2006: Prestige, with a price - ryder cup hangover
By John Steinbreder
The American golfers rejoicing
on the 17th green at The Country Club when teammate Justin Leonard sank his 1999 Ryder Cup-clinching putt weren’t the only ones celebrating as that historic match came to a close.
Members of the venerable retreat south of Boston also were ecstatic, and understandably so. After all, they had managed to successfully put on one of the biggest events in sports and were rewarded with the bonus of it featuring an otherworldly comeback, as the U.S. surmounted a four-point deficit at the start of the final day to wrest back the Cup.
Plus, The Country Club had made a pile of money in the process, netting an estimated $5 million – much of which was reinvested in the club’s infrastructure, including new maintenance facilities – for hosting an event that added to the club’s already rich golf heritage.
But the merriment began to dissipate even before the last corporate tent was taken down. For one thing, boorish behavior by Ryder Cup spectators – many of whom had been overserved – had drawn criticism from players and media, leaving a stain on the club’s otherwise pristine legacy.
And a place that had been so pleased to have hosted one of golf’s finest competitions became increasingly reluctant to do so again even as the club had a contractual obligation to hold the 2005 PGA Championship and enjoyed the inside track to having the 2013 U.S. Open.
The organizations that run both those tournaments not only sensed the misgivings rising from members of The Country Club, which was one of the six founders of the U.S. Golf Association, but also began to have second thoughts themselves. Both the PGA and USGA had grown their primary championships to enormous sizes, and holding them at smaller sites such as Brookline, which is wedged in a tight residential area only seven miles from downtown Boston, became logistical nightmares. Plus they were not likely to generate enough revenue to feed their increasingly voracious appetites for profits, and going to larger venues meant more room for such important money-earners as corporate tents.
So, mutual decisions were reached.
The PGA decided to move its Championship to Baltusrol in 2005, with the blessings of The Country Club. And, after discussions with the folks in Brookline, the USGA opted to bring its 2013 Open to Merion Golf Club. And while golf insiders say The Country Club likely will be able to mark Ouimet’s triumph with a
U.S. Amateur on its grounds in 2013, those moves demonstrate that the days of the course hosting a major professional championship are probably well in the past.
“Overall, we were very happy we did the Ryder Cup,” says John Cornish, a club member and the general chairman for the matches. “It really was a great event. But there is no doubt that such a big endeavor took its toll. And the more we thought about the difficulties and demands of doing a major championship, the more we realized it would be hard for us to do something like the Ryder Cup again.”
One of the most obvious problems for Cornish and the 900-plus members was the golf course, a composite track drawn from the club’s 27 holes, and the belief that it would have to be lengthened considerably to pose enough of a challenge for today’s long hitters. Then, there was the issue of the practice range.
“The one we had for the 1988 Open was fine for the 140 or so golfers who competed in that event, but players practice more today, and the same setup was barely adequate for the 24 players in the Ryder Cup in 1999,” Cornish says. “There was no turf on the range when all was said and done.”
Perhaps even more daunting was the prospect of The Country Club, which sits on 237 acres, having to once again strike different deals and bargains with its neighbors.
“Putting on a Ryder Cup required lots of cooperation from the property owners around us,” Cornish said. “We needed to use the municipal golf course that abuts our club for parking and corporate hospitality, so we had to come to some agreement with them, and pay the town of Brookline a substantial amount of money in the process.
“We also had to use the grounds of another neighbor, Pine Manor College, to bring a lot of heavy trucks and equipment onto the club property. And there was no guarantee we could secure that
kind of access again.”
Additionally, there was the stress that hosting the event put on the membership. For starters, it had to endure restrictions on perks as basic as guest play the year the Ryder Cup was held and the unsightly inconveniences of their bucolic retreat turned first into a construction site and later a bustling city with more than 50 corporate hospitality tents, countless television production trucks, crowded merchandise outlets and enough food-and-beverage stands to feed 40,000 people who filled the grounds each day. On top of that, the membership found itself spending long hours as volunteers for tasks as ignominious as garbage collection.
“As much fun as it was having those matches, I do not think they made a lot of people say in the end, ‘We can’t wait to do that again,’ ” says one long-time Country Club member, who asked that his name
not be used. “It was a lot of work,
and there was a lot of disruption.”
All of those factors came into play for the club as it faced the prospect of holding a PGA Championship in 2005.
“We had discussions with the PGA leading up to that date, and in time we both realized it would be difficult for us to be the host site for something that big, and so close to our having the Ryder Cup,” Cornish says. “We were perfectly prepared to do so, and contractually obligated as well. But there was a mutual feeling that it would be tough to do, and then Baltusrol came into the mix.
I do not know how that happened, but the PGA informed us about its interest in going there, and said it would be an easier site for them, largely because the club has more land than we do.”
PGA of America chief executive officer Joe Steranka does not disagree.
“The Ryder Cup ended up being much bigger than anyone at the club anticipated, and in several ways, the PGA Championship is actually bigger than that event,” Steranka says. “We got the impression that maybe The Country Club was not anxious to go through something like that again, and if something is not working just right for one of our partners, then we are willing to talk about it, and make changes if need be.
“We’ve run into this sort of thing with clubs that hosted a major championship in the 1980s or even early ’90s and then consider doing so today. The size and scope of the tournaments have grown exponentially for a number of reasons, and they are just much bigger undertakings.”
Once The Country Club settled the issue of hosting the 2005 PGA, it turned its attention to the 2013 U.S. Open – a natural for the club since it would be the centennial of Francis Ouimet’s historic victory there in 1913. Some Brookline members suggested they try to induce the USGA to conduct a tournament somewhat smaller in scale in regards to corporate involvement, making the 2013 competition more of a spectator event that did not require so much in the way of frills and infrastructure.
“But it is difficult to turn the clock back, and ultimately, the USGA decided to go to Merion,” Cornish says.
That move surprised many who surmised that Merion and The Country Club had similar issues when it came to their locations in residential areas and having enough property – and infrastructure capabilities – to stage a major championship. Merion hasn’t hosted a major since the 1981 U.S. Open. But the club was able to strike deals with residents on Golf House Road, which runs alongside the first, 14th and 15th holes of Merion’s East Course, for spectator access, and with neighboring Haverford College, where corporate hospitality will be located.
“A similar thing happened at Hoylake, when Royal Liverpool acquired a neighboring course,” Steranka says. “It just made it easier for them to be that host site given the requirements to a modern major.”
Much as it in many ways rued the USGA’s decision to go elsewhere with its Open in 2013, The Country Club still has hopes of hosting a significant championship in 2013 – the U.S. Amateur. The Amateur would be much less onerous to host and perhaps even more fitting given that Ouimet won his national championship at Brookline as an amateur.
That doesn’t mean, however, that the club has given up the possibility of being considered as the site of another major championship, and Cornish says there are indeed people among the membership who would very much like that to happen again.
But that’s a minority view. And given what occurred in 1999, and what a host club must do – and go through – in modern times, it is not likely to happen anytime soon.