Eight years make a difference.
Eight years at the start of a pro golfer’s career are the foundation. Eight years, once the threshold is crossed onto the senior tour at age 50, are the countdown.
Kenny Perry is there. Eight years ago was his wonderful weekend at Omaha Country Club, roaring back from 10 strokes behind halfway through to win the 2013 U.S. Senior Open.
Eight years later, retirement is in his thoughts.
Eight years make a difference.
Eight years ago, pro golf-starved fans filled the parking lots and the shuttle buses and stood several deep on the gallery ropes. The weekend rounds at OCC drew the two largest one-day crowds for a sporting event in the city’s history.
Eight years later, this week’s return at OCC doesn’t have the same buzz. Not yet.
Perry would like nothing more than to ignite it. The Kentucky boy said 2013 in Omaha was probably the best weekend of his professional career.
“I just remember that the spectators were incredible. The crowd, the gallery, was unreal that week,” Perry said recently after finishing a round on a sweltering afternoon in Des Moines.
“I had a weekend I can’t explain. I shoot 64-63 on the weekend. I think I was even par going into the weekend, so I was in the rocking chair mode on Saturday. I knew I didn’t have anything to lose. I was trying to make a run at them and next thing I know I’m making putts all over that place.
“I just took off, for whatever reason, I can’t explain it. I got in the zone, I didn’t get in my way, I didn’t step on my feet. I let myself play and enjoy the golf.”
While Perry had already won the Senior Players Championship before Omaha, the Senior Open filled a void.
“It gave me a USGA title to my name. It was something I always wanted, I always tried to get, on the regular tour,” he said.
Perry won a second U.S. Senior Open in 2017 at Salem Country Club in Massachusetts. He was 56 then. At 57, he won the 3M Championship in Minnesota. Now a month away from 61, he hasn’t won since. Most on the PGA Tour Champions would like to be where he is.
He’s 24th on the money list on the combined 2020-21 season. He’s been out of the top 25 only five of 21 starts.
But he maintains, “I’m not very competitive anymore.”
Since the 3M win, “I’ve noticed from then to now physically my body is deteriorating. I don’t hit it nearly as far as I used to hit it. My putting and chipping is not nearly as good. I mean, there is a huge difference from early 50s to 60. I can really tell it myself. Physically, I’m a shell of the guy that I was in 2013.”
It’s changed Perry’s outlook on competitive golf and life after it.
When he joined the senior tour, he was fourth in the world rankings. He won five times between ages 47 and 48. He played both tours for three years. When he went full time on the Champions tour, “you think you’re the man and feel like you should win.”
“That’s a different mentality to where now I’m hoping I can win,” Perry said. “But it’s OK. I’ve had a great run. I’ve had a great career on both tours and I’ve thought about hanging it up at the end of this year, so we’ll see. I’ve had back issues, I’ve had shoulder surgery. It’s just like my body’s finally starting to break down after all these years of playing.
“I’ve got nine grandkids, so I have other opportunities. I want to go home and spend time with them.”
But the Senior Open is first.
It will not have the same feel as eight years ago. Or what could have been its biggest draw.
Blame much of the mute button on the pandemic.
The sponsoring United States Golf Association has limited ticket sales, hasn’t built grandstands and scrubbed the Goodman Club pavilion. The USGA’s hope is that smaller galleries will enhance the fan experience. As for masks, face coverings will be required for unvaccinated fans when indoors (except when actively eating or drinking) and in areas where social distancing is not possible. Masks are encouraged for all fans and required for unvaccinated fans when on shuttles.
Comcast, which owns NBCUniversal and got back the TV rights to USGA events from Fox last year, isn’t giving the tournament the same treatment as 2013. All four rounds will be on the Golf Channel. There’s no NBC coverage on the weekend. The network has its own property, the American Century Championship celebrity event at Lake Tahoe, that is overriding one of the Big Three on the USGA calendar.
Nor will Phil Mickelson or defending champion Steve Stricker (from 2019) be stepping to the first tee Thursday.
Lefty already chose not to play before he became the oldest major championship winner at the PGA in May. Stricker will be at the John Deere Classic, where he’s won three times. The Ryder Cup captain told Golf Digest that it’s “a great opportunity for me to come out and see some of these guys that are making their way up the points list.”
So topping the Senior Open field are major winners Rich Beem, Mark Calcavecchia, Michael Campbell, Darren Clarke, Fred Couples, Ernie Els, Jim Furyk, Retief Goosen, Lee Janzen, Bernhard Langer, Paul Lawrie, Tom Lehman, Jose Maria Olazabal, Mark O’Meara, Corey Pavin, Vijay Singh, Jeff Sluman and Mike Weir.
Calc, Couples, Langer, Lehman, O’Meara, Pavin and Sluman are among the 23 in the field who played in the 2013 Senior Open. Since all are in their 60s, and since Langer at 59 is recognized as the oldest winner of a senior major, a weekend run by any of them would be a feel-good, turn-back-the-clock story.
Chances are, it will be someone a decade younger.
“I think it’s going to take a power player, like I did when I was able to carry all the trouble on the fairway bunkers,” Perry said. “I didn’t have to fit it around them. I just went right over them.
“So you look to Ernie or look at some of the bigger hitters who have just come out. I haven’t played any with Mike Weir, but it looks like he’s hitting it farther than he did on the regular tour. I just know all the young 50s guys, they all bomb it. So it will probably be somebody in the 50- to 53-year-old range.”
Eight years make a difference.
Perry is hoping for a last hurrah, conquering the hills, the heat and the humidity of OCC again.
“I am grinding this whole summer to try to peak at Omaha. That was my goal,” Perry said. “I’d like to have a drop-the-mic moment in Omaha, you know, like Suzann Pettersen did at the Solheim Cup. She made that putt and said that’s it, I’m never playing again.
