Opens for Business: U.S. Open Visits California Four Times in Nine Years
The 90-year-old relationship between California and the USGA started when Pebble Beach hosted the 1929 U.S. Amateur. It’s about to get a lot more serious. Four U.S. Opens will be played over the next nine years in the Golden State, including two stops in Southern California.
The remarkable run kicks off this June at Pebble Beach, followed by a return to Torrey Pines in 2021, first-time venue The Los Angeles Country Club (LACC) in 2023, and back again to Pebble Beach in 2027.
“To get to California with all of those magnificent golf courses, the history, the weather, and the West Coast from a television broadcast standpoint, it just
works on so many fronts for us to be out there,” said John Bodenhamer, the USGA’s senior managing director of championships.
Spreading the U.S. Open around the country — 19 states have hosted it since 1895, with California hosting 12 times between 1948 and 2010 — is now balanced with other factors. “In the past I would say that’s been a pretty significant consideration trying to get to all parts of the country, but I think it’s really driven by the golf course first,” said Bodenhamer. “Even more so in recent years by the economics, the market, and other considerations. California knows how to handle big events; they have them all the time. Especially places like the Monterey Peninsula, San Diego and Los Angeles. They’re just good at it.”
“There are a lot of reasons why a West Coast U.S. Open is good for television and the USGA,” said LACC member and former SCGA President Peter James, who also served on the USGA’s executive committee. “You can have the afternoon on Saturday and Sunday extend into prime time and a lot more fans are able to see it. There are fewer weather issues as well. There may be some fog delays [at Pebble Beach and Torrey Pines], but that’s just part of being a coastal golf course in June. In Los Angeles I doubt that will happen because it [LACC] is just enough inland, so we’ll have very reliable weather. When I talked with the USGA in relation to the 2017 Walker Cup (played at LACC), I said, ‘You don’t need to send your meteorologist. There won’t be anything for him or her to do.’”
That’s exactly what Danny Sink wants to hear. As director of U.S. Open championships since 2008, he will be entrenched in the state overseeing all of the outside- the-ropes issues at the upcoming venues. “Getting fog for an hour at Torrey Pines or Pebble Beach is much better than six inches of rain at Merion GC like we did in 2013, or eight inches of rain at Bethpage in 2009,” he said. “Rain is the one thing we can’t control. But we have a better chance with Mother Nature on the West Coast.”
Not surprisingly, traffic, parking and spectator access are key issues. “Ingress and egress are among the biggest concerns we have,” said Sink. “You can’t bring everyone in through one central point or it would just cause a huge backlog of people. All three California venues have multiple entrance points, fortunately.”
Preparations at a U.S. Open venue usually ramp up about 20 months prior to play with four people on-site: the championship director, and a person each in charge of volunteers, public safety and operations. “That expands to 10 full-time people right before the championship, and then 150 more people from USGA headquarters in New Jersey and regional offices during the championship,” said Sink.
The build process, which typically includes up to 600,000 square feet of canvas-enclosed floor space — last year at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club in New York, the merchandise tent alone measured 37,000 square feet — starts three months before the championship and goes right up to the last second. “From Memorial Day to the first day of play is the busiest time,” said Sink. “The tear-down process afterwards takes two and a half months.”
How to improve the championship is in the forefront of the USGA’s planning process. “We’re thinking long term over the next few years about the experience and how we can modernize and also use technology,” said Bodenhamer. “We have a wonderful new app where people can follow players and watch play, and maybe one day be able to order a hot dog from their seat. It will always change, it will never be cookie-cutter.”
And don’t be surprised by more U.S. Open visits to California, north and south, beyond 2027. “It’s such a great golf state and some of our most iconic sites are there,” said Bodenhamer. “As long as it will have us, we’ll come back.”
PEBBLE BEACH (2019/2027)
Celebrating its centennial this year, Pebble Beach is a familiar venue, having already hosted five previous U.S. Opens between 1972 and 2010. “For us to go back to Pebble, well, it’s just such a national treasure,” said Bodenhamer. “It has history that few places have. That’s a very special place for us.”
The 2018 U.S. Amateur provided a test run of sorts for this June’s national championship. “It wasn’t a U.S. Open setup from the standpoint of things like rough height,” said Bodenhamer. “But we did some things that informed us, like how firm we could get the greens before we went too far, and what the weather did in certain instances.”
