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When Will Texas get the U.S. Open?

on 03 March 2012.

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When Will Texas get the U.S. Open?

That’s just one of the many topics discussed at the USGA’s annual meeting in Houston

By Mark Button

Texas Links Staff

     When the United States Golf Association came to Houston in February for its annual meetings, the organization’s leadership had to know the question was going to be asked. Especially with the naming of new president Glen D. Nager, a native Houstonian, the state of Texas was top of mind to those in attendance.

     It’s been 42 years since the USGA’s premier event was held at Champions Golf Club. Orville Moody’s one-shot victory over Deane Beman, Al Geiberger and Bob Rosburg at the 1969 U.S. Open was the last time the national championship was contested on Texas soil.

     So the question was asked: “When will the U.S. Open come back to Texas?”

     At the podium was USGA Executive Director Mike Davis, Vice President and Championships Committee Chairman Tom O’Toole, Nager and outgoing president Jim Hyler.

     O’Toole took the first shot at an answer.

   “Frankly, there are a couple issues,” O’Toole said. “One, I don’t think we’ve had any serious invitations from Texas since that time.”

     O’Toole also mentioned the agronomic challenges associated with conducting the championship in warm June climates. Of course, Southern Hills Country Club in Tulsa, about 200 miles north of the Texas border, has held the U.S. Open twice since 1969. At the 1977 and 2001 U.S. Opens, temperatures shot into the 90s at Southern Hills, and the course held up magnificently.

     “The introduction of different agronomic capabilities and grasses that can handle those types of heat and the oppressive weather that you can get in this part of the U.S. bring that back into the discussion,” O’Toole said.

     With all the U.S. Open venues announced through 2019, O’Toole said the USGA is taking “a bit of breathing time” to consider its options for future sites.

     “We don’t have any prohibitions about bringing the U.S. Open anywhere,” O’Toole said. “If Texas is a possibility, I could tell you that the USGA will look at every possible invitation. (It would have to be) one that makes sense from all perspectives, not just testing the players. It’s also about the operational capabilities of that club. What are the economics of the market to bring what is really golf’s biggest production there and present it from a hospitality and corporate participation standpoint?”

     Davis echoed O’Toole’s perspectives and stressed the importance of moving the U.S. Open to viable locations across the country. Technological advances with grasses and agronomy, Davis said, has brought the southeast and southwest regions into play. Once the USGA identifies a “special course” that is worthy of challenging the world’s best players, the next consideration is operations.

     “It’s hard to put on the U.S. Open,” Davis said. “We need a lot of room both within the course

and around it as well. So there are more obstacles to moving it around. There are

16,000 courses in this country, but just a very small handfuls that are good enough to host an

Open.”

     New USGA president Nager—the Texan—said he’s been on a mission to bring the national championship back to his home state since 2006.

     “I would love to see it happen,” Nager said. “I’ve been raising that as an issue and aspiration since I’ve been on the executive committee. Hopefully my voice counts for a little bit more now.”

     The best chance for it to happen might be the construction of a new facility from scratch, Nager said. That’s what happened in Washington State with Chambers Bay and in Wisconsin with Erin Hills. Both courses were built with hosting the U.S. Open in mind, and both succeeded in their missions. The 2015 U.S. Open will be played at Chambers Bay outside of Tacoma, Wash., and Erin Hills in rural Wisconsin gets the championship in 2017.

     “I am quite confident that if there was a group of people here in Texas that were really interested in getting a U.S. Open here, then just as the groups of people who built Chambers Bay and who built Erin Hills, the U.S. Open could end up here in Texas,” Nager said. “I don’t know that the existing clubs like Champions, which I’m sure are wonderful courses, can fit 60,000 people.

     “You don’t want to do a U.S. Open and have people unable to see it or have a bad time. It has to be a great golf course to challenge the best golfers in the world, but there also has to be infrastructure and space.”

     Belly Putter Debate: Davis told the media that the USGA intends to “take a fresh look” at the use of belly putters, particularly the anchoring of putters into the body. In the past year, long putters and belly putters have become increasingly popular. Keegan Bradley won the PGA Championship with a belly putter, and fellow Player of the Year candidate Webb Simpson won twice last season with a putter anchored into his belly.

