Home Sport At the U.S. Open, Public Courses Are Losing

At the U.S. Open, Public Courses Are Losing

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The United States Open is meant to be memorable, with the best players in the world gutting it out over four days packed with all the drama that makes sports great. But almost every year, the course on which the major is played becomes a character as the Open enfolds.

The course may exceed expectations, in terms of toughness; it may seem to lie down for the best players. Or, as happened last year at Winged Foot Golf Club, where Bryson DeChambeau finished at minus-6 and was the only player under par, it might stymie all but the eventual winner.

Torrey Pines Golf Course, set on the cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean in San Diego, may have provided the most memorable finish of any U.S. Open in 2008. Tiger Woods, playing on a badly injured knee that would need surgery soon after the tournament, curled in a birdie putt on the 18th green that sent him to an improbable 18-hole playoff against an even more improbable opponent: Rocco Mediate, a journeyman 13 years his senior.

And then the next day, after battling back and forth, Woods birdied the 18th again to continue the playoff, which he won on the next hole.

That the site of a memorable Open was also played on a municipal course operated by the city of San Diego is a boon for regular golfers who aspire to play where the pros do. But this year’s tournament may be the last for a truly public course.

As the U.S. Open moves to more of a fixed rotation of courses — known as a rota — this week’s tournament could be the end of an era when the United States Golf Association experimented with hosting Opens on truly public courses.

Pebble Beach Golf Links in California and Pinehurst in North Carolina are set to host several U.S. Opens in the coming years, but neither could be considered truly public because people pay thousands of dollar a night to stay in their lodges if they want to be able to pay hundreds of dollars to play the course. Of the next six courses that the U.S.G.A. has announced through 2027, none will be truly public.

But in the past two decades, public courses have increased the excitement. When Bethpage Black, in Bethpage State Park in Farmingdale, N.Y., hosted the first U.S. Open played on a public course in 2002, it became known as the “people’s open,” with Woods as the only player to finish under par with raucous New York fans cheering him on.

Jordan Spieth won the 2015 U.S. Open at Chambers Bay outside of Tacoma, Wash.Credit…Matt York/Associated Press

Chambers Bay, outside Tacoma, Wash., and Erin Hills, north of Milwaukee, were two other public courses that hosted the Open in 2015 and 2017, though both drew criticism. Chambers Bay, where Jordan Spieth won in 2015, was knocked for bumpy greens, while Erin Hills was dinged in 2017 for the low scores it produced. (Brooks Koepka was the winner at 16-under par.)

The U.S.G.A. seems to be pulling back from this era of experimentation and creating a rota similar to what the R&A, which governs the sport worldwide except for the United States and Mexico, does with the courses for the British Open. The organization will lean on storied courses like Winged Foot, Oakmont, Pinehurst and Pebble Beach while adding other equally exclusive courses, including the Country Club in Boston or Los Angeles Country Club from time to time.

John Bodenhamer, the association’s senior managing director of championships, said the shift was as much about history as practical matters.

“In many ways returning to the same venues makes it easier,” Bodenhamer said. “We had the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach in 2010. It was coming back in 2019. Having the United States Amateur there in 2018, we learned a great deal that really fueled what we did at the U.S. Open the next year — from how the golf course performed to handling the accommodations.

“Two to three years ago at a U.S.G.A. championship meeting, we were talking about where we should go for the U.S. Open and the United States Women’s Open, and I asked a group question about some various courses,” Bodenhamer said. The three-time major winner “Nick Price piped up and said it’s really important where a player wins his U.S. Open.”

There are practical, financial reasons for returning to the same venues regularly, but the switch may come at another cost, to the public venues and the geographic diversity that brought the national championship to new markets.

“The wonderful thing about the Open when it was rotating is you got to see so many different places,” said Michael Hurzdan, who designed Erin Hills. “Different horses for different courses. There’s a lot to be said for that. When you go to the rota, something’s going to be lost.”

Brook Koepka won the 2017 U.S. Open at Erin Hills, north of Milwaukee.Credit…Andrew Redington/Getty Images

But he does not disagree with such practical considerations of the rota.

“One of the biggest costs is infrastructure, so when you’re going to the same courses you know where the cameras are going to go, the stands are going to go — they have the parking figured out,” he said.

But he is less convinced by the notion that the history of a venue matters, at least for the fans. “People aren’t going to make a comparison between how Hogan played Oakmont [in 1953] and how DeChambeau will play Oakmont” in 2025, he said. “I don’t see any good reason to do it.”

The desire among former host sites to be a course that gets dusted off and selected again is strong.

Matthew Gorelik, chief executive of Township Capital, who is a member at Oakland Hills, the Michigan course that has hosted six U.S. Opens, remembers hitting a shot in the fairway on the sixth hole only to have his next shotblocked by a tree. After that he supported a restoration of the course. The club hired Gil Hanse, a golf course architect who is often brought in to restore major championship courses, to update the course’s Donald Ross design and bring back a U.S. Open. The last one was in 1996.

“Oakland Hills hasn’t been restored in a long time, and there were certain holes that just needed to be done,” he said. “At the same time, we’ve been passed over year after year for the U.S. Open.”

The five or so courses that are seen as the core of any rota — Shinnecock Hills, Winged Foot, Oakmont, Pinehurst and Pebble Beach — are all stern tests of golf with ample facilities.

“They’re all a great test of golf, and they all want to give back to the game, but familiarity does help us,” said Bodenhamer of the U.S.G.A.

“It’s tough to conduct a U.S. Open at a place like Merion [near Philadelphia],” he continued. “We did it in 2013, but we had parking lots in people’s backyards, and hospitality tents in people’s front yards.”