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The Biggest Show in Golf

Jeff Williams
From the Print Edition:
Laurence Fishburne, May/June 2013

(continued from page 3)

“I can tell you in my time in setting up the U.S. Open the one that was criticized by far the most, and you could take all the other ones and put them all together and multiply by 100 and wouldn’t even equal this, is when we had the U.S. Open at Congressional and Rory ran away and it was 16-under [par],” says Davis. “People that follow golf, they didn’t like that. Once a year they like the idea of having a really tough test of golf. This was the first time we got hundreds and hundreds of letters criticizing how easy it was. It was absolutely nothing against Congressional, it happened to be very soft, still conditions for four days.”

The “Sturm und Drang” of the Open, the drama created by golf’s most severe test, usually makes for a good show. No, it’s not the back nine at Augusta National on Sunday during the Masters, but it’s not supposed to be. The USGA wants its ultimate championship to stand apart. It needs to be exciting in its own way.

“When you say exciting, and I think that what people ultimately like, is when there can be a big variety of scoring on a given hole. You can see the lead change greatly,” says Davis. “I am convinced that what makes the Masters so exciting on that back nine is that you can see huge changes on the leaderboard in a very short period of time, so if a U.S. Open is nothing more than pars and bogeys, I can see the point where that becomes a bit monotonous.”

The United States Open, apart from determining the national champion, is also the economic engine that drives everything that the USGA does to administer and promote the game. The television revenues, domestic and foreign, along with corporate sponsorship, allow the USGA to do equipment testing, agronomy research, fund state and regional golf associations, fund junior golf programs, run the handicap system and the amateur side of the game.

“If you look at the USGA, conservatively we probably put $80 to $90 million a year back into the game, and we can do that because of what the U.S. Open generates,” says Davis.

The economic facts aren’t lost on Nager. “The U.S. Open is like a show, some say the biggest show in golf,” says Nager. “It is an entertainment product, no question. But we are holding our national championship and trying to find the best golfer. We don’t really ask the television people about the venues we go to other than to talk with them about their ability to broadcast from a place. TV wants to broadcast a tournament that provides a strong test of golf and the sort of drama that goes with it. We think we provide them, and all the fans of golf, with that.”

Bringing the Open back to Merion—a small, classic course of less than 7,000 yards—in the modern era of the game was difficult to do, but Davis was determined to do it, just as he is determined to take the Open to new sites in the future, including two public courses, 2015 at Chambers Bay in University Place, Washington, and 2017 at Erin Hills in rural Wisconsin, north of Milwaukee (see sidebar, pg. 81). And those two courses were given the nod after the resounding success of the Open at New York State’s Bethpage Black course on Long Island in 2002.

You can bet that Merion will be set up on the edge, that it will reach the outer limits that the USGA so much wants to determine its national champion. “We saw at the U.S. Amateur at Merion [in 2005] that during the stroke play qualifying it could stand up to these modern players,” says Davis. “Merion, being so small, is a difficult place to conduct the Open outside ropes. But inside the ropes it more than held its own. . . . Whether you like it or not, people have come to think of the Open as a really tough test of golf, and we are sure that Merion will prove to be that.”

It might be best to go back to the great amateur Bobby Jones, who won three U.S. Opens (the last at Merion in 1930), to find the definition of the game’s most arduous tournament.

“Nobody ever wins a U.S. Open,” said Jones. “Everybody else just loses it.”


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