At 2:07 Sunday afternoon, Corey Pavin buried an 8-foot birdie putt on the seventh hole at Omaha Country Club.
Didn’t seem all that meaningful. Pavin, whose final round had started poorly, was still three shots out of the lead.
But that stroke — with Pavin’s classic gold bullseye putter — unleashed a 61-minute birdie barrage that ignited a sweat-stained crowd, defined the 2013 U.S. Senior Open and highlighted the biggest golf event in Omaha history.
We amateurs love to see pros make the occasional double bogey — and there were plenty at OCC. One of the shortest Senior Open courses ever humbled multiple major champions.
But until Pavin and Kenny Perry scorched a brutally tough stretch in the middle of the course, Omahans hadn’t experienced the best of major championship golf — the artillery shell segment of the fireworks show.
At 2:08, standing on the slippery sixth green, Perry knocked in a 5-footer for his own birdie to take the lead.
2:18: Perry drops a 12-footer at the seventh. He’ll say later he putted like Ben Crenshaw today.
2:20: At the eighth, a hole that had given up only 13 birdies all week, Pavin bangs a 50-footer for another birdie.
2:31: Same hole, 40 feet closer. Perry rolls it in. He’s 10-under and this putting duel is starting to look like the Champions Tour version of a Michael Jordan-Dominique Wilkins dunk contest.
2:34: Up the hill, Pavin slams a 20-foot slider at No. 9.
2:47: Perry at the ninth, from 8 feet. Bang.
“I birdied 6, 7, 8, and 9,” Perry said later. “I put a four-bagger on them, which kind of made them know I was there, ready to go.”
2:51: Pavin, perhaps the shortest hitter in the field, hits a 3-wood to No. 10, the longest par 4 on the course. From 15 feet, he drains another.
3:00: Finally, from the back of the green at No. 10, Perry misses. By about two inches.
3:00: Two hundred yards down the hill, Pavin stalks a downhill 40-footer. When it reaches the hole, it’s moving fast enough to go 10 feet past. Instead, it crashes into the back of the cup.
“Magic,” NBC analyst Johnny Miller says.
3:08: At No. 11, Perry dunks his longest putt of the hour, a 20-footer down the hill. Pavin, walking up the 12th fairway, hears the roar. He asks a stranger what Perry’s putt was for.
“I was like, wow, when he gets going, he’s really tough to catch,” Pavin said.
Over the years, Nebraska golf fans have witnessed some incredible performances from Cox Classic players who went on to the PGA Tour. But Perry is famous for his hot streaks. And you can count on one hand — Tiger? Rory? Phil? — the golfers who could’ve matched his 64-63 weekend combo at OCC.
At 2:07 p.m., Pavin was four back of Perry. After five straight birdies in 61 brilliant minutes, Pavin had picked up a grand total of ... zero shots.
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The redneck from Kentucky, as Perry calls himself, receives an A for winning his first USGA tournament. How did everything else during Open week grade out?
The USGA knows exactly how to operate a golf tournament. And most everything, from corporate tents to volunteers to the shuttle bus system, worked efficiently.
Traffic was occasionally a mess near 72nd Street and I-680. And early in the tournament, spectators had a hard time finding drinking water on the course. But there were no major glitches.
Gallery Experience: A-
The property was big enough to handle 30,000 spectators without prompting fits of claustrophobia. And especially on weekdays, fans didn’t have to stand on their tip-toes or climb trees to get close to the pros.
The OCC hills put a hurtin’ on players, caddies, fans and sportswriters bold enough to walk all day. But those same hills also created excellent views. Many modern tournament courses have artificial mounds to help spectators see shots. OCC doesn’t need them.
The hillsides at No. 13 and 15, especially, were perfect places to sit.
A great test includes all the elements and Mother Nature obliged, sending consistent winds most of the week. Tuesday was brutally hot, but it’s mid-July, what do you expect? At least it didn’t climb above 95 on a tournament day.
My one complaint: I hoped for a day with north winds, just to see how players would’ve adapted. Manageable holes like 3, 9, 12 and 16 suddenly would’ve been bears.
The crowds: A
Take it from the pros like Kirk Triplett: “I played in the U.S. Open at Congressional two years ago when Rory (McIlroy) won. There’s as many people here as there was there, easily. Same kind of crowd too, into their golf, loving it, rooting you on, wanting to see good shots. Very impressive.”
Walking up the hill on No. 13 Sunday, Rocco Mediate looked at the huge crowd around the green and told playing partner Chien Soon Lu, sarcastically, “it’s too bad nobody likes golf around here.”
The players: B
The Sunday leader board was full of big names — Perry, Pavin, Mediate, Fred Funk, Steve Elkington. And their skills were on display. But considering the over-50 players eligible to compete, the field was a bit disappointing.
Imagine what a Greg Norman or Vijay Singh would’ve added. Or Nick Price, Hal Sutton, Craig Stadler or Peter Jacobsen (who withdrew Thursday). Tom Watson was a huge attraction. And seeing Colin Montgomerie and Fred Couples was a thrill. But Omaha could’ve used more star power.
The drama: C+
Without that 61-minute duel between Perry and Pavin, the grade here would’ve been lower. Seeing Perry tie the course record in a high-pressure moment was impressive, but this wasn’t much of a tournament after he nearly stuffed his 9-iron on No. 14.
None of the top challengers — Pavin, Funk or Mediate — managed better than 34 on the back nine Sunday.
The golf course: A-
The famous OCC greens didn’t quite live up to their billing. The grounds crew had to water them at night to keep them alive. Only Sunday did the greens reach the level of firm and fast expected for a U.S. Open.
But that’s the only regret. OCC, in the national spotlight for the first time, received rave reviews, especially from the TV analysts. Johnny Miller called it a “gem” that visitors should try to play when they come to Omaha (easier said than done, Johnny).
Most courses, even those with rough terrain, look relatively flat on TV. Omaha Country Club did not. For a course without a notable feature — no lakes or cliffs or dunes — it looked almost majestic in high definition.
More important, it held up extremely well to the competition. Not a single round under 67 the first day and a half. Only one player better than 8-under for the week. The USGA didn’t even max out the potential yardage. The new back tee at 18, for instance, was used only once — on Saturday. Some of the toughest pins were bypassed.
Omaha’s reputation as a sports town rose another notch last week. But here’s the bigger development: The city now has a proven, bona fide venue to host any major tournament short of a U.S. Open or PGA Championship.
The 2013 Senior Open may be just the beginning.