May 28, 2008

He Built This City

And then he takes it down. Last year, Oakmont. This year, Torrey Pines. Meet the mayor of Busseyville

Frank Bussey appears at a U.S. Open site full-time in mid-March.

Frank Bussey appears at a U.S. Open site full-time in mid-March.

Frank Bussey is flying. OK, not literally, but not far from it, wheeling his golf cart along a gravel road at about 30 miles per hour.

"I have the only cart around here without a governor on it," he says over the whooshing of the wind. "Of course, I have a legitimate reason: I have to get to a lot of places in a hurry."

At this moment, he's racing from one end of Oakmont Country Club to the other. It is day one of the 2007 United States Open and, as the sun is climbing into the sky at shortly after 6 o'clock, the United States Golf Association is facing its first crisis of the morning: a UPS delivery truck trying to back into the entrance to the USGA's merchandise tent has gone off the temporary road put down to get trucks in and out of the area during the Open. One side of the truck is hanging in mid-air, the other is still on the road.

"It's leaning at a very precarious angle," Mary Lopuszynski, who runs the tent for the USGA, tells Bussey. "It's full of glassware. We really don't want it to go over."

"Be right there," Bussey says. A moment later he's driving past the first tee on his rescue mission. "If I'm not there in about 30 seconds, Mary will have a heart attack," he says. Joking -- sort of.

Given that the USGA grosses between $10 million and $15 million for the week in the tent, the notion that a stuck truck might prevent other deliveries or -- heaven forbid -- make it difficult for people to get in and out once it opens for business -- might cause a panic. Bussey is far less likely to panic. In fact, as soon as he surveys the situation, he asks someone on his staff to send an extended forklift. When it arrives, Bussey's the one who takes the wheel, and the truck is pulled free.

"And he did it without breaking anything," Lopuszynski says. "That was a miracle."

The truck removed, Lopuszynski's cherished deliveries get to the tent all day long. So do all the customers. All is good again in USGA World.

MOVING IN, MOVING OUT

To the public, the U.S. Open exists between the ropes -- 156 golfers teeing it up on Thursday morning with one crowned champion (barring a playoff) on Sunday evening. But there is an entire world that exists outside the ropes that makes it possible for those 156 players to get to the first tee and to be paid millions of dollars.

That is the world that Frank Bussey, as the USGA's director of U.S. Open operations, is responsible for each year. Torrey Pines this year is his 17th Open -- 16 for the USGA. He spends more time on site than any USGA employee, arriving full-time in mid-March and not leaving until about a month after the Open is over.

"Actually, the four days of the tournament are my easiest time each year," he says. "By the time the golfers start playing for real, most of my work is done." He smiles. "Let's put it this way: If it's not done, I'm going to have a lot of 'splainin' to do."

Once the tournament is over, Bussey and his staff for the championship are responsible for getting everything they spent months moving in -- temporary roads, tents all over the grounds, TV towers, grandstands, roping for the golf course, trailers used as staff headquarters and mountains and mountains of garbage -- moved out. He and his staff are also responsible for finding places to park cars, for creating shuttle routes in and out of the golf course, for hiring companies to provide buses and tents and grandstands, for getting passes to get people in and out of the grounds during the tournament and for making sure all the players' off-course needs are met.

In addition, Bussey will negotiate with the club on how much the USGA will need to pay above the rental fee for any damage done to the golf course or the grounds by the Open's presence.

"Usually the club wants about twice what we want to pay," Bussey says. "We talk, negotiate a little and meet somewhere in the middle."

Bussey is 59 but looks younger even though his hair has for the most part turned gray; his round face frequently in a smile. A big part of his job is convincing people he has never met to trust him -- and he's good at it.

"Frank never comes off as a tough guy even when he's telling people that things have to be done a certain way whether they like it or not," says Lopuszynski. "He can give orders without sounding like he's giving orders. If you ask him to do something, he'll shake his head, tell you it's impossible but before you know it, he's done it."

Bussey's father managed hotels when Frank was growing up and often put his son to work. "The joke was, if you didn't do your job well my dad was going to bring me in to replace you because I worked cheap," he says. "I learned a lot more than I wanted to learn."

He was a good enough tennis player to get a scholarship to Florida Atlantic University, then went to work after graduation building tennis courts and directing operations for tennis tournaments. He decided, eventually, that he preferred working in golf. "Tennis tournaments are played at night and can be stopped by 10 drops of rain," he says. "Golf tournaments are never played at night, and it takes lightning to get the players off the course."

He smiles. "I don't mind early mornings. I'm not crazy about late nights."

