Time for USGA to take a Western look

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It is our National Open, so naturally it’s an open target. Lanny Wadkins once mockingly referred to it as the “Hudson River Open.”

And when the U.S. Golf Association recently named yet another New York course, Winged Foot, as host of the 2006 U.S. Open, and then followed it up by designating another Eastern blueblood, Pittsburgh’s Oakmont, as the 2007 site, it seemed to verify every howling prejudice that the USGA is simply a Northeast-corridor operation. Three of the next six Opens will be a breeze, let’s say, for New York commuters.

As for the West, nothing is planned. After this heavily Eastern slate was announced, the USGA was hit with e-mails from Left Coast souls who wondered if the Championship Committee might fund a Lewis & Clark-type expedition to see just what might possibly exist out in the trackless West. Since 1970, the U.S. Open has gone to Western states (if you include Denver’s Cherry Hills) all of seven times.

The simplest answer, and you do hear it from USGA people, is that the best courses are found in the East. And, yes, most of the hotsy-totsy, “championship” courses being built these days in the West and across the Sun Belt are geared more toward residential scenes than stand-alone distinction. Sensational rarities like Bandon Dunes in Oregon and Sand Hills in Nebraska stand, well, a little too alone.

Once upon a time the USGA’s criteria for an Open-worthy course were relatively simple. A fair amount of mystique was required, of course, along with enough water to grow the rough to Amazonian heights. Then the greens had to be made harder than Chinese arithmetic. But since the mid-1980s, the USGA has imposed an additional demand – the space for a small city of hospitality tents. Then since the mid-1990s technology explosion, they have chosen courses they could “air out” to extreme lengths. (After staggering off Shinnecock in ’95, Fuzzy Zoeller observed that he’d never played a course with 12 par 5s before.) Thus, no more Cherry Hills or Merion.

The USGA actually seems less concerned with geographical balance than it is with mixing adventuresome choices among their dowager-empress stalwarts. The organization does deserve a tip of the visor for its golf course outreach program, starting with the Shinnecock revival in ’86, the restoration of Pinehurst No. 2 and then the historic East Lake in Atlanta for this year’s U.S. Amateur. Those of us who have sampled the regenerated, USGA-doctored Bethpage Black on Long Island are hot with anticipation for next year’s Open. This is one Joe Sixpack muni that truly can make you sweat blood.

After the Bethpage Black experiment, however, we return in ’03 to the silk-stocking set with Olympia Fields (host of 1928 U.S. Open and ’97 Senior Open), followed by the four, heavily chronicled name brands of Shinnecock, Pinehurst No. 2, Winged Foot and Oakmont.

There are ermines and pearls in that lineup. But actually it is tremendously important for the Open to return to the old faithfuls so that each generation can play out of the divots of their forefathers. Justin Leonard did not play in the ’94 Open at Oakmont, for instance, but he’s dying to tee it up there. He puts the course on his personal top 3 of the toughest courses he has played (topped only by Carnoustie and Pinehurst No. 2). “I hear they actually slow the greens down for tournaments,” he said. “I can only imagine.”

All players, media heavies, flesh-pressers and striped-tie officials are equally susceptible. Once you shoulder up to the epic grandeur at the legendary courses, the USGA essentially has you in the palm of its hand.

But the USGA has to know this: In the decade’s second half, we’re really going to have to look West again. Pebble Beach is a given, naturally. But what else, now that Riviera likely is out of the picture and the snooty Los Angeles Country Club still has out its You’re Very Unwelcome mat? Are only two Western courses – Pebble and Olympic – suitable for an Open?

Up in Oregon, Pumpkin Ridge served well for an Amateur and a Women’s Open, but it will be busy playing host to the Senior Open in ’06. The most intriguing possibility is Torrey Pines, the two-course, oceanside muni near San Diego. Architect Rees Jones, the perennial U.S. Open course doctor, has been hired to spread his magic around that battered turf. Local hopes are high – but will a venue that hosts the Buick Invitational ever possess the critical mystique required of an Open?

Let us hope they reach for something audacious and far afield. Although Hawaii is, I suppose, out of the question.

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