U.S. Senior Open at Sahalee Setting New Standards

By: Blaine Newnham

They were lucky they saw each other among the many folks crowding in the front door of Sahalee Country Club Thursday. "Never seen so many people on the first day of a U.S. Senior Open Championship," said Tim Flaherty of the USGA.

Chris Falcon, tournament director for the club, didn't know whether to smile or cry. "You know," he said later, "I'm glad we ended up with this tournament. The PGA Championship would have been a challenge in this economy. We're so happy with the Senior Open, and the USGA."

The good folks at Sahalee - a club high in the even higher trees east of Seattle - have never let the snub by the PGA of America get them down.

As you might recall, the PGA Championship - won by Vijay Singh - was played here in 1998 and pledged to return in 2010. This year.

But giddy with the successes at Whistling Straits and hoping to keep that property from the clutches of the USGA, the PGA of American pulled out of Seattle, citing too much competition from the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, and committed instead to Whistling Straits.

"I didn't hear one sponsor even mention the Vancouver Olympics," said Mike Zinga, the tournament director. "And as far as tickets sold, I am sure this will rank in the top-five U.S. Seniors ever held."

Jim Awtrey, then the president of PGA of America, promised Sahalee a tournament in the five years following 2010. So much for a promise.

Sahalee is a tantalizing test of golf, an old-fashioned shot-makers' course played within the context of some of the mightiest timber around, and within a few miles of downtown Seattle. The views are gorgeous, the place in a very different way as visually enrapturing as St. Andrews and Pebble Beach.

But despite the artistic and financial success in 1998, Sahalee was deemed quaint. As the years went on it had neither the cache of the great, old East Coast courses, or the size and money-making capacity of the new mega-courses, Whistling Straits, renovated Bethpage, even Chambers Bay south of Seattle in Tacoma.

But if the game is for players and spectators, then Sahalee still had a place. Awtrey, himself, said following the 1998 PGA that the players had never liked a course better than Sahalee, especially in a mild August in the Pacific Northwest.

And, at Sahalee, so little has changed. A maple on No. 11 was taken down, a new tee added on No. 5, but that's about it. Oh, sure, the trees are slightly taller and wider, but the course is as tough today as it was then when Singh went 9-under par.

"When the USGA came here two years ago they said they could have played the tournament then," said Falcon. "We haven't changed much, we haven't had to."

What has changed since 1998 is a new 43,000-square-foot clubhouse, and basically a new membership. "The founders," said club historian, Dave Torrell, "wanted a golf course good enough to hold a major championship and playable enough to delight a membership. They got that with the PGA Championship."

That they never got it back is a shame on the PGA of America and its quest for one more dollar. Sahalee and the Northwest deserved better, and they finally got it, Sahalee getting the Senior Open and Chambers Bay next month's U.S. Amateur and the 2015 U.S. Open.

"The new venues can handle upwards of 300,000 people in a week," said Sahalee head pro Jim Pike. "We can handle half that. But I wonder if the day might come when the mega-course gets old, when tournaments might be staged more for cable TV, when the purses might not be as high and the need for spectators as great. Just like the USGA is taking the Open back to Merion, the PGA might want to return to a great shot-makers' course."

Right now, Sahalee is pleased as punch with the USGA, and the Senior Open. In fact, it was the club that came forth with the ingenious idea of selling tickets to the Senior Open that guaranteed the right to buy tickets to the 2015 U.S. Open at Chambers Bay. The USGA bought the idea and quickly spiked ticket sales that are projected to be around the 120,000-140,000 mark.

When the club said it wanted to minimize the number of bleachers around the 18th green to allow views for the corporate boys watching from the clubhouse, the USGA said sure. Tough economic times deflate even the stuffiest groups.

So Sahalee is happy with the Senior Open, perhaps better off.

There is no question that the club has stuck to its position of only holding tournaments of the highest caliber: the 1998 PGA, the 2002 NEC (now WGC) Championship, the 2010 Senior Open and the annual Sahalee Players Championship with a superb array of amateurs.

After all, the Senior Open is not some parade of champions-past. It is four days on a course that, in the end, might not yield a score under par.

"I don't feel any regrets from the members that the PGA isn't here," said Rich Taylor, the club's superintendent. "Of course, it is a new membership. But I think a lot of us think that the Senior Open is a perfect fit for Sahalee."

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.