Mixed Messages

U.S Open 2024: Does the USGA have an obligation to make America’s golf meccas more accessible?

The U.S. Open's new anchor sites should find a way let more golfers in the door
June 06, 2024

Golf is the rare sport where its playgrounds are part of the story. And though scenery is often mistaken as a secondary character, the truth is where these contests are played says more about the game than any score ever could. So what does the U.S. Open, and the golf meccas it visits, say about the state of American golf?

The United States Golf Association has implemented an “anchor site” strategy for its tournaments, reducing the number of venues for its premier events and introducing a cycle of sorts around a handful of sites. The U.S. Open lineup features four anchors—Pinehurst, Pebble Beach, Oakmont and Shinnecock—with a handful of other courses like Winged Foot, Merion, Riviera and Oakland Hills sprinkled in over the next 25 years. The USGA says it's a decision based on extensive feedback from players, who prefer iconic venues they are more familiar with, while former USGA CEO Mike Davis was blunt on the mindset behind picking the anchor sites. “We’re going to make money when we go there,” he said.

These are well-reasoned positions, and no one is questioning the formability of those courses. However, the hosts have a throughline that has nothing to do with their playing merits, but rather, who is allowed to play them.

There is not a single municipal or daily-fee facility—places where 90 percent of golf in the U.S. is played, according to the National Golf Foundation—among the U.S. Open’s future sites. This mostly falls in line with history; the first 101 championships were not held at truly public sites, with 2002’s U.S. Open at Bethpage Black breaking the barrier. The majority of U.S. Open hosts rank among the most restrictive and exclusive clubs in the game, who aside from their one-week hosting responsibilities do their best to keep the rest of the world at bay. And yes, Pebble Beach and Pinehurst are technically open to everyone, but so are first-class flights and courtside seats. Pebble Beach and Pinehurst No. 2 green fees are both north of $500. They are public in name only.


Dom Furore

In fairness to Pebble and Pinehurst, their prices are the norm when it comes to the highest-ranked public U.S. courses. TPC Sawgrass is closing in on $1,000 for a tee time. Shadow Creek is $1,250. Whistling Straits, Kiawah’s Ocean Course, Bandon Dunes Resort and Erin Hills aren’t far behind. If you want to play these gems often, it helps to have a bank account that rivals the GDP of Switzerland. And to be fair to the USGA, they are not the only American golf entity to set up shop behind ivy walls. The PGA Tour’s home base is at Sawgrass, and its TPC network of courses are either private or boast expensive green fees. Many of the PGA of America’s PGA Championship hosts share the same cliquish DNA as U.S. Open venues, and the PGA’s new home in Frisco offers $400 green fees that come with a stay at its Omni hotel. Augusta National is exclusivity incarnate.

But while the Masters holds a gravitational pull on the sport, Augusta National only has to answer to itself. The tour’s fealty is to its players and investors; the PGA to its 30,000 club professionals. The USGA’s obligation is to the people it serves. To instill a sense of democracy in a game that can seem allergic to it. To bring its flagship event to places that normally do everything to keep the common man out, it’s worth asking what message is being sent.

Perhaps no host encapsulated this juxtaposition more than last year’s venue, LACC, which runs on such an undercurrent of privacy it’s a wonder the club opened its gates in the first place. LACC gobbled a significant amount of the limited tickets for its own membership, and there was a persistent claim members tried to buy all of public admission. There was something sadly ironic about the U.S. Open being so closed.

This is not a golf problem. It's an American golf problem. St. Andrews residents can play the Old Course or other St. Andrews Links properties at a price so low you should be asking yourself why you don’t own real estate in Fife. Same goes for most of the Open rota links. Guests are welcome, too, almost all for less than $300, and those Open sites are surrounded by other venerable links for less than $100 to make the trip worthwhile (and fiscally reasonable) for visitors. Even Muirfield—the stuffiest of stuffy clubs—allows public golfers on Tuesdays and Thursdays.


Just as importantly, the R&A understands the power and gravity of the claret jug. It wasn’t that long ago that the R&A removed Muirfield from the rota after a vote to allow women into the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers at Muirfield failed. Soon after Muirfield reversed course, and in 2019 ended its 275-year policy as a men-only club. That only happened because the R&A used its weight to enforce what it believed was right for the game. It happened because symbolism matters.

So what’s the solution for the USGA? There are logistical and infrastructural trappings that come with hosting a modern major that leaves many sites out. The USGA could revitalize the template former chief David Fay utilized at Bethpage in the mid-1990s by exploring neglected Golden Age courses that could be more with a little love and care. This was something that was kicked around with a Boston track in the early 2000s, and could be done with courses like George Wright, Lawsonia or a post-restoration Yale. It would require a massive investment, in time and resources, from the USGA. Hosting a championship demands a years-long rapport with a tournament site. If the venue is a country club or resort, that means dealing with a few hundred members and a board or two; if the venue is public, that means local governments that can be wildcards. The USGA could be working with a set of officials who weren’t in place where the original negotiations started, and because money is tight with public-operated entities, the USGA can be left footing the bill to make the necessary improvements to get a course up to U.S. Open standards. These reasons partially explain why the USGA has essentially abandoned public courses in its new anchor strategy for championship hosts. But just because it’s hard doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing. The USGA’s stated mission is “for the good of the game,” and a true north star shines no matter what’s standing in the way.


Photo by Dom Furore

The USGA could also put a Muirfield-like provision for country clubs, where becoming a U.S. Open venue requires opening your door to public play at least once a week. That sound you heard was laughter from the blue-blooded locker rooms of Long Island and Westchester. But hosting a U.S. Open should be seen as giving something to the game, not just the ability to pad a club’s asking price for Monday corporate outings. Many of these clubs already receive tax breaks from local and state governments—LACC itself avoids $80 million in taxes thanks to two dated laws. This is a chance for the clubs to make good on their civic duty. If the clubs have no stomach for the rule, that’s fine, they simply lose hosting honors. Same goes for Pebble and Pinehurst. Create a window where kids can play for free, or produce a lottery system that allows those for lesser—even medium!—means a chance to play without surrendering their entire paycheck.

This may come off as pollyannaish, even delusional. But American golf has long struggled with inclusivity, and while strides are being made in those areas, inclusivity doesn’t just pertain to gender or race. That’s part of the romanticism of the U.S. Open, after all, that it doesn’t matter who you are or where you’re from. It’s open. That is the true anchor, and the belief does not just apply to the competition.