A set of 18 greens on a classic golf course is kind of like a class of 18 grade-school kids.
From a distance, they all look the same. Up close, you start to recognize differences.
Some are bigger, some faster. Some are clean-cut, some need more frequent baths. Some grab your attention, some prefer a low profile. Some require a little more preparation and thought.
If Omaha Country Club were an elementary class, the fifth green is the kid shooting spitwads through a milk carton straw.
The little devil sits at the northeast corner of the property, as far from the clubhouse as possible, right where a troublemaker would plan his next shenanigan. From the tee, the shortest hole on the front nine looks almost cute, its green sitting up on the hill, flanked by three bunkers. Then No. 5 places a tack on your chair.
Tom Olson, a 13-time club champion at Omaha Country Club and one of the state's best putters, missed a downhill 10-footer during one club championship, then watched the ball roll off the front of the green 50 yards back toward the tee. Countless times, he's watched a ball putted from the middle of the green up to the back-right shelf, horseshoe the cup, catch the slope, then circle back down to the golfer's feet.
Once Olson was playing with his two sons when his tee shot landed 40 feet right of the hole and bounced up to the back-right tier. “Watch this guys,” Olson said, “it's going in.”
The ball rolled off the slope down, down, down ...
“When it fell in, they didn't even speak,” Olson said. “They just looked at me like, 'What was that?'”
No. 5 is so extreme, USGA's Jeff Hall said that only two spots — back-right and back-left — were likely flat enough to cut a hole. Anywhere else and he risks making golf legends look like Putt-Putt rookies on the alligator hole.
“There's always a green or two that will keep me up at night,” said Hall, in charge of course setup. “That will be one.”
Maybe not the only one. Omaha Country Club isn't quirky. It is — as golfers say — all right there in front of you. But there's no doubt about OCC's primary defense. It isn't trees or water or sand. It isn't 500-yard par 4s or 8-inch rough. It's the shortest grass on the property.
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“You won't see greens anywhere around that severe,” said Mike Schuchart, teaching pro at Wilderness Ridge who once shot 64 in a U.S. Open qualifier at OCC. “Those are Oakmont-type greens.”
The fifth green — along with seven others — dates to the 1950s, when the club commissioned Perry Maxwell, and later his son Press, to revamp the course. The “Maxwell rolls,” most famously found at Prairie Dunes and Southern Hills, were tough in those days. In the modern era, when mowers can cut grasses as short as peach fuzz, they're diabolical.
In 2006, OCC renovated again. Architect Keith Foster had to soften a few slopes, most notably at No. 5.
“The USGA is worried about it now,” Foster said. “It was sloping at 6 percent. Now it's about 312 to 4 percent. It's much slower pitch-wise than what it was.”
Most new courses, Foster said, are built with slopes between 1 and 2 percent. OCC's slopes are generally double that. Get above the hole, Foster said, “it becomes very fiendish.”
Execution isn't as simple as keeping approach shots short of the hole. Often, there's a ridge that bisects the green left and right. In order to have an uphill or level putt, the player needs to be short, but also left or right.
The slopes leave only a small percentage of the surface conducive to a hole location — and leave golfers constantly thinking about where best to miss.
“You're not going to be able to get the ball on those little ledges all the time,” said Tom Lehman, 1996 British Open champion. “So where is the best place to putt from? Or where is the best place to chip from?”
There are certainly greens — Nos. 6 and 14, for example — where golfers can't possibly overlook the ridges and tiers. What stands out to most OCC experts are the subtleties.
Take No. 7, which Foster redesigned in Maxwell style. The back half of the green falls away from the player. “You can very easily putt the ball over that ridge and have it roll down over the back of the green,” Olson said.
Or No. 8, which Foster called “quite a charming green.” It looks benign until you have to putt from the left side to a right hole location. More often than not, it's a three-putt.
The OCC ground is so hilly, member Bryan Slone said, “you get some optical illusions where the greens look flat. Yet the putts will bend a great deal and sometimes feel like they're falling off the edge of a cliff.”
No. 12 may be the most dramatic green on the back nine, sloping steeply right to left. From the fairway, Slone said, it looks relatively tame. Same for No. 17 (which will play as No. 15 for the Open).
“That green looks very flat to most people,” Slone said. But putting downhill left to right, Schuchart said, it's easy to putt it off the green.
Schuchart walked OCC a few weeks ago with two Senior Open competitors, who were visiting for the first time.
“They said afterward, 'Wow, you can see the break there, but it's amazing how much more there really is,'” Schuchart said. “And they hadn't even cut them down yet. They weren't even running 10.” (The USGA has as a target 12 to 1212 on the Stimpmeter.)
The subtlety doesn't stop there. Because the old designers laid the greens over the ground — without moving much dirt — they feature countless miniature contours. Putt from one spot and the ball might turn left. Putt from a foot away and it might dart right, Slone said.
The allure of the greens creates an unusual dynamic this week. Traditionally, golf spectators marvel at professional ball-striking. They love standing behind a tee box and watching Tom Watson or Fred Couples hit driver.
But those who know the course best are leaning toward a different vantage point — the grandstand next to No. 5 green.
Years ago, Olson was on a team responsible for establishing a new course rating for OCC. During the procedure, raters walked the course and individually assigned a difficulty level for each feature. At No. 5, Olson gave the green a 9.5. His colleagues deemed it a 5 or 6. The rules demanded they reach a consensus.
Hours later, after walking the rest of the course, they were still arguing next to the 18th green when John Ziegenbein, that year's club champion, stuck his final approach to 3 feet and made birdie. The course rating supervisor was impressed. What did you shoot, he said.
Sixty-eight, Ziegenbein replied. Would've been better, but I four-putted No. 5 again.
At that point, the argument ended. Olson was wrong. So were his peers. The fifth green at Omaha Country Club received an official rating of “10.”