Hosting a U.S. Open: It takes a village

Local spectators watch Nicolas Colsaerts at No. 11 during the U.S. Open at Merion Golf Club.

Local spectators watch Nicolas Colsaerts at No. 11 during the U.S. Open at Merion Golf Club.

Michele and Dave Rubenstein packed friends, family and clients into four rows of bleachers to watch the U.S. Open at Merion Golf Club.

This wasn’t your typical grandstands for spectating. This set was erected in the front yard of their 1920s Colonial-style home that overlooks the 14th hole along Golf House Road.

“Any time the USGA wants to throw a party in our front yard,” Michele said, “I’m ready to be here.”

In exchange for allowing a tent for Wells Fargo customers to be built on a portion of the Rubensteins’ spacious yard, their guests enjoyed the equivalent of 50-yard-line seats to the Super Bowl.

The Rubensteins’ bleachers and the palatial tents built on the course, at neighboring Haverford College and on the front yards of several homes bordering the course, were symbolic of the out-of-the-box thinking and unusual partnerships required to bring the U.S. Open back to Merion’s East Course for the first time since 1981. The result was an impressive spirit of cooperation among the community, the club and the U.S. Golf Association.

“When we closed up in 1981,” USGA executive director Mike Davis said of Merion, “we really thought this was the last time.”

Davis noted that such an assessment wasn’t a reflection of the golf course, a 1912 Hugh Wilson design that is No. 7 on Golfweek’s Best Classic Courses list. The logistical demands of hosting a major in the modern era are many. “It had everything to do with, how do you fit a modern Open on this 111 acres?” Davis said.

How the USGA managed to shoehorn a 21st-century event into landlocked Merion is quite a story. It was no easy undertaking. It took creativity and guts.

Scott Warren has been a Merion member long enough to have attended the 1971 Open here, when the head professional sold Merion shirts and hats from a card table near the entrance. He credits Merion’s current head professional, Scott Nye, with the vision and perseverance to work with the membership and local community to expand the club’s footprint.

“I thought he had zero chance of succeeding,” Warren said.

During a visit nearly a decade ago in advance of the 2005 U.S. Amateur, Nye showed Davis and other USGA officials the possibilities to support the infrastructure of an Open.

“We turned right on College Avenue, and I said, ‘Look at all these fields,’ ” Nye recalled.

Merion’s West Course provided 21 extra acres to be used as the practice range and for a temporary locker-room facility for the players. But the Open never could have worked without the cooperation of Haverford College.

“We saw this as a wonderful 21st-century marriage of two institutions that really have been on the other side of the road on many issues,” said Michael Kiefer, Haverford’s vice president for institutional advancement.

The school agreed to rent 20 acres, including its athletic fields, to the USGA to help stage the championship that promised a windfall for the region at large. (Based on results of recent U.S. Opens, officials estimated the event could yield an economic impact of as much as $120 million for the five-county Philadelphia area, including direct spending by the USGA, its vendors and out-of-town guests – and the “ripple effect” of such monies being spent again in local communities.)

“Once we got Haverford College on board, we felt like we could make everything else work,” said Mike Butz, the USGA’s senior managing director of open championships and association relations.

The next step involved reaching out to homeowners on Ardmore Avenue – which bisects Merion’s East Course – and Golf House Road, which borders the course’s 14th and 15th holes. The consensus: If that’s what it’s going to take to bring back the Open, count us in.

As a sign of its commitment, the Merion membership purchased more than six acres to the right of the sixth hole. All told, the club presented a plan to the USGA that added more than 50 acres to make up for Merion’s logistical shortcomings, expanding the overall footprint to more than 160 acres. (In comparison, Pinehurst, site of the 2014 Open, will have 400 acres.) Still, sacrifices had to be made. Ticket sales were limited to 25,000 fans per day, or 40 percent less than at Olympic Club in 2012. As a result, the USGA reportedly will make $10 million less in profit this year.

“For us, this is taking what has become a huge championship and saying, ‘You know what? For the good of the game, we can’t not come back to a place like this,’ ” Davis said.

For all the planning, the real test arrived when Merion was pelted with rain. Monday, the course was closed until 3 p.m. Thursday, soggy spectators rushed for cover during a morning storm and turned walkways muddy. Some grass parking lots had to be closed and traffic choked area roads worse than the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Withstanding that, the USGA’s big bet on Merion withstood its test from Mother Nature.

Not everyone was pleased with the USGA’s logistical effort. Suzanne Goodwin, a neighbor of the Rubensteins’ on Golf House Road, had a different impression. Instead of bleachers, officials built a 6-foot-high fence in front of her property, and told her that she couldn’t walk her dog, Marmaduke, off of her property.

“I feel like I’m a prisoner in my own home,” she said.

Lack of access and amenities, at times, became an issue for fans, media and players. The most effective way to watch the Open was from one of the grandstands built to support 17,000 seats. Though the media center was situated on Merion’s practice range, most interviews were conducted miles away in the backyard of a home with a pool and a slide in case any of the contestants were feeling the heat of a tough question. The U.S. Open Player Hospitality Center? It was situated in the kitchen, living room and dining room of the same home.

“Quirky doesn’t begin to cover it,” said Jay Don Blake, competing in his 12th Open.

Those aren’t reasons to abandon Merion. Phil Mickelson, for one, applauded the community’s support for the tournament.

“We’ve played U.S. Opens at great courses where the membership voted not to have us back,” Mickelson said. “Here, they want us back. . . . I hope we have a chance to come back.”

So when might the Open return? There already is talk that the club has identified hosting the 2030 U.S. Amateur to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Bobby Jones’ wrapping up the Grand Slam here. That leaves a 17-year window to schedule another Open. Will the Rubensteins’ front yard be available for another block party?

“Absolutely,” Michele said. “Preferably in my lifetime.”

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