2002 U.S. Open first national championship held at public golf course

Once upon a time, private clubs dominated the American golf landscape. Golf was viewed suspiciously as a game for rich, white males. Deservedly so.

The first 71 U.S. Opens were contested at private clubs. Finally, in 1972, the national championship went to a course, Pebble Beach Golf Links, that could be played by the public. However, with a green fee of $350, Pebble Beach is an expensive resort course rather than a facility that caters to the general golf population. The U.S. Open returned three more times to Pebble Beach and was staged at another spendy resort course, Pinehurst No. 2, in 1999. Still, in 101 Opens held so far, no ‘true’ public facility has played host to the national championship.

But times have changed, and golf has changed as well. Never has there been such a symbol of “golf for the people” as the 2002 U.S. Open coming to Bethpage State Park in Farmingdale, N.Y., a five-course facility owned by the state of New York. Regular green fees at Bethpage Black, the Open layout, are $31 and $39 on weekends. Any senior 62 or older can play for $19 during the week.

Daily-fee, public-course golfers are the heart and soul of American golf. For every golfer who can afford the initiation, dues and assessments of a private golf club, there are hundreds of golfers who cannot. For every golfer who can afford the inflated green fees at so-called “upscale” resort or semiprivate courses, there are many golfers reluctant to spend $100 or more for a round.

Public golf has come a long way since Bobby Jones won his Grand Slam in 1930. At that time, golf in America was synonymous with private courses. When the National Golf Foundation conducted its first tabulation of U.S. courses in 1931, the results were predictable: 1,243 public facilities and 4,448 private facilities, a predominance of almost 4 to 1 for private courses.

Fast-forward 70 years to 2001. Tiger Woods, who is fiercely proud of his African-American father and Thai mother and who grew up without the privileges of Bobby Jones, is golf’s newest hero. American golf is dramatically different. The game is earmarked by a diversity of gender, race and socio-economic class. The NGF numbers from 2001: 11,391 public facilities and 4,315 private facilities, a ratio that favors public golf by nearly 3 to 1.

From 1931 to 2001, the number of private courses actually decreased while the number of public courses has grown almost tenfold.

David Fay, executive director of the U.S. Golf Association, grew up as a public course golfer in Tuxedo, N.Y., and has possessed a lifelong fondness for Bethpage.

“As a public course player, you knew about Bethpage,” Fay said, “and you felt that Bethpage could go belly-to-belly with Winged Foot or Baltusrol or Quaker Ridge (all famous private courses).”

Fay initiated the USGA’s interest in bringing the Open to Bethpage, even though technically he doesn’t have a vote. (U.S. Open courses are picked by the USGA championship committee and formally approved by the USGA executive committee.)

“If it doesn’t work out,” Fay joked, “I’m prepared to hear it called Fay’s Folly.”

Fay’s Fandango may be more appropriate. Interest in this U.S. Open is unparalleled, and Bethpage will play host to more people than any course in the event’s 102-year history. The daily total, including 42,500 paid spectators plus workers and volunteers, may eclipse 50,000.

“My three revenue generators,” said Bernadette Castro, commissioner of parks and recreation for New York, “are parking, camping and golf. This is going to send golf through the roof. Everybody is excited. We run 27 golf courses across the state, and all this momentum (not to mention the additional revenue) should help us make improvements to other courses.”

The USGA put about $3.5 million into Bethpage. Most of the money was used for renovation, a project masterminded by architect Rees Jones, who donated his services. The USGA also agreed to reimburse the state for lost revenue (green fees) during renovation and during the Open.

Castro admitted that bids from year-round concessionaires were higher because of the U.S. Open, and she said the state also receives revenue from the sale of USGA merchandise.

“We have to watch every nickel. We can’t afford to give away any taxpayer money,” Castro said.

New York gladly made one concession to the USGA: It would not raise green fees at Bethpage Black for three years, except to keep pace with inflation.

“Taking the championship to a public facility with reasonable green fees makes a lot of sense,” Fay said. “Is it a symbolic move? Yes. There can be some good things that come out of symbolism. Clearly the majority of people in the U.S. are public facility players, and the majority of the golf facilities in the U.S. are public facilities.

“One could almost say that it’s the quintessential public facility. It probably is safe to say that the atmosphere is gonna rock.”

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