U.S. Open Starter Nears Final Hurrah

By: Blaine Newnham

The job is ceremonial, Ron Read, in less than sonorous tones, announcing the players on the first tee at the U.S. Open. He looks strictly USGA blueblood in his blue blazer, bright red bowtie and smart golf cap.

And to be sure, to the audiences hanging outside the ropes, his "Play away, please" in sending the players down the first fairway is as lyrical as "Gentleman start your engines" is at Indianapolis.

Inside the ropes, however, Read is all business. He has had a hand in about everything from the conception of the Slope in the handicap system to the decision to play the U.S. Open at Chambers Bay in the state of Washington.

Read, 65, who first was asked to be the starter for the 1986 Open at Shinnecock Hills, has been the starter at every Open since 1989, and said that while he surely won't be on the job for the next Open here in 2019, he may do a couple of more. One of them should be Chambers Bay in 2015.

"Bringing the U.S. Open to the Northwest has always been one of my goals, always," said Read in the men's locker room at Pebble Beach Golf Links in the second round of the 110th Open. Behind him was a locker with Tom Watson's name on it. And behind that was a picture of Bing Crosby in knickers and carrying an umbrella.

Read calls himself a facilitator. He sets the pace for an Open, calling nervous players to the tee, reminding them to count their clubs, wishing them good luck.

When Crosby died and the future of the "Clambake" was in doubt, he gathered Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson together for a fund-raiser, and then picked up Bob Hope from another party to complete the evening.

And as the USGA's director of western golf affairs, he was the one who realized golf courses needed to be rated beyond their distances to make the handicap system really work, and set out to find a mathematical way to do it.

He was also the one who took the call from Robert Trent Jones, Jr., and agreed to take the USGA's first look at a sand-and-gravel pit on the shores of Puget Sound. "I'm what you call an early-racer," said Read. "I raced up to see Bandon Dunes and I raced up to see Chambers Bay."

Read liked what he saw, and gathered Mike Davis and David Fay, his USGA bosses, and they all reveled in the possibilities of what Jones could build and they would reap.

Read likes links golf, he likes sandy soils, he likes the Pacific Northwest and he saw in Chambers Bay the possibility of holding the biggest Open in history. "The stars were aligned in 2002 at Bethpage," said Read. "Now the galaxies could be aligned."

Chambers Bay might not have been the Northwest's last chance to secure an Open, but Read was running out of alternatives. He said over the years he had taken looks at Peter Jacobsen's Oregon Golf Club, at Washington National south of Seattle, at The Reserve near Portland, at Newcastle in the hills above Bellevue, Wash., and, of course, Pumpkin Ridge west of Portland, site of a U.S. Amateur and two U.S. Women's Opens.

It was something here, something there. For Pumpkin Ridge it was routing spectators through environmentally sensitive areas and the rejection of using holes from the two different courses there. "Chambers Bay not only had the potential of a great course, but with the room for infrastructure, parking, corporate tents, and galleries, it had as much potential as any course on the planet," he said.

Nonetheless, Read is a golf traditionalist. He likes to walk instead of ride. He doesn't want to see technology change the game he loves. "My sense is that people playing with wooden clubs enjoyed the game every bit as much as we do," he said. "I'm a lefty and back then you took what clubs you could get. I've always been a believer that it was the Indian, and not the arrow."

In his remaining years with the USGA he wants to promote making the game available to juniors. He also wants to begin to write down his thoughts and experiences. He is so well thought of in the golf community that he was invited to be a member of the Royal & Ancient Golf Club and said he'd be more than pleased if his final round was at St. Andrews, the home of golf.

A few years back, he ran into Scott Williams, then the pro at Glendale Country Club in Bellevue, Wash. Read, who lives in Carmel Valley, Calif., knew Williams had played in the U.S. Open. But which one?

Williams said it was at Shinnecock in 1986 and that he was the first player off in the field. It was Read's very first announcement.

They both recalled that Williams tee shot went 6 inches off the fairway and that after four minutes had elapsed in the search for the ball, Williams found it, only to take an unplayable lie.

"I asked him if he remembered me being nervous," said Read. "He said, 'Ron, you weren't as nervous as I was.' "

Blaine Newnham has covered golf for 50 years. He still cherishes the memory of following Ben Hogan for 18 holes during the first round of the 1966 U.S. Open at the Olympic Club in San Francisco. He worked then for the Oakland Tribune, where he covered the Oakland Raiders during the first three seasons of head coach John Madden. Blaine moved on to Eugene, Ore., in 1971 as sports editor and columnist, covering the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich. He covered five Olympics all together - Mexico City, Munich, Los Angeles, Seoul, and Athens - before retiring in early 2005 from the Seattle Times. He covered his first Masters in 1987 when Larry Mize chipped in to beat Greg Norman, and his last in 2005 when Tiger Woods chip dramatically teetered on the lip at No. 16 and rolled in. He saw Woods' four straight major wins in 2000 and 2001, and Payne Stewart's birdie putt to win the U.S. Open at Pinehurst. Blaine now plays golf at Wing Point Golf and Country Club on Bainbridge Island, Wash., where his current index is 12.6. In 2005, Blaine received the Northwest Golf Media Association's Distinguished Service Award. He and his wife, Joanna, live in Indianola, Wash., where the Dungeness crabs outnumber the people.