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U.S. Women's Open 2020: Why Champions Golf Club is just the place to host a milestone event

December 08, 2020

What’s in a name, the Bard famously wrote, long before Jackie Burke Jr. was born, and Burke was born nearly a century ago. Still, an interesting question. The answer in this case is more than you might know.

In this case, the subject is Champions Golf Club in Houston, site of this week’s U.S. Women’s Open, rescheduled from its June date due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Start with Golf Club. It suggests that access is limited and that golf is not just the principal activity, but is its only activity. You want tennis courts and a swimming pool, you’re in the wrong place. Go find a country club. Champions is a golf club.

Champions, meanwhile, denotes a certain quality of player. Included on its roster of winners are Arnold Palmer, Tiger Woods, Ben Crenshaw, Hubert Green and a U.S. Ryder Cup team. Hackers need not apply. When two Masters champions, Burke, 98 next month, and the late Jimmy Demaret, founded Champions in 1956, it was designed to be a club for better players (handicap indexes of 14.0 or lower these days).

As to why, Burke’s answer displayed his notoriously acerbic wit and wisdom that has never been tethered to diplomacy. “It doesn’t make a lot of sense filling a yacht club with people who can’t sail a boat,” Burke told Golf Digest’s Guy Yocom.

But it has never been only better players that Champions has courted. It has pursued the best players, represented by the important competitions its Cypress Creek Course has hosted, “18 major events here,” Burke said proudly via phone last week, his count including the Women’s Open.

Champions has had a U.S. Open (Orville Moody the winner in 1969), a Ryder Cup (the U.S. winning in a rout in 1967), a U.S. Amateur (John Harris winning in 1993), several Tour Championships (Tiger winning in 1999, David Duval in ’97) and two U.S. Women’s Mid-Amateur championships (Virginia Derby Grimes winning in 1998, Kelsey Chugg in 2017).

It has had a notable list of championships that had one glaring omission: The U.S. Women’s Open. Credit Burke’s wife, Robin, an accomplished amateur player and a member of the Texas Golf Hall of Fame, with unilaterally striving to fill that void.

“I actually approached Matt Sawicki [USGA senior director, championships] in 2015 and talked to him several times,” Robin, the vice president of Champions, said. “I kept bugging him about it. I might have been the squeakiest wheel.

Robin and Jackie Burke take pride in the prestige that Champions Golf Club has earned over the years.

Darren Carroll/USGA

The postponement was announced in April, at which time USGA CEO Mike Davis saluted the Burkes for their resolute commitment to hosting the Women’s Open, whatever the date. “We are incredibly thankful to Champions Golf Club for its flexibility and support during this uncertain time,” he said.

Davis went on the note that what a “great friend” the club had been to the USGA for some time, stepping up in 2017 to host the U.S. Women’s Mid-Amateur on short notice after the championship had to be moved from its intended host course in Florida due to a hurricane, and now accommodating a significant schedule change for the premier championship in women’s golf. “Not to mention allowing us to use both golf courses,” Davis added. “We’re confident the combined efforts will lead to an incredibly special 75th U.S. Women’s Open.”

The Women’s Open originally was scheduled to be played on the Cypress Creek Course, but to accommodate fewer daylight hours in December, it required employing both Cypress Creek and the club’s Jackrabbit Course over the first two rounds and concluding with two rounds on the renowned Cypress Creek.

Accommodating the USGA and its December date was never an issue, though December weather in Houston potentially might have raised an objection.

“The USGA and Champions both wanted to crown a champion,” Robin said. “Both wanted to get that accomplished. That decision was easy. Moving it to December, it’s difficult. It’s different. Obviously, the course will play a little different. But right now it depends on the weather.”

Chris Ortmeier, Champions G.C.’s director of agronomy, has spent time studying five years of Houston weather data. “We’ve been as low as 30 degrees and as high as 84,” he told Howard Richman of Golf Course Magazine, a publication of the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America. “The most rainfall for one day was 4.61 inches, the winds have blown as hard as 30 miles per hour, and we even had an inch of snow on Dec. 8, 2017. It was a 180-degree change when the date was moved from June to December. One thing where superintendents excel at is being able to adapt and change. We’ll have to be ready for anything.”

A sign board celebrating the 75th U.S. Women's Open is shown during a practice round at the 2020 U.S. Women's Open.

Chris Keane

The forecast for the tournament days, fortunately for all concerned, is tolerable, in the 60s and low 70s with a few showers expected. If that holds, to put it into a match-play context, it will beat Houston’s typical June weather, 7 and 6.

“It’s a little chillier,” Robin said. “If you get the north wind and cold it’s a tough challenge out there. We’ve been growing the rough since October and have had cart paths only. I think it’s going to play fast like a U.S. Open and the rough is still going to be a part of a U.S. Open, always tough. Chris Ortmeier and Brady [Forshey, the superintendent] and their team have done an incredible job preparing for this tournament.

“I know the girls will enjoy it. These are two entirely different type courses, but it’s going to be a true test for the players this week.”