U.S. Senior Open gets underway in Omaha

Jul 11, 2013

Since more than 4 million dollars of renovations at Omaha Country Club started eight years ago, the golf course was positioned to host something big.    The first golf major in the state of Nebraska officially started there Thursday morning with the opening round of the U.S. Senior Open.  The event could use a golf analogy...hit the rough, but as Omaha Public Radio's Greg Echlin reports, it’s ready for its day in the sun.

Credit Greg Echlin

You could pardon the leadership at Omaha Country Club for feeling a bit squeamish at first about hosting the 2013 U.S. Senior Open.  Their contract with the United States Golf Association was signed in the fall of 2008,  whenthe teeth of the recession took its biggest bite from the U.S. economy.

But they sensed the event’s appeal after traveling to the 2009 U.S.Senior Open outside Indianapolis. Patrick Duffy, the general chairman of this year’s event, says the club leadership wasn’t just checking out the condition of the Crooked Stick golf course.  The group from Omaha was interested in the corporate tent sales in the midst of the recession...

"They sold a lot of tents before the recession and Indianapolis is a great corporate community.  It was very indicative of what we’d expect with a number of people on the corporate side and it was a great golf course.  It was a good event for all of us to be at."

Duffy knew that it would take top notch community corporate leaders in Omaha to spearhead the corporate tent sales and the weekly ticket packages.

"The club does take on financial risk to put on an event like this.  We wanted to make sure that we mitigated that risk as fast as possible and as early as possible."

They found a market that was ripe when corporate and ticket sales went through the roof.  Corporate sales set a Senior Open record with more than $5.6 million committed.  This week’s total attendance will likely top 150,000. 

Matt Sawicki, the director of championships at the USGA, felt that Omaha had all the ingredients to host a successful golf major.  It starts with a course that has been around since the late 1920s.

"It’s just got a lot of character, a lot of flavor for an old golf course and I think that’s really the appeal."

Other factors the USGA considers when awarding sites are: an adequate practice range, parking areas, a volunteer force and the cooperation between governing agencies.  When all of those things fall into place in a new market, Sawicki says the USGA listens.

"Anytime we can expand our outreach, talk about the things—not just the championships we run—but about environmental initiatives, our opportunities to grow the game.  If we can get into a market that doesn’t necessarily get that every 5 or 10 years, we’re happy to get to those places and see it as an opportunity for us to expand."

Each day this week,  under the hot July sun, the practice crowds grew. It didn’t go unnoticed by the golfers, such as World Golf Hall of Famer Tom Watson who has three runner-up finishes in the Senior Open.

"These are great crowds.  It’s wonderful to play in front of so many people."

With more large crowds expected, it will be like turning back to clock for the field of 156 golfers who are 50 and older.