124th U.S. Open

Pinehurst No. 2

The Loop

Amex Experience is Perfect for a Rainy Day

June 18, 2009

FARMINGDALE, N.Y. -- What will probably be the wettest U.S. Open in years has a hot spot.

It's the American Express Championship Experience, a 6,000-square-foot tent located just inside the main spectator entrance to Bethpage Black, across from the merchandise tent.

The place is equal parts arcade, golf school, sports bar, museum, and rest stop. It has hitting bays where PGA of America pros give free lessons, hand-held televisions with DVR capabilities that can be checked out a day at a time, putting greens, big screens, museum quality displays, and food and drink.

Especially in an awful weather week, it will be a refuge from the often grim realities of watching a golf tournament live. All the walking, frequently poor viewing situations, long lines for concessions and no frills bathroom facilities make a golf ticket to my mind one of the least user-friendly spectator experiences in sports. The Amex Experience tents, which have been set up at the PGA Championship and the Ryder Cup, are filling a long neglected need.

No wonder then that during Thursday's rain-soaked opening round, the place was packed. All the interactive activities had long lines. The indoor bleachers that served as the viewing area for three big screens was overflowing, with many people choosing to sit on the floor. Some people were just trying to stay dry or simply recharge before another foray onto the course.

Membership has its privileges (full disclosure: I've been an Amex member since 1984). The food and drink are complimentary only for cardholders, who also can borrow "course cast" televisions for the day if they leave their Amex card as collateral. Anyone can hit balls in the hitting bays, but only cardholders get the free 10-minute lesson complete with a personalized swing video analysis.

The putting is not only free, but enlightening. Three separate "alleys" offer 15-foot putts, but each has a different artificial surface designed to replicate the green speeds at U.S. Opens in three different eras--1950s, 1980s, and 2000s. A digital counter above each alley records what percentage of putts the public made, and by Thursday it was clear that the slowest green (probably about 9 on the Stimpmeter), was the easiest to negotiate, while the fastest was the most difficult.

Radios about the size of a key holder, with live coverage of the Open on Sirius-XM, are free. And the big-screen viewing is for everyone. The main screen will mainly show the live cable and network broadcasts of the Open, while the other two will display maps with the current location of specific players on the course, particularly helpful at Bethpage Black, where the ninth hole does not back to the clubhouse. There are also displays of U.S. Open history and a tutorial on the specialized agronomic techniques used to prepare a U.S. Open course.

Cardholders can also take advantage of golf "concierge" services that will line up tee times and lessons at courses all over the nation. And lessons booked through Amex allow a cardholder to bring a friend who will not be charged, an offer without a limit.

Expect the place to stay hot for the soggy duration.

-- Jaime Diaz