June 29, 2009

Dual Proposition

Is the USGA's decision to hold the men's and women's U.S. Opens on back-to-back weeks at Pinehurst No. 2 in 2014 a good idea? Depends on who you ask

Regardless of the outcome, the 2014 U.S. Women's Open is sure to have more buzz around it than some of the Women's Opens in recent years.

Regardless of the outcome, the 2014 U.S. Women's Open is sure to have more buzz around it than some of the Women's Opens in recent years.

Just about everything concerning the decision to play the 2014 U.S. Open and U.S. Women's Open on Pinehurst No. 2 in consecutive weeks is either really good or really bad. And it's likely most of the answers to the questions raised by the bold move won't be known until after the Women's Open -- which comes second. The one early winner -- and this seems indisputable -- is the USGA, which after year's of losing money on the women's national championship, could make a buck at Pinehurst, and its TV partner.

Let's take a look at the questions posed by the Pinehurst No. 2 doubleheader.

__ Will having the Opens at the same venue on consecutive weeks bring more attention to the women, or will it get lost in the shadow of the men's event?__

The thinking here is that in this case at least the women will benefit. Because it is the first time this has been tried the publicity buzz will be intense leading up to both Opens. If nothing else, everyone is going to be curious to see how the women handle a course days after it was played to men's specs, and to listen to the complaints about how banged up the course is after the greens have been taken to a near-death experience for the U.S. Open.

__ Will there actually be fans who stay for both weeks?__

Probably not, but it doesn't really matter. Because the Pinehurst area is a golf destination there are always lots of golf-crazy people around who will want to check out the best players in the world, male and female. The guess here is that the men will draw about twice as many fans as the women, as is usually the case. There will be some hard-core golf junkies who will go to both Opens, but the LPGA has plenty of loyal followers who will show up for just the Women's Open.

__ Will there be enough volunteers for both Opens?__

This might be one of the biggest challenges. It takes hundreds of volunteers to stage a golf tournament. Some of those are people who plan their vacations around specific events. They likely won't stay for two weeks. Others are retirees and/or Pinehurst members who might very well volunteer both weeks. The men are likely to draw more volunteers, but at least the Women's Open requires fewer of them. And one thing is for certain: the USGA knows how to turn out the troops when it needs to. Just look at those Monday 18-hole playoffs.

__ How about the media?__

For local print and broadcast outlets -- and that likely will include all of North Carolina -- this will be almost as big as the ACC men's basketball tournament. Again, the whole "first-time ever" angle will be compelling. As for national media, it's a great question. Certainly, the golf magazines will stay although, as is the case now, fewer writers and photographers will be on hand for the Women's Open.

The guess here would be that the national and international newspapers and websites that normally cover the U.S. Women's Open will be at Pinehurst and maybe a few more. But really, trying to predict what the daily press will look like in 2014 is about as difficult as trying to predict who might win a golf tournament five years away. In terms of media attention for the Women's Open, this has to help.

__ What shape will the golf course be in for the women after it has held a U.S. Open? __

This is the million-dollar question or, in contemporary terms, the trillion-dollar question. It makes sense to have the Women's Open second because it is easier to dumb a course down than it is to dumb a course up. The fairways can be cut wider for the women and the rough can be topped. One of the most compelling features about Pinehurst that makes it special is the runoff areas around the greens. These will remain shaved for both the men and women.

The real challenge will be the greens. By Sunday afternoon at a U.S. Open the greens are running like Secretariat and are as hard as trigonometry. Will water alone bring them back to life for the women? Or will the challenge of staging Opens on the same venue in consecutive weeks prompt the USGA to opt for kinder and gentler greens in the U.S. Open?

One thing seems clear: the USGA learned its lesson from the debacle at Shinnecock in 2004 when No. 7 green on Sunday was like putting on a pool table set at a 45-degree angle. Mike Davis has been nothing short of brilliant in his course set-ups since taking over in 2006 and has not let any of the venues get out of control. That said, there will be players in the Women's Open complaining they are playing a beat-up golf course. You can set your watch by that occurrence.

__ What could go wrong that we are not thinking about?__

Well, coming off of the slog-fest at Bethpage, how about the weather delaying the finish of the U.S. Open until Monday or even Tuesday? If there is one argument for having the Women's Open first it is that they no longer have an 18-hole playoff the next day like the U.S. Open does (the women abandoned theirs after 2006). Weather or a playoff could cut into practice time for the women.

__ Will Michelle Wie play both weeks?__

I'll get back to you on that one.

Now let's return to the bottom line. Because the entire infrastructure of the event can be left in place from the U.S. Open to the Women's Open -- bleachers, concession stands, scoreboards and some hospitality tents -- the USGA will save a significant sum of money. They won't have to pack up the circus and take it to another town.

The same is true for the TV partner. All those miles of cable and all those TV towers will stay in place. And all those behind-the-scenes workers who make televising a tournament happen won't have to get on a plane and fly to another city.

Some will say these dollars and cents issues drove the decision to hold the twin Opens, especially in a year after the U.S. Open is at Merion, where attendance and corporate tents will be significantly reduced by the cramped venue. But even if that is true, is that a bad thing? That's something we won't know until after the 2014 U.S. Women's Open.