Depending on those weather patterns, Bodenhamer expects to see the course this year look relatively close to what it was in 2010, when Northern Ireland’s Graeme McDowell shot an even-par 284 to become the first European to win the title since Tony Jacklin did so at Hazeltine National GC in Minnesota. But there will be some differences from the 2010 layout: the ninth, 13th, 14th and 17th holes all have rebuilt greens, and the ninth has a new tee box. There will also be fewer spectators than in 2010 as part of an effort to enhance the overall experience for attendees.
The pros also might experience USGA’s new playoff format that went into effect last year: a two-hole aggregate total rather than 18 holes; if tied after two holes, it becomes sudden death. “The 18th plays relatively short now for those guys, but you think about 17 and 18, especially with the new playoff format,” said Bodenhamer. “What a magnificent way to do it on two holes where so much history has been made.”
TORREY PINES (2021)
More than a decade has passed since the U.S. Open first visited Torrey Pines in 2008, but few golf fans will ever forget the drama from that week. Tiger Woods made a dramatic birdie putt on the final hole (on a broken leg no less) to force a playoff he eventually won, earning the most recent of his 14 major victories.
It might be hard to top that spectacle when the U.S. Open returns in two years, not to mention the crowds. Sink believes it was the first time the championship ever featured an opening-day grouping of the world’s first, second and third-ranked players (Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Adam Scott, respectively).
“They were teeing off at 7:15 a.m. that Thursday and I think we had 25,000 people through the gates by 7 a.m.,” Sink said. “I still remember being in our office that morning and working with our transportation companies who had never seen anything of that magnitude. And during the playoff, we had almost as many people following two golfers around the course.”
An estimated $14 million renovation project, expected to be completed later this year, is now underway on the South Course in advance of the U.S. Open. The work involves enhancement of the irrigation system, bunkers, tees and areas around the greens.
LOS ANGELES COUNTRY CLUB
Imagine if New York City’s Central Park had 36 spectacularly good golf holes. That’s what LACC, set on 320 acres between Beverly Hills and the UCLA campus, already offers.
“We’ve been trying to come to The Los Angeles Country Club for man, many years,” said Bodenhamer of the famously private club. That goal becomes reality in 2023.
A sneak peek at the artful bunkering and surprising elevation changes of the North Course (originally designed by George C. Thomas Jr. and restored by Gil Hanse in 2010) came during the 2017 Walker Cup. The par-3 15th was an attention-getter then, and will likely be again in the U.S. Open.
“That hole played as little as 78 yards in the Walker Cup, and the green is magnificent,” said Bodenhamer. “You’ll likely see that distance in the U.S. Open [making it the shortest hole ever in championship history]. The course is about the bunkering and the green complexes. It’s just so unique. We don’t have to do too much to it. We will narrow it a bit and grow some rough, but it really takes care of itself.”
Peter James, who joined the club in 1981, notes that Thomas created a lot of potential configurations within the North Course layout.
“The two Walker Cup captains said it was a terrific ‘accordion’ golf course,” said James. “You can play it long or you can play it short. It can be played with seven par 4s of more than 500 yards and with two driveable par 4s. It can also have two par 3s that approach 300 yards. There’s so much variety available to the USGA to do interesting things.”
LACC’s rookie status as a U.S. Open venue has accelerated the prep schedule, according to Sink.
“We’ve made a concerted effort to start working on that championship two years in advance of when we typically would,” he said. “Just to account for not having had a major championship in the middle of one of the biggest cities in the United States.”
Wilshire Boulevard, which runs between the club’s two courses (the South Course will be used for championship infrastructure purposes), is a logistical concern. “We’re working on ways to traverse that without completely backing it up more than it is on a daily basis,” Sink said.
It’s no small sacrifice for a public facility or private club to host the national championship. Both Torrey Pines and LACC will lose their second course for a couple of months. “Everyone focuses on the week of the U.S. Open, but there will be four to six months of the second course being down,” said Sink. “We’re building a small city, essentially, the majority of which will be on that second course. LACC North will be up and running the week after the U.S. Open, but the South Course is going to be really impacted. It’s the same at Torrey Pines, where the North Course will be affected.”