USGA Continues to Think Outside the Box

By: Blaine Newnham

So many things are happening so fast with the United States Golf Association, and none of it has to do with the speed of the greens at the recently completed U.S. Open.

In this brave new world, the USGA has in recent weeks announced it would guarantee tickets to the 2015 Open at Chambers Bay in Washington State to those who this month purchased season tickets to 2010 U.S. Senior Open at nearby Sahalee Country Club.

Imagine. For the past 23 years, the Open has sold out in less than a day, a lottery dispensing tickets to those lucky enough to get them. Now the Open was being used to sell tickets for the Senior Open: an interesting but strictly non-USGA concept.

"We knew the difficulties Sahalee was facing in this economy," said Tim Flaherty, who directs both the Senior Open and the U.S. Amateur for the USGA. "We wanted to help if we could. It was time to start thinking differently."

The USGA is simply being as pragmatic as it's being progressive. Buy a $150 ticket for a week's worth of the Senior Open in 2010 and be guaranteed the right to buy a priceless ticket for the 2015 U.S. Open. So far, more than a thousand folks in the Seattle area have figured out this could be a very good thing.

Then, two weeks later, the USGA announced it would piggy-back the 2014 U.S. Women's Open on the U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2, drawing unprecedented attention to the women while minimizing expenses in setting up one course, not two.

Do we throw away the blue blazers next?

It's crazy stuff. The men's Open had never been contested in the Pacific Northwest and then out of the blue - or green or red - the USGA decides to hold it at Chambers Bay near Tacoma on a course that was eight months old when the championship site was announced.

The USGA was so smitten with the site - 300 acres along the shores of Puget Sound - that it also put next summer's U.S. Amateur there as well. No other course built in the past 45 years had gotten an Open. Not one designed by Jack Nicklaus or Tom Fazio or Tom Doak or any other big-name golf course architect.

It all started with David Fay's crazy notion in the mid-'90s of playing the Open at Bethpage Black, which he eventually did in 2002. Then there would be one at equally egalitarian Torrey Pines in 2008. Back to Bethpage in 2009, and on to Chambers Bay in 2015.

When the PGA of America reneged on its promise to hold the 2010 PGA Championship at Sahalee east of Seattle, the USGA moved in. It was slow on the draw at Whistling Straits, and rather than allow the PGA to get a foothold at Chambers Bay, acted preemptively.

The PGA left Seattle ostensibly because it didn't want to buck the 2010 Winter Olympics up north in Vancouver, B.C. "The USGA did not have the same fears," said Flaherty. "We thought it was a wonderful venue then, and we think it is one now."

The USGA actually took on Sahalee before Chambers Bay. Now there will be two major championships in the Seattle-area next summer. "The Chambers Bay phenomenon came out of nowhere," said Flaherty. "I think it surprised everyone in golf."

Along the way, Mike Davis, who sets up the Open courses, would be just as outrageous by going away from the long, ugly, predictable Open setup, graduating the rough to give players who just missed the fairways a chance to go for the green, not just the fairway on their second shots. He also varied tee and pin placements. The idea was to make the pros think, and not just react. To make them excel, not just survive.

The muni sites have proved prophetic for Fay and the USGA. They provide more room and less politics than holding the event on a storied private course. They also relate better to the average ticket-buying fans by playing the Open on a course anyone can play.

The Open munis came with built-in civic approval. The state of New York swung its resources behind Bethpage, a 1,500-acre state park. Pierce County, as a stakeholder in the undertakings, will do the same for Chambers Bay. Government is not just some agency to be convinced of the events economic impact, it is a partner.

Chambers Bay was crafted by the design team of Robert Trent Jones, Jr., with the Open in mind. It was conceived by Pierce County executive John Ladenburg, also with the Open in mind.

"Someone gave me a copy of John Feinstein's book, 'The Majors,' " said Ladenburg. "And I thought if Bethpage can do it, why can't we do it?"

They did it, building a true links course with room for upwards of 70,000 spectators a day. The USGA has never hosted the Open on a course with fescue greens and fairways.

Which for Davis was all the more reason to try something different, to ask players to keep the ball on the ground, to care, as he put it, not where the ball lands but where it ends up.

"For me," said Davis, who recently visited Chambers Bay, "the course is like a kid being in a candy store. The options are more than I've ever seen."

One hole has two greens, another two fairways. Davis can take the course to nearly 8,000 yards, but won't. The first hole on some days will be a par-4, on others a par-5. The rough won't be any deeper than the average muni. The greens won't likely reach 11 on the Stimpmeter.

It will be an Open like none other, but it will be in step with the evolving USGA, which has finally found its way into the new century.

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.