“It might be a good win to call it (a career), go out on a win.”
The last time Chris DiMarco was in Omaha, the father of a 1-year-old tied for 29th at the 1997 Nike Omaha Classic. Made $1,195.
The next week, the proud Florida Gator won in the Ozarks to help cement a return and long stay on the PGA Tour that produced three wins and more than $20 million in career earnings.
Now 52, living in Denver and the father of three, DiMarco is returning to Nebraska for the U.S. Senior Open that starts Thursday at Omaha Country Club. He’s one of at least 32 in the field who have played previously in town in events on the now-Korn Ferry Tour.
He’s finding the competition as strong as when he was going after that foothold on the PGA Tour. DiMarco is looking for his first top-10 finish on the PGA Tour Champions in nearly a year. After last week’s Senior PGA Championship, he was 54th on the senior tour money list.
“There’s a lot of talent out here,’’ DiMarco said last month during the tour event in Des Moines. “You see a lot of new guys coming out, Alex Cejka, Dicky Pride, Ernie Els, Retief Goosen, the last couple years and have a lot of success.
“This is certainly not an entertainment tour anymore. This is a very competitive tour and you have to go out and play some good golf.”
While he was playing the Principal Charity Classic in Des Moines, he said he was starting to see signs that his game was on the upswing.
“I need to get a little sharper, but I’m starting to feel like my irons are in place and I need to hit shots,” he said. “I need to get a little bit more consistent. I’m making too many bogeys.”
One of his best finishes on the Champions Tour was his tie for sixth at the 2019 U.S. Senior Open in South Bend, Indiana, in his rookie season.
“The USGA sets it up, so you know what to expect,’’ DiMarco said. “I think they’re a little bit more lenient toward us than for the U.S. Open. I don’t think they have the rough as high and the fairways are maybe just a little bit wider.
“It’s still a very good test.”
Yes, DiMarco does remember what it was like the last time in Omaha, when he was driving the family in the conversion van decked out in Gator orange. It was a year removed from Florida’s 62-24 loss to Nebraska in the 1996 Fiesta Bowl.
“That’s when the Gators were pretty good and we got beat by Nebraska pretty bad,’’ he said. “I still got a lot of crap for being a Gator, but they still killed us. There’s going to be a lot of Cornhuskers there in Omaha.”
Senior Open golfers who have played in Korn Ferry Tour events in Omaha:
Woody Austin, Doug Barron, Shane Bertsch, Robin Byrd, Tom Byrum, Alex Cejka, Marco Dawson, Glen Day, Clark Dennis, Chris DiMarco, Ken Duke, Joe Durant, Steve Flesch, Bobby Gage, Matt Gogel, Mark Hensby, Kent Jones, Skip Kendall, Brad Klapprott, Greg Kraft, David McKenzie, Rod Pampling, Scott Parel, Tim Petrovic, Brett Quigley, Fran Quinn, Sam Randolph, John Riegger, Gene Sauers, Wes Short, Esteban Toledo, Tommy Tolles.
Had it not been for the U.S. Senior Open coming to Omaha, Matt Gogel might have stayed retired from professional golf.
Life was good for the longtime PGA Tour player who won at Pebble Beach in 2002 and was a six-time winner on what is now the Korn Ferry Tour, including in Omaha in 1998.
Gogel and his brother redesigned the facilities of his college golf course, Alvamar in Lawrence, Kansas. He was on air as a Golf Channel analyst. He and his wife, the former Blair Lauritzen of Omaha, were bringing up their two children.
“I never really thought about coming back to golf. I kind of thought, well, maybe, I’m 50, but I was so far away from that it didn’t really even enter my mind,” Gogel said last month after qualifying in Omaha for the Senior Open that begins Thursday at Omaha Country Club.
“About this time last year we were up in Minnesota where we share a house, and my sister-in-law started pumping me full up. ‘You need to get your game in shape. You have to play at OCC, you have to.’ “
He followed up on that urging by Emily Lauritzen, whose husband, Clark, is Blair’s brother and the chairman and president of First National Bank of Omaha.
But you can’t take the rust off overnight on a game that hasn’t had the competitive juices flowing for 14 years.
Gogel said he got himself into the best shape he’s been in 20 years, training and dropping 20 pounds. He made this year’s AT&T Pebble Beach Classic his first pro tournament since leaving the PGA Tour after his 2007 appearance on the Monterey Peninsula. Earlier that week in California, he became eligible for the Champions Tour by turning 50.
The next two senior events, he couldn’t get out of Monday qualifying. The competition was steep.
“You have guys who played on Ryder Cup teams, guys who have won majors, won multiple tour events doing Monday qualifying,” he said. “The competitive part of senior golf has blown me away because everybody is good.
“I knew that. Even when I was doing TV I did probably three Champions events a year for three years. So I was out here, but that was seven or eight years ago. So I knew these guys, top to bottom, can play.”
Starting with a sponsor’s invitation in the Insperity Invitational, Gogel has played in six events including the first three senior majors this season. He’ll make it into all five as he’s in the field later this month at the British Senior Open.
His tour finishes have ranged from 32nd to 59th and he was 97th on the money list after shooting 69-68 on the weekend at the Senior Players Championship.
To get into the Senior Open, Gogel took second in the Happy Hollow Club qualifier June 7 on a birdie-bogey-birdie finish to shoot 1-under 70.
Gogel said he had a lot of family and friends at the Senior PGA Championship, which was in May at Southern Hills in Tulsa, where he grew up, and expects them to be in the galleries this week at OCC.
“Tulsa was a stressful week because it was a hard, hard, demanding golf course,” he said. “Now with that in the back pocket, hopefully I can enjoy OCC a little bit more in front of the family.”