Senior Open, new Sand Hills course tee up Nebraska for more events -
Published Sunday, July 7, 2013 at 12:30 am / Updated at 10:44 pm
Golf comes to the fore
Senior Open, new Sand Hills course tee up Nebraska for more events

Thousands will pour into the heart of Omaha, pack themselves onto a small parcel of hilly land and line the gently rising and falling fairways, stretching up on toes and craning necks for a glimpse of golf's greats.

Six hours and 346 miles away, a select few will play their first rounds at the newest course in the Sand Hills, the dramatic holes imprinted into the land by a millennium's worth of wind.

The Omaha Country Club hosts the 2013 U.S. Senior Open — the biggest golf event ever staged in this state — starting Monday. That's a few days after the much-awaited second course at Dismal River Club near Mullen opened to 160 members.

One is high-level, corporate-cool, fan-friendly tournament golf. The other is a contemplative journey deep in the sport's past.

These are the two sides of Nebraska's golf identity. It can't rival the many warm-weather states like Florida and Arizona as a golfing magnet. Or the history of the old-money clubs up and down the Eastern Seaboard. But there is an identity — and a rising respectability.

The Senior Open puts a spotlight on Omaha and the championship side of that identity — a side that many agree will get a boost from the event and NBC's coverage of it.

“The golf community is kind of a small one,” said U.S. Senior Open Director Tim Flaherty. “We all talk. And people will certainly take notice.”

But the other identity — which starts in earnest west of Lincoln, stretching to the Panhandle, has roots and momentum of its own.

“The thing I've heard over and over is that golf in Nebraska is unique,” said Chad Mardesen, tournament director of the Cox Classic, a Tour event that Omaha consistently supports in big numbers. “I know people from Florida and Pennsylvania who can't believe what we have here. They're blown away.”

Gold standard

When Flaherty first walked the grounds at Omaha Country Club, he saw an under-the-radar course able to present a test for golfers. And he knew from the 1999 Senior Open in Des Moines — an event so popular that it led to the Champions Tour stop in the city — that Midwestern fans tend to show up in big numbers. And he knew of Omaha's ability to enthusiastically support big-tent sporting events: the College World Series, U.S. Olympic Swim Trials and NCAA basketball regionals.

“Omaha's about as good as it gets,” he said. Corporate sponsorships for the Senior Open are $5.6 million — better than the previous high of $5.3 million in Baltimore. Volunteer spots filled rapidly. He expects “30,000 to 35,000” fans on the course each day next weekend; giant, teeming galleries; and, most likely, a lot of Senior Open merchandise sold.

“When you bring an event to Omaha,” Flaherty said, “it's an event for the whole community.”

Nebraska Golf Association Executive Director Craig Ames, who will be a rules official for the eighth straight year in the Senior Open, sensed Omaha's budding success early in the process. The Omaha Country Club quickly opted for an outside tournament board — under chairman Patrick Duffy, an Omaha lawyer — that nailed down logistics and generated momentum.

See hole illustrations, insight from course pros, photos and video from every hole and more in our Senior Open course guide.

Ames kept hearing a phrase from organizers around the Senior Open.

“Omaha's the new gold standard,” he said. “They knocked it out of the park.”

“It's going to be fantastic, frankly,” Mardesen said. “It certainly puts Omaha more on the map.”

Will the Senior Open lead to more USGA events or even a Champions Tour event in Omaha or possibly Lincoln? How much bounce can tournament golf get east of Memorial Stadium? The answer is in finding the right golf course, generating more corporate support and determining the future of the Cox Classic.

From Flaherty's perspective, if the Omaha Country Club were to invite the USGA to consider it for another of its 13 national championships — outside of the U.S. Open — “we'd take a very good look at it.”

Ames said Omaha's Happy Hollow Club — 6,802 yards from the back tees — could be configured to offer a tough enough test for any USGA event. In Lincoln, Firethorn Golf Club which plays 6,786 yards, hosted the 1996 U.S. Women's Amateur, proving, Flaherty said, that “Lincoln has the infrastructure to make a tournament work, as well.”

Another logical progression would be a Champions Tour event. Ames said he'd be “shocked” if that Tour didn't look closely at Omaha for a tour stop after the success of the Senior Open.

But Champions Tour President Mike Stevens said he's not currently looking at Omaha, because of the Tour event that Mardesen runs. The PGA Tour oversees the Champions and Tours, so it's not likely to have the two compete against each other, Stevens said.

“If the opportunity were to ever present itself in the summer,” Stevens said, “we'd certainly look at it.”

