This would have been U.S. Open week, and the USGA (like the rest of us) feels the void
The strangeness of a still and silent summer has hit home in the past few weeks for John Bodenhamer and the USGA. The usual chaotic mixture of intense preparation and irrepressible anticipation has been muted. There is nothing to prepare for, at least not of an expeditious nature.
Today would have been the start of U.S. Open week at Winged Foot Golf Club in Mamaroneck, N.Y. Instead, all Bodenhamer could do was lament its postponement to September and hope for the best, hope that it can be played three months from now. As it stands—and things can change quickly in the midst of a pandemic—there will be a U.S. Open starting Sept. 17. The USGA also is planning to salvage the 2020 U.S. Women’s Open, the U.S. Amateur and the U.S. Women’s Amateur.
Instead of fine-tuning the setup of the West Course at Winged Foot, Bodenhamer, senior managing director of championships for the USGA, continues to review contingency plans for the 120th U.S. Open. Those contingencies include the possibility of allowing a limited number of spectators onto the grounds after the USGA announced last month that the championship would be conducted without fans in attendance because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
“Things are trending positively in New York and Westchester County, which has been hit so hard, the epicenter of this virus, frankly, so we are cautiously optimistic that we will be able to have some fans now,” Bodenhamer told Golf Digest during a telephone interview. “Of course, that'll all be dependent on what the government says, what Gov. [Andrew] Cuomo decides is safe, and we will follow government mandates and guidance. And that’s been the hardest part about all of this, is the unknown. You can set plans, and they can change in a heartbeat, and we’re all up against that.”
At this time of year, the USGA already would have conducted four of its 14 championships, and Bodenhamer and USGA staff would be up against it with a hectic schedule of tasks to complete to ensure each event runs efficiently and presents a proper test. Instead, there is a palpable void felt within the organization, made more acute by sensing there is a void felt by the array of golfers who look forward to competing in one of those USGA events.
“I think a sense of longing is the right description,” Bodenhamer said. “I guess it was last Sunday, Jeff Hall [USGA’s managing director of rules and Open championships] and I were texting and, you know, saying we should be at the Women's Open at Champions presenting the trophy to the winner. And then I should be running to catch a flight to get to New York and Winged Foot from Houston, and we would start our work on the golf course Monday afternoon and ... generally the entire week, doing some preliminary work on the golf course. And it just feels strange not to do that.
“The U.S. Open has been such a big part of my life, and it’s such a big part of so many people’s lives with the USGA and people in the game,” Bodenhamer added. “It represents, kind of, the opening of summer and Father’s Day and the golf season is now really in high gear. And it just feels so strange to not have it this week.”
Even if the USGA can permit a limited number of fans to attend the championship, the organization is absorbing a significant financial blow to conduct the U.S. Open, which will be one of three men’s majors to be played this year. The PGA Championship and Masters also have been pushed back, to August and November, respectively. The Open Championship at Royal St. George’s in England, could not be saved, however.
“We felt very strongly that we needed to do everything that we reasonably could to conduct the U.S. Open because of the historical connotations and its importance in the context of what has been happening these last few months," Bodenhamer said. "We think it’s hugely important for the game. It’s important, period. Maybe we can bring some normalcy back for people. It represents more than just a golf tournament this year.”
Bodenhamer, while not revealing specifics, said that “it’s a tough financial year for the USGA.” The U.S. Open, he said, generates the necessary income that pays for the other championships, about $30 million a year. He added that it spends another $25 million a year on grow-the-game initiatives that include The First Tee and Drive, Chip and Putt. Then there are its governance functions, from handicaps to the Rules of Golf to managing equipment standards.
“The investment that comes as a result of the U.S. Open is extremely important,” he said. “We know we are going to take a hit, but we’re looking at the long term, and we’re prepared to keep the legacy of the U.S. Open going so that we can continue to do what’s right for the game. But, look, everyone is making financial sacrifices right now.”
The first PGA Tour event that will welcome fans, albeit in limited numbers, is scheduled to be the Memorial Tournament in mid-July in Dublin, Ohio. Bodenhamer has seen the spectator guidelines the Memorial Tournament organizers have put forth, and he added that the USGA will be watching that event closely while continuing to develop its own health and safety protocols.
USGA officials are hopeful of having a limited number of spectators at the U.S. Open in September, which, if it were to happen, would be an impressive achievement given that the area around Winged Foot had been considered an epicenter of the pandemic only a few months ago.
Fan attendance at its other three championship will be dependent on a number of factors, including state regulations. That constitutes another challenge for the USGA—formulating different plans based on the location of each championship. The U.S. Women’s Amateur and U.S. Amateur are scheduled for the first two full weeks of August, in Maryland and Oregon, respectively.
It was because of varying state prohibitions and lockdown orders, not to mention uncertainty over safety considerations, that the USGA decided to scrap its traditional qualifying for its championships. Instead, it’s in the process of creating exemption categories to fill out its fields. That process is ongoing.
“We’re very hopeful about the championships we will have,” Bodenhamer said. “I think if we can have them, we’ll be grateful, and they will be representative of overcoming some great challenges.”
Bodenhamer stressed that the USGA didn’t cancel 10 of its championships this year without appreciable angst. He repeated that sentiment several times. It was eating at him and those in the organization. Their hope is to salvage something of the season and even provide a measure of inspiration for those who love and follow the game and, perhaps, also for the sporting public at large.
“We haven’t made any decisions lightly,” he said. “This year has been like a dream you’re just waiting to wake up from. It’s been hard and it’s been challenging, but in the grand scheme, you know, there are things that are more important. From the standpoint of our goal of having some of our championships, we’ve put our stake in the ground. We’re rallying around how we started from scratch with these championships. By the time we get to the end of the year with the U.S. Women’s Open, we hope that we’ll have crowned four champions and we can put an exclamation on something pretty special.”
Until then, all is quiet on the West Course front. And elsewhere on the USGA horizon.