1989 British Open Champion Cut His Teeth on Nine-Hole Municipal Course July 8, 2013 By Dave Shedloski

Nebraska-born Mark Calcavecchia is back in the Cornhusker State to try adding a U.S. Senior Open to his list of accomplishments. (USGA/Chris Keane)

OMAHA, Neb. – When Mark Calcavecchia tees it up Thursday at Omaha Country Club in the U.S. Senior Open, he’ll be a hometown favorite of sorts, even though he has never played the golf course and his introduction to the game growing up in Laurel, about 120 miles to the northwest, wasn’t what you would call a country-club experience.

The only course in Laurel, situated on bluffs above the Missouri River, was Cedar View Country Club, but its name is misleading. Cedar View is a public access nine-hole facility, and it was relatively new when Calcavecchia started playing golf as a preteen.

But, hey, everyone puts down golf newsContents somewhere. Before Calcavecchia moved to Florida at age 12 in 1973 and refined his game on the way to a successful PGA Tour career, he was playing 54 or 63 holes a day, sometimes in swim trunks and bare feet, at this simple community golf course.

There were no trees, except for the ones about waist high that had just been planted. There was no water, no irrigation, it never rained, and it has these simple round greens. It wasn’t exactly a place where you had to learn to hit shots, Calcavecchia recalls. I suppose the one thing I did learn, because the ground was so hard, was to get the knack for bouncing the ball up onto the greens and playing run-up shots, which might explain why I had a pretty good record in the British Open.

Among Calcavecchia’s 13 PGA Tour titles is the 1989 British Open Championship, when he outlasted Australians Greg Norman and Wayne Grady in a playoff at Royal Troon, in Scotland.

Calcavecchia, 53, will make his fourth start in the U.S. Senior Open, and don’t be surprised if he knocks on the door and contends. He has finished in the top 25 in each of his previous starts, including a third-place finish behind Olin Browne in 2011 at Inverness Club in Toledo, Ohio.

I’ve never been a particularly good U.S. Open player, but I seem to have figured out the setups a bit in the Senior Open, Calcavecchia notes. I think playing these traditional courses probably helps. I loved Inverness. I haven’t played Omaha, but I know it’s hilly and has some dogleg-right holes, which should suit my eye [because he plays a fade]. I am looking forward to it, because I’ll have some family and some friends there – a nice little support group. It should be fun.

Calcavecchia, a self-taught golfer, had fun at the game from the time he picked up a club. His summers consisted mostly of golf and swimming, and the twain sometimes did meet.

You know, it was 100 degrees in the summer, so we’d go around that golf course four or five times, then go swimming for an hour, then head back to the course for another 27 holes or whatever we could get in before dark, he recalls. A lot of times we just went back to the course in our swim trunks, play in our bare feet. And we did not feel out of place. There was no dress code. Could have probably just played in a beach towel if we wanted – as long as we were covered up. This wasn’t a place for khakis and collared shirts.

It doesn’t sound like the greatest experience, but I taught myself how to play and to hit some different kinds of shots, and that was a pretty good education.

Playing injured has been the latest learning exercise for the Tequesta, Fla., resident.

Winner of two Champions Tour titles, Calcavecchia has been hampered this season by a back ailment that forced him to withdraw early in the season at the ACE Group Classic and has since required three cortisone injections. He said they have seemed to help, but they haven’t cured the season-long struggles with his putting stroke.

Calcavecchia, who has four top-5 finishes in 2013, ranks 35th in scoring with a 71.39 average after finishing sixth last year and first in 2011 at 69.04. He can trace his missed opportunities to the flat stick.

His tie for ninth at the Constellation Senior Players Championship two weeks ago was a microcosm of his season.

I probably led the field in greens in regulation. I couldn’t putt to save my life, lamented Calcavecchia, who hit 63 of 72 greens at Fox Chapel Golf Club, near Pittsburgh. I think the longest putt I made all week was 6 feet. You have to putt on our tour – or the regular tour for that matter. Usually I get a hot streak here and there on the greens. I haven’t done that this year.

The injury, he added, hasn’t held him back the last few weeks. I do the best I can. It seems to be getting better.

The timing couldn’t come at a better time. This week’s championship, and the return to some native soil, has Calcavecchia eager to try to add the most significant senior major to his résumé.

This is the biggest event in senior golf by a mile, in my mind, he said. It always has a major atmosphere and we play good courses. I definitely hope to have my game when I tee it up.

Swim trunks have to stay at home, however.

Dave Shedloski is an Ohio-based freelance writer whose work has previously appeared on USGA websites.