The future of the event is uncertain after this year, as the Cox Communications sponsorship and contract with Champions Run expire. Mardesen said he'd like to announce plans for 2014 before the late-August start of the 2013 event, but wouldn't elaborate on what talks he's in.

There isn't hotel and fan infrastructure west of Lincoln to support any kind of tour event, Ames said. The Nebraska Golf Association only occasionally heads west to stage its competitions. That hasn't diminished the momentum of the sport there. It has created more excitement.

'Truest test in the game'

Suzy Hiltibrand took the reservation not long ago. Golfers from Denver driving to the Senior Open. Before they took in the Omaha Country Club, they wanted a round at Bayside Golf Course on Lake McConaughy. And on their way back to Denver, they'll play at Gothenburg's Wild Horse Golf Club.

Those are two of the five courses on the Play the West tour that Hiltibrand helps manage out of the Bayside pro shop. The business for the tour is roughly 6,000 rounds and 1,500 to 2,000 golfers per year. Hiltibrand said business on Play the West is a little down. That's because some golfers have switched to another new tour she manages, Links of Nebraska, which includes the new Awarii Dunes course south of Kearney, just outside of Axtell.

“A lot of golfers are interested in it,” she said of the three-year-old, links-style layout with giant fairways and dramatic greens.

These layouts are growing more common in central and western Nebraska, particularly in the Sand Hills. The region's signature course — Sand Hills Golf Club — is a kind of Holy Grail in the sport, a tactile painting, the No. 11 course in the world, according to Golf magazine. Golf Digest ranks it No. 9 in the United States. Before the Senior Open came to Omaha, Ames said, the question he'd most get from golfers outside Nebraska was, “What is Sand Hills Golf Club like?”

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“It's the truest test in the game,” Ames said.

It might soon have some nearby competition 30 miles away.

Not far down the Golf magazine and Golf Digest rankings is an Oregon course, Pacific Dunes. It was designed by Tom Doak, whose take on the Sand Hills at Dismal River Golf Club officially — and quietly — opened last week. Should it live up to its pre-opening hype, it could deepen interest in Nebraska's destination golf spots.

“She's just a baby,” said Dismal River owner Chris Johnston. “There's a lot of buzz, but this is a fairly quiet place.”

Which is the point. Remote. Memorably quiet. The sound of wind, a ball struck into that wind and the footsteps on sand-fortified ground following after the ball. There will be 18 sounds of a ball rattling into the cup. Johnston calls this “an elixir we're all missing in our lives.”

“It's almost a spiritual experience,” he said.

Having already played more rounds at Doak's “Red” course than some of his members may ever play — having a good chunk of his golfing life bound up in the place, which also has a Jack Nicklaus-designed “White” course — Johnston is biased, and all in. The club has a restaurant that gets lobster tails flown in from Maine and rib-eye steaks two inches thick. It has members from 40 states, some of whom attended a “Fifth Major” pre-opening event in late June. The Doak course is a kind of doubling-down on the whole enterprise, a central idea of which is “escape.”

“Every person has some need to ask 'Where can I get away?' ” Johnston said.

“You go out there and you don't have any other worries,” Ames said of golf in western Nebraska. “It's pure and simple, and it's only about golf.”

Golf enthusiasts notice. Links magazine has identified Bayside, Dismal River and the Prairie Club near Valentine as recent “Courses of the Month.”

Golf Club Atlas, a website dedicated to golf architecture that has reviewed many of the world's best courses, has a 5,000-word interview with Johnston. Golf Digest named the Prairie Club's Dunes Course among the United States' “best new courses” in 2010.

This collection of courses, Johnston said, puts Nebraska in conversation with places such as Long Island; the Monterey (Calif.) Peninsula; Columbus, Ohio; and Chicago as destinations for the golfing purist.

“The Sand Hills of Nebraska are beginning to rival the great golfing areas in America,” he said.

It's possible that the region may get passing mention during NBC's coverage of the Senior Open.

Those courses are a stark contrast to the Omaha Country Club's towering, ancient trees and small, tricky greens. But these differing vistas of the game do sync up to promote the sport in Nebraska — and create excitement for the future.

A tournament in the east. An escape in the west.

“It's nothing but rosy from here,” Mardesen said of what the Senior Open will do. “Nothing but silver linings.”

Contact the writer: Sam McKewon    |   402-219-3790    |  

Sam McKewon covers Nebraska football for The World-Herald. Got a tip, question or rant? Good. Email him. Follow him on Twitter. Call him.

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