by God.

Including this year’s championship, which begins Thursday at Omaha Country Club, nine of the last 11 U.S. Senior Opens have been played in Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Missouri, Wisconsin, Kansas or Nebraska. And that list doesn’t include the 1999 event in Des Moines, Iowa, where a weekly Senior Open attendance record of more than 200,000 was established and still stands.

Taking a broad perspective, all these states are included in the general territory known as the Midwest. Mostly the Senior Open has forged an identity in areas without big-league sports teams. For one week in July, golf drives the local economy and often becomes the biggest sporting spectacle of the year.

Golf fans by the tens of thousands are attracted to the championship. They go early, and they stay late. Here in Omaha, with a population of slightly more than 400,000, the tournament already is guaranteed of achieving the largest amount of corporate sponsorship and the second-highest ticket sales in U.S. Senior Open history.

“That would be $5.6 million in corporate (dollars) and $2 million in ticket sales,” said senior tournament director Tim Flaherty, who is a U.S. Golf Association employee.

“Reminds me of Des Moines,” interjected an observer.

“No, no, no,” corrected Flaherty, referring to the 1999 Senior Open. “There’s only one Des Moines. For that championship, we stopped taking volunteers 18 months before the event. Here in Omaha, we filled 3,000 volunteer spots nine months prior to the competition.”

Keep in mind that senior golf in general and the U.S. Senior Open in particular was caught in the middle of a painstaking transition. Arnold Palmer, Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus were too old to play, and the next generation of senior stars didn’t quite generate the magnetism of the Big Three.

And then the USGA discovered the Midwest.

Some daily tickets are available here, but most were distributed last summer in a lottery for week-long ticket packages. Picture a bunch of Midwesterners getting as excited over a golf lottery as they might over a real-money lottery. Attendance for this week’s extravaganza is expected to top 150,000.

“Wonderful people,” reflected Senior Open general chairman Patrick Duffy, a member at Omaha CC who played collegiate golf at USC, graduating in 1994. “Nebraskans really support their sports. It doesn’t surprise me at all what has happened here. I would say 90 percent of the members (at the host club) are volunteering or working with the tournament in some capacity. That’s how much it means to them.”

Consider this: From May 2006 until June 2007, Omaha CC was shut down entirely for renovation. Nobody played any golf whatsoever for more than a year. Members took advantage of reciprocal privileges at other courses.

“When we took a vote of the members (to approve the project), 75 percent-plus were in favor,” Duffy said. So the course received a facelift, including greens, tees, fairways, bunkers and irrigation system.

Though the original designer of the course was Wayne E. Stiles in the 1920s - it opened in 1926 - part of the Omaha Country Club mystique can be attributed to famous architect Perry Maxwell and his son, Press. The Maxwells did their work in the 1950s. Some 50 years later, for the 2006 renovation, designer Keith Foster was hired to mastermind the job.

Foster already had renovated two famous Maxwell courses, Southern Hills in Tulsa, Okla., and Colonial in Fort Worth, Texas. In 2007, when Foster’s work was done, the USGA announced its decision to bring the 2013 Senior Open to Omaha CC.

For the Senior Open, par is 70 and total scorecard length is 6,711 yards.

There’s one more thing about the Midwest: It isn’t always flat.

“I guess some people thought this (the Senior Open) might be played on farmland,” Duffy said. “Actually, with all these hills and different varieties of trees, it is exactly the opposite." And Duffy points out that Omaha is no stranger to crowning champions, either: It hosts NCAA baseball's College World Series and the U.S. Olympic swim trials. "I view this as another notch in the belt for Omaha," he said. "It’s another major event, and we’re doing a great job with it.”

Stu Pospisil, a writer for the Omaha World-Herald, discovered this description of Omaha Country Club from 1926 in his own newspaper: “Tall elms and walnuts, gnarled and rugged oaks, drooping yet majestic ash trees border the fairways and shelter the greens of the new Omaha Country Club course.”

Pospisil, in the process of writing about the championship, has become something of a historian. “He has helped us immensely,” Duffy said. “We really didn’t have any archives.”

Part of that history involved architect Robert Trent Jones, who visited the course in 1952 and recommended the elimination of “cardiac hills” on the golf course. Jones, however, never was hired to do the job.

As golf and life go full-circle, designer Robert Trent Jones Jr., older son of the great architect, offered his opinion Monday on the U.S. Senior Open.

“I will tell anybody who will listen,” Jones said. “Tournaments like the U.S. Senior Open and U.S. Women’s Open should be played in communities such as Omaha. People are starved for golf. You get big crowds, and that’s exactly what the players deserve.”

Jones should know something about big crowds. When the 2015 U.S. Open is played at Chambers Bay, his links-style creation outside Tacoma, Wash., a U.S. Open attendance record likely will be set. The wide-open course easily can accommodate upwards of 60,000 spectators on a daily basis.

Perhaps Tacoma, located near the northwestern tip of the United States, should apply for special admission to the Midwest. No doubt about it: These Midwesterners love their golf.

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