Fifteen years after the fact the simple query, or perhaps it’s best to describe Fay’s vision as a quest, it’s easy to recognize that innocent exchange as the clarion moment in a public golf paradigm shift, an evolution that manifest itself this year in a Grand Slam first. For the first time since 1916, the year the PGA Championship assumed its spot in the major rota, three of the four majors will be played at “public access” venues.
To be clear, Pebble Beach Golf Links, site of next week’s U.S. Open, and its famously exorbitant rack rate of $495 is not exactly what Fay had in mind when he coaxed Davis out of his office in 1995 for an impromptu round at a rough-around-the-edges Bethpage Black Course. Ditto for Whistling Straits in Wisconsin, another high-end resort track that will host this year’s PGA. Yet for a game dominated, and defined, by private clubs and exclusionary practices for decades, the 2010 public trifecta is a reason to celebrate the walk-up tee time, if not the evolution of the game.
To put this year’s Grand Slam triple-play in perspective the first time at least two majors were played on public access venues in the same year was in 1977 when Turnberry hosted its first British Open and the PGA was held at Pebble Beach. It’s happened four times since then, most recently last year when the U.S. Open was played at Fay’s Bethpage, for the second time, and the Open Championship returned to Turnberry.
'No, I didn’t envision anything like this in 1978 (when he joined the USGA),” Fay admits.
In Fay’s defense, no one was thinking about public access venues or small-market majors at the time. As a rule, Grand Slam events were played at private clubs – because, the thinking went, they were better equipped to maintain a golf course to major championship standards – and in large metropolitan markets.
“I remember P.J. Boatwright (the former USGA executive director), who grew up in North Carolina and played a ton of golf at Pinehurst, telling me point blank we will never take an Open to Pinehurst,” Davis remembered. “But he didn’t know about all these new grasses that can withstand the heat.”
The ’72 Pebble Beach Open begat Pinehurst in 1999 and Bethpage in 2002, Torrey Pines in 2008 and Chambers Bay, a county-owned facility in Tacoma, Wash., in 2015 – all three public access venues in form and function. But in many ways Fay’s vision and the move to walk-up facilities was simply part of the evolution of golf in America away from country clubs toward what those in the industry like to call country clubs for a day.
According to Davis, the ratio of private courses to public access courses in the United States has shifted from about 60 percent (public) to 40 percent (private), to 80 percent to 20 percent. The shift to more masses-friendly courses for the national championship was inevitable.
“It was important to acknowledge the place of fee facilities and places where people could go play,” Fay said. “Nearly half the field can qualify for an Open, that’s not on paper but it is almost written in stone.”
The PGA of America has not embraced the blue-collar likes of a Bethpage or Torrey Pines, but history shows the guardians of “Glory’s Last Shot' was actually ahead of the curve when it came to public access venues.
The PGA was first played at a public access venue in 1924 at French Lick (Ind.) Springs Resort and has since been played on 10 courses that are open for public play, although the only current public access venue in the PGA rota is Whistling Straits.
The British Open’s all-access philosophy dates back to 1873, the first year the championship was played on the Old Course at St. Andrews, and the rotation now includes regular stops at Carnoustie and Turnberry.
Although 2010 may be the first for the public access trifecta, there is little chance it is the last. The modern major in many ways is almost as much about space as it is about the merits of a golf course or the size of the local market.
“We are looking at new venues that have the space,” said Kerry Haigh, the PGA’s top set-up man.
Corporate tents, media complexes, parking and merchandise areas are now key parts of the criteria for hosting championships, all but relegating the classic confines of a Merion – which will host what is being called a boutique U.S. Open in 2013 – to an occasional cameo if at all.
The shift away from private enclaves to public venues is as much about square footage as it was Fay’s vision to create a “People’s Open,” a reality that all but assures 2010 won’t be the last “Public Access Slam” for the season’s final three majors.
“I don’t think it’s going to happen less,” Davis said. “Some of the places we go to now are so tight (on room) we can barely make it work. The need for space at these championships are going to continue to grow. If you fast-forward 20 years, I can’t imagine an Open being smaller.”
Nor can one imagine the year’s final three majors ever returning to the exclusive domain of private clubs. Fay and fate made sure of that.