Henrik Stenson wanted to see the golf course hosting the U.S. Open, so he arranged to play Torrey Pines last December. One of the top 20 players in the world, whose victories include a World Golf Championship, Stenson ordinarily would have called the head pro to set up a time, and the pro might have arranged to have one of the clubs best players join him.
But this isnt a country club.
So the Swede went online and booked a tee time. He paid his fee in the pro shop. He went to the practice range to warm up and hit yellow-painted golf balls with a black stripe around them that didnt seem to go very far. It took him a few shots to realize there was nothing wrong with his swing.
They were limited-flight balls, Stenson said.
Stenson had brought a friend with him from Dubai, and the starter assigned another twosome to join them, a young couple that only recently started playing. Her name was Pamela Anderson, no relation to the Baywatch babe.
Lets just say it was an interesting round, Stenson said.
Odds of that happening will go up the more the USGA takes its premier championship to places everyone can play.
Five of the next eight U.S. Opens, starting this week with Torrey Pines, will be held at courses that require only money, not membership, whether the are pricey resorts like Pebble Beach or government-owned tracks like Bethpage Black on Long Island.
USGA executive director David Fay believes the trend reflects how the majority of golf is played in this country.
Since I joined the USGA in 1975, Ive seen the profile of American golf change, Fay said. Most of American golf is played on fee courses, and most of our individual (USGA) members play on fee courses. I was influenced by my own background. The only golf I played on private courses was Monday morning, which was caddie day. Otherwise, it was public golf.
Bethpage was the first taxpayer-owned course owned to host the U.S. Open in 2002, when Tiger Woods won by three shots over Phil Mickelson, two stars who grew up playing public golf. Torrey Pines is the first city-owned golf course to host the U.S. Open. The USGA recently announced that Chambers Bay, a public course outside Seattle, will host the 2015 U.S. Open, and others are lining up for a chance to host the national championship.
Cog Hill, the public course outside Chicago that for years hosted the Western Open, is being refurbished with hopes of landing a U.S. Open. USGA officials also are looking at Erin Hills in Wisconsin, a public course that was handed the U.S. Amateur in 2011 as a trial run.
Its getting crowded, Fay said, referring to public courses wanting to host a U.S. Open.
The allure of public-access courses is that everyday players can walk the same turf and face the same shots of Woods and Mickelson, even if the greens arent as quick and the rough isnt as thick.
Pieces of history are deposited on public courses when the U.S. Open comes to town.
Remember the spot behind the 17th green at Pebble Beach where Tom Watson chipped in for birdie in 1982? Or the eighth hole at Pinehurst No. 2, where John Daly got so frustrated with the crowned greens he swatted a moving ball and took a 13?
Those two courses dont seem like public golf because they are high-priced resorts that can cost more than $400 to play, although anyone can play them.
The charm of the next two U.S. Open is that these are true municipal courses, reflected as much in the cost. San Diego residents pay $42 to play the South Course during the week (out-of-towners are charged $145). When the U.S. Open was played at Bethpage Black, it cost $31 during the week and $39 on the weekend.
Those would seem to be exceptions, no matter if it hosts a U.S. Open. Golf seems to be getting more expensive, which is why PGA of American chief executive Joe Steranka found plenty of skeptics when he said two months ago the median cost of nine holes is $12.
I gave incorrect data, Steranka said. It was $14.
The research two years ago came from PGA Performance Trak, designed to capture rounds played and revenue per round of golf. It measured all public facilities'daily fee, semiprivate, municipal, military and university.
Steranka said the perception of overpriced golf stems from places like Whistling Straits and Kiawah Island, not courses like Hyde Park in Jacksonville, Fla., a Donald Ross course that costs $20 to walk 18 holes, or Hesston Golf Park in Kansas, where a family of four with two carts and play nine holes for a total of $56.
And while it can send a strong message to hold a major on a public course, it also can be misleading.
Torrey Pines typically is chewed up in the summer because of dry conditions. Thousands of players are on a course with grass that can be patchy. For the U.S. Open, it was closed to the public on May 21, about three weeks before the tournament.
One of the perceptions about golf that were trying to correct is that we have the best players playing the best course on the best conditions in the world on television, which is a great marketing benefit to our game, Steranka said. But it also sets high expectations.
Even so, taking one of the premier events in such an elite sport to a public venue can only be attractive.
If you or I or even a beginner can hit one shot a round like Tiger Woods or Lorena Ochoa, the more connection you have in terms of the venues they play, Steranka said. Even if that only happens once or twice in a round.