     Davis said any rules changes at this point are premature. But he indicated that there are serious discussions ongoing domestically and abroad.

     “The R&A was in Far Hills (N.J.) last week,” he said. “We have annual meetings where we get together to talk about all kinds of issues of how we govern the game jointly worldwide…we did talk about various equipment issues, including anchoring.”

     O’Toole added that the USGA doesn’t want to be a “reactive organization” when it comes to any issue, especially the rules. That indicated a ruling could be handed down sooner than later.

     “We would be irresponsible if we weren’t proactive in these discussions,” he said.

     Annika Honored: Annika Sorenstam, widely considered one of the most dominant female golfers of all time, was in Houston at the USGA Annual Meetings to receive its Bobby Jones Award.

     The USGA’s highest honor has been given up annually since 1955 to recipients who have demonstrated distinguished sportsmanship in golf. The three-time U.S. Women’s Open champion accepted the award in front of a dinner crowd of about 300 at the Hilton Post Oak Hotel. Sorenstam, 41, made some jokes, shared heartfelt stories about her parents and held back tears when thanking her husband, Mike McGee, for his support.

     “When you play professional golf, it’s easy to get caught up in only results,” said Sorenstam, who retired in 2008 with 72 LPGA titles including 10 major championships. “Standing before you tonight and receiving this award is honestly one of the highlights of my career…It goes beyond all the scores on the golf course.

     “At the end of the day, no matter how many putts you make, the true legacy that you leave behind is the number of people you touch in your life. That is what I care about right now, and I think that is what this award and the USGA are all about.”

     As an ambassador of the USGA, Sorenstam helps make the game more accessible to all golfers. She educates golfers through a series of “Play by the Rules” video vignettes and was the honorary chairman for the 2011 U.S. Women’s Open at The Broadmoor in Colorado Springs, Colo.

     Sorenstam also is a global ambassador for the International Golf Federation and runs the ANNIKA Foundation, which uses golf to teach children the importance of fitness and nutrition as the pillars of a healthy lifestyle. The ANNIKA Foundation has partnered with the American Junior Golf Association, The First Tee and the Florida Hospital.

     Past winners of the Bobby Jones Award include Jackie Burke, Jr., George H.W. Bush, Ben Crenshaw, Tom Watson and Lorena Ochoa.

     New Exemptions: The USGA expanded its exemptions into the U.S. Open and U.S. Women’s Open. Beginning this year, the winners of the British Amateur and Ladies British Open Amateur championships, as well as the winners of the Mark H. McCormack Medal as the top-ranked male and female on the World Amateur Golf Ranking will be fully exempt from qualifying for the U.S. Open and U.S. Women’s Open championships, respectively.

     The winners must remain amateurs to retain the exemption.

     Bye-Bye, Bifurcation: John Solheim, the chairman and CEO of Ping Golf, recently made a proposal for all manufacturers to produce three different types of golf balls. A bifurcation of the rules, essentially meaning the best players in the world would play under one set of equipment rules and everyone else under another, has not been met with support by the USGA.

     “The R&A and USGA are steadfast in our commitment to one set of rules for all golfers, whether they’re beginners, male, female, whatever,” Davis said. “While we recognize that there may be some argument to bifurcate, when we look at this on balance, we feel that there is a strong, and I can’t underscore that enough, a strong reason to continue with one set of rules for all golfers.”

     Solheim’s idea is to keep one ball at today’s standard, make another one that is as much as 30 yards longer and a third that is 30 yards shorter. Tours, tournaments and individuals could choose a ball based on where they’re playing or the skill level involved. Solheim equates the system to varying tee boxes.

     “We believe there should be one formal way to play the game of golf,” Davis said. “And that there are a set of rules and those include equipment, amateur status and so on, for everybody…If we were to make up two sets of rules, three sets of rules, 12 sets of rules, we can think of scenarios where golf would really become chaotic.”

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