Although the perception of golf as an elitist game is slowly dissipating, that long-held view by the general public is partially the fault of the USGA.
The first 71 U.S. Opens, dating from 1895 to 1971, were held at private clubs. (The Open was suspended for two years during World War One, and four years during World War Two.) That all changed in 1972, when Pebble Beach hosted the U.S. Open for the first time. (Though it’s prohibitively expensive today, with green fees north of $500, back then it cost twenty bucks to play.) Pebble played host again a decade later in 1982 (green fees—$60) and then again in 1992 (green fees—$200). Slowly over the last couple of decades, more public courses have made their way into the rotation. Nine of the last twenty U.S. Opens will have been held at public-access facilities, including the 2017 iteration at Erin Hills in Wisconsin.
Private standard-bearers like venerable Oakmont (Pittsburgh), Shinnecock Hills (Long Island), The Country Club (Boston), Merion (Philadelphia), Oakland Hills (Michigan) and Winged Foot (New York) will likely always be part of the rotation for this important championship. But here’s a brief look at the esteemed roll call of public courses, half-a-dozen strong, that have joined the fray in relatively recent times:
Pebble Beach is the bellwether of this select group. Not only has it held the Open five times, it will serve as host once again in 2019. Furthermore, it has crowned the most distinguished roster of champions, including Jack Nicklaus in ’72, Tom Watson (who nipped Nicklaus) in ’82, Tom Kite in ’92, Tiger Woods and his epic, record-setting fifteen shot victory in 2000, and Irishman Graeme McDowell in 2010. However, besides the frequency of play and quality of winners, Pebble is the most desirable and scenic public course in existence. It’s a heady combination of an ocean-side location on California’s Monterey Peninsula, dramatic cliffs, crashing surf, magnificent course-side mansions, and the sheer anticipation of the many thousands who visit Pebble annually, in many cases fulfilling a life-long goal in doing so. It’s the ultimate ‘bucket list’ golf course, and its status as a five-time U.S. Open venue only adds to the allure.
Pinehurst #2, while lacking the seaside drama and illustrious roster of winners, is undoubtedly the silver medalist in this category. A three time Open venue, the late Payne Stewart won at the Open’s first iteration, in 1999. (Holding off Phil Mickelson by a slender shot, consigning Lefty to the very first of his record half-a-dozen second place finishes in our national championship.) New Zealander Michael Campbell won in 2005, and Germany’s Martin Kaymer in 2014. (It’s also worth mentioning that the following week the U.S. Women’s Open was won by American Michelle Wanoie at the same course.) Pinehurst #2 will host again in 2024. Known as the Cradle of American Golf, this venerable and traditional North Carolina resort offers nine championship courses in all, but the first among equals is old #2, the Donald Ross masterpiece from 1907. Ross tinkered with the design until his death in 1948. In 2010 Bill Coore and partner, two-time Masters champion Ben Crenshaw, began to restore the natural and strategic characteristics that had been lost through careless mowing patterns and indifferent agronomic practices through the decades. The project included the removal of about thirty five acres of turf and the reintroduction of hardpan, natural bunker edges and native wire grasses.
Bethpage Black takes the bronze for several reasons. The first is that it’s an awesome, larger-than-life test of golf, an A.W. Tillinghast designed gauntlet with capacious bunkers, tilted greens, waving fescue, and a well deserved reputation as one of the nation’s sternest tests of golf. The famed warning sign on the first tee states that it is an extremely difficult course recommended only for highly skilled golfers. The second reason is that it’s truly an ‘everyman’s’ course, part of the massive Bethpage golf complex on Long Island, with its companion blue, green, red and yellow courses, all available at reasonable rates to the public. Thirdly, it has hosted a pair of U.S. Opens. The inaugural version was captured by Tiger Woods in 2002.
Torrey Pines, Chambers Bay and Erin Hills round out the six pack. The former two have been one-time hosts, (although Torrey gets another shot in 2021) and Erin Hills debuts in 2017. If the Bethpage complex is the preeminent municipal facility in the nation, Torrey Pines, with its famed thirty six holes of golf, set amongst cliffs, ravines and hard by the Pacific, is a close second. This San Diego landmark was the site of one of the most memorable U.S. Opens in history. In 2008, Tiger Woods on a ruined leg managed to tie journeyman Rocco Mediate with a clutch twenty-foot putt on the final hole and defeat him in a playoff the following day. It was the (presumably) last Major championship of Tiger’s magnificent, albeit truncated career. Chambers Bay, south of Tacoma, Washington, played host to the Open in 2015. It’s a wondrous links-style setting full of funky bounces and odd angles, with dazzling views of the Puget Sound. Unfortunately the championship, won by Jordan Speith after Dustin Johnson three-putted the final hole from twenty feet, was marred by bumpy and irregular putting surfaces. Finally, Erin Hills takes the spotlight in 2017. Located about thirty minutes north of Milwaukee and two hours from Chicago, this massive (six hundred acres, nearly 8,000 yards from the championship tees) windswept, virtually treeless location has very few level lies. It is a combination of humps, hollows, angles and slopes. Barring downpours, the fescue fairways insure it will play firm and fast. It is certain to test the world’s best golfers at the U.S. Open and perplex and enthrall the daily-fee players who will be drawn there in their wake.