In 1991, he was hired by the Pebble Beach Company to run operations for the 1992 U.S. Open. That was the year the USGA decided it needed full-time operations people because it was taking over more and more of the day-to-day running of the Open each year. Steve Worthy became the operations director for the '93 Open at Baltusrol. Bussey was hired as his first lieutenant. They worked together until Worthy left to become the executive vice president of the foundation that runs the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am. Oakmont was Bussey's first Open without Worthy.

Photo: Duane Rieder

"My role hasn't changed that much," he says. "I have a new title, but it's still pretty much the same job."

Which means he must be able to do almost anything -- including operate every piece of machinery on the grounds in case of an emergency.

"You try to be organized and prepared well in advance of the tournament starting," he says. "But invariably, on Wednesday night you're running around like crazy, putting up a new fence or rebuilding a road wiped out by rain or finding extra parking passes for a player who has lost the ones he was given. You accept the fact that nothing is routine. It's almost like building a small city, running it for a week and then taking it all down."

Which might explain why Bussey's nickname is The Mayor. That started in 1998 after the Open at the Olympic Club, when his vendor and operations staff presented him with a large sign that said, "Busseyville -- Frank Bussey, Mayor. Population: 1."

For a long time leading up to the Open, Bussey is often the only citizen of Busseyville, dealing daily with different visitors -- vendors, construction people, club employees, volunteers. During Open week, he's surrounded by thousands of people. Which he finds relaxing.

"Once everything is up, once we've identified the problems and dealt with them, it's really just a matter of putting out a fire here and there during the Open," he says. "The run-up is the tough part because a lot of times you're dealing with people who say, 'We can't do that.' You have to tell them that they can, and they will."

Some problems are fixed more easily than others. In 2002, the USGA decided to go to a two-tee start for the first time. Because the 10th tee at Bethpage Black is about as far from the clubhouse as any spot on the course, Bussey and Worthy had to find the fastest and easiest way possible to get players from the clubhouse to the 10th tee. With security extremely tight in the year after September 11, there weren't a lot of options.

"We finally found a route along a back road that would take less than 10 minutes," Bussey says. "The problem was, there was an old paint factory along the route that had been declared a Superfund site [and designated as environmentally hazardous]. "We wanted to whisk the players through in shuttles, but we could do it only if each group stopped each time through to sign a waiver while in the shuttle. We decided to find another route."

This year the bigger concern is the possibility of bad weather. "I'm just glad it's not an El Niño year," Bussey said. "Rain can kill us with all the roads we have to build."

They'll get built, as will the entire "city." And if someone gets stuck, The Mayor will no doubt get there to help them out. And he'll do it in a hurry.


      • THE CHALLENGE OF OPEN ACCESS

Cities interested in attracting the U.S. Open should know that not everyone will embrace the idea. There will be issues, as San Diego has demonstrated.

The controversies in the run-up to the 2008 Open at Torrey Pines included a battle over future tee-time availability for men's-association members at the municipally owned South and North courses and a scheduling conflict between the Open in La Jolla and the opening weekend of the annual San Diego County Fair at the Del Mar Fairgrounds.

The sites are about five miles apart, and the adjacent Interstate-5 corridor is among the most congested traffic sites in the county. The opening weekend of the Fair typically attracts 45,000 to 60,000 people each day, says Tim Fennell, general manager of the Fairgrounds. The Open will draw about 42,500 people each day.

According to Fennell, the USGA agreed to pay the Fairgrounds $50,000 to postpone its opener from June 13 (the second round of the Open) to June 14 to help alleviate congestion during Friday's rush hour. Fennell says his sense is that on the weekend, "Those who don't necessarily need to be in the area will stay home or do something different," and that will help ease congestion.

A more contentious issue involved an attempt to re-allocate preferential tee times at Torrey Pines. San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders sought to reduce the times available each month for association events. The plan included five tee times per day (20 players) at increased rates for the Torrey Pines Hilton that abuts the South Course.

The association sued the city, claiming it was violating an agreement made in 1983 not to provide preferential tee times to hotels. A compromise was reached in February 2007, allowing the association to retain 30 tee times on the South Course or approximately 39 tee times on the North Course one Sunday morning a month (the mayor's initial plan was to eliminate the Sunday times) and two Thursdays a month (down from four) for the next 10 years. The difference in times is because groups go off in 10-minute intervals on the South and every seven minutes on the North. The Hilton will receive its five tee times per day and agreed to pay part of the association's legal fees.

Animosity has dissipated, says association president Steve Roberts, who says that about 200 members have volunteered to marshal the first and 18th holes at the Open. The members "welcome the opportunity to help in any way we can to make Torrey Pines the finest municipal golf course in the world," Roberts says. -- John Strege