Open to the Public

The two-time U.S. Open winner applauds the USGA’s recent decisions to play the national championship on municipal courses

By: Ernie Els

I grew up playing a public golf course, Kempton Park back home in South Africa, so I guess that’s one of the many reasons I applaud the U.S. Golf Association’s decision to occasionally play the U.S. Open on municipal courses. Obviously in Britain it is nothing new. The Open is played at St. Andrews and Carnoustie, two great golf courses, and both are essentially public. That the USGA is also keen to award its most revered championship to courses that anyone can play, rather than rotating it exclusively around the country’s elite private layouts, sends out a positive message.
I’m a huge fan of many of America’s classic courses, but it’s good to mix things up a bit. In 2002 Bethpage Black became the first municipal course to host the U.S. Open and it will again in 2009. It was designed by one of golf’s great architects, A.W. Tillinghast, and some say it was his finest work. I can see why. With narrow fairways, good bunkering and small greens, it is seriously tough. I finished tied for 24th in 2002 and although it wasn’t one of my better tournaments, I liked the course and the fans were incredible. I’m excited about going back there next summer.

Another public course, Torrey Pines South in Southern California, is hosting the U.S. Open in June. It’s been the home of the Buick Invitational for 40 years now. The tournament usually clashes with the European Tour’s Gulf Swing in the Middle East, so I’ve played there only once, in 2005 when I shot 65 in the first round and finished tied for sixth. Tiger is obviously a bit of a Torrey Pines specialist, but I’m looking forward to the challenge and trying to win my third Open.

And I’ve won at Torrey Pines before, although from the photos of that week you’d have a tough job recognizing me. It was the 1984 Optimist International Junior Golf Championship. I was as thrilled as I could be just to come over from South Africa and play in an event of that stature on such a great course. To win it was incredible.

It looks as though municipally owned golf courses will host more majors in years to come, especially as some of the established private clubs seem now to prefer the idea of spreading out the years between championships. That’s understandable. Hosting a major is a great honor, but it causes disruption to the members. Recently Winged Foot changed its mind about hosting the 2015 U.S. Open. Having held the Open for the fifth time in 2006, maybe they felt it was just too soon to hold another major in 2015.

So the USGA replaced Winged Foot on the schedule with Chambers Bay, near Tacoma, Washington, on the Pacific Northwest coast. It’s another public facility and, amazingly, it opened for play only last year. I’ve seen the photos and it is spectacular. It is a links-style course, with just one solitary tree, and has stunning views of Puget Sound. I like the look of it and hopefully I’m still eligible to play in the U.S. Open by then!

But as I said, the American classics will never disappear off the major rotation, and that’s obviously good news. But it’s also good news that these new golf courses, some of them public, are getting in on the act.

Anyone can play a public course and that’s a huge attraction for fans—to be able to tread in the footsteps of the world’s best players. I remember that was a thrill for me when I first started playing courses around the world and the fact that everyone can play on the world’s greatest stages is one of the great things about golf.

You can’t beat that, can you? There’s just no other sport like that.  

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