By Adam Schupak
Hosting a USGA National Championship can bring a club notoriety and prestige—along with a major financial headache
During the PGA Tour’s Valspar Championship this past March, Innisbrook Resort owner Sheila Johnson sipped on a cocktail at a media reception when her phone buzzed. After checking the incoming e-mail message, a smile creased her faced. She boasted to an audience of golf writers that she recently had inquired to USGA Executive Director Mike Davis about hosting the U.S. Women’s Open there. Johnson said Davis’s response indicated that he’d like to have further conversations.
Still, even with her connections—Johnson is a member of the USGA Executive Committee—Innisbrook likely will have to get in line. And get out its checkbook.
Winning the right to host a USGA National Championship is big business, but the immediate euphoria of acceptance can soon fade when clubs discover how little the USGA itself contributes to the cause. If a club isn’t careful, it can lose six figures on anything other than the two men’s professional majors. Which begs the question: Why would any club consider hosting a USGA event other than the U.S. Open or possibly the U.S. Senior Open?
Ask the USGA and the initial response is to trot out its favorite tag line: “For the good of the game,” and surely there are instances where clubs genuinely wish to support the amateur spirit. But that simplistic notion ignores the larger motives at work here, namely to elevate a course’s status in the eyes of the community or Top 100 panelists, give a jolt of credibility, or raise its national recognition.
For some private clubs, price is no object. Resort courses often chalk up the associated costs as a marketing expense, while municipal facilities do it for civic pride.
Hosting one of the USGA’s lower profile events at a loss can be a stepping stone to more prestigious—and profitable—championships. Consider that Chambers Bay, site of the 2015 U.S. Open, and Erin Hills, venue for this year’s U.S. Open, both conducted a dress rehearsal of sorts as U.S. Amateur sites.
The cost of running even one of the USGA’s 10 amateur championships has grown exponentially. The starting price can be as modest as roughly $150,000 for the U.S. Women’s Mid-Amateur, balloons to $750,000 for the Walker Cup, and gets close to $1 million for the U.S. Amateur when a larger footprint for worldwide media and television compounds is factored in. To raise the money, host facilities often are forced to get creative, ranging from throwing golf outings to finding local sponsors. It took approximately 50 well-heeled members at Country Club of Birmingham in Alabama—a century-old, 36-hole private facility that had slipped out of golf’s Top 100 lists—to bankroll the $300,000 budget for the 2013 U.S. Mid-Amateur Championship.
In 2015, John’s Island Club, a private club of some 1,300 members, most of whom are seasonal residents in Vero Beach, Fla., spent more than double that to host a memorable U.S. Mid-Amateur in which winner Sammy Schmitz made a stunning hole-in-one at the par-four 33rd hole in the final match. As Mark Mulvoy, chairman of the championship committee, says, “Even the Russian judge would have given us a 9.9.”
But it cost a pretty penny. According to Mulvoy, the budget for the 2015 Mid-Am topped $650,000, which included $100,000 for a reunion of Mid-Amateur champions held prior to the competition, and hiring a full-time championship coordinator. The USGA’s financial contribution to the operating budget? A net total of $59,000, or less than 10 percent of the championship’s operating costs. Thanks to Mulvoy’s creativity in hosting a dinner and golf outing, and some deep-pocketed members, 230 of whom contributed—some as much as $5,000—the club broke even, but otherwise it would have cost them a bundle. John’s Island Club managed to donate $7,500 to the Indian River Golf Foundation, a 501 (c) (3) non-profit that teaches golf and life skills to youngsters in the Vero Beach community, far less than Mulvoy had budgeted due to escalating costs.
Frankly, a club’s burden would be more palatable if USGA coffers weren’t overflowing. In 2013, the association’s fortunes improved when it crowned Fox Sports the winner of its television contract to the tune of approximately $100 million annually, more than double the existing deal. As Mulvoy so elegantly puts it, “Why does a non-profit have over $300 million in the bank? Our members help fund educational programs and build museums and wings of hospitals.”
After the 2015 Mid-Am, Mulvoy sent a five-page letter to Tom O’Toole, the USGA’s president at the time, among others. He never heard directly from O’Toole but John Bodenhamer, senior managing director of rules, competition and equipment standards at the USGA, spent two days at John’s Island Club reviewing Mulvoy’s critique with him.
“All I keep hearing is ‘We’re looking at it hard and change comes slow at the USGA,’” Mulvoy says.
When Gold Mountain Golf Club in Bremerton, Wash., hosted the 2006 U.S. Amateur Public Links, the club’s budget was $150,000. Five years later, it was $180,000 for the 2011 U.S. Junior Amateur Championship. Both times the USGA stipend was $25,000.
“Would it help if the USGA gave more? Absolutely,” says Scott Alexander, the club’s former golf director. “But we knew the playing field going in.”
Another part of the problem is that the battle to host the USGA’s elite amateur and professional events has evolved into a cutthroat competition to outdo those who have hosted before. It is a longstanding practice for organizers of future championships to attend and observe current championships, and when Alexander visited the 2009 U.S. Junior Amateur at Trump National Golf Club Bedminster (N.J.), he saw that owner Donald Trump spared no expense in making an impression on the USGA. (Trump subsequently landed the 2017 U.S. Women’s Open.)
“He put on a carnival that must’ve cost $100,000,” Alexander says. “The stuff he did was mind-blowing. I thought, ‘What are we going to do? I’m screwed on this deal.’”
But Alexander hatched an idea to host the championship dinner on an aircraft carrier. Johnny Miller agreed to serve as the dinner speaker on the USS John C. Stennis, and the USGA paid the entire $70,000 tab.
“Our whole town still talks about it,” Alexander says.
“We’ve tried to rein it in,” says the USGA’s Bodenhamer. “Maybe you don’t want to give a brand-new engraved iPad with a leather case as the player gift to all the juniors.”
Ron Read, former director of regional affairs west region for the USGA until early 2013, worked more than 100 national championships and said hosting a championship brings a club together like nothing he’s ever seen. He left every one of them feeling as though something special had happened between the association and the host club. However, as the USGA evolved into a more corporate enterprise, he noticed a change.
“Personally, I think they screwed it up over money,” Read says. “It used to be a partnership, a love affair of the game. That has changed to a business relationship.”
Jim Gorrie, vice chairman of the U.S. Mid-Am at Country Club of Birmingham, says he received a solicitation letter seeking a $50,000 corporate donation to support this year’s Mid-Am at Capital City Club in Atlanta.
“My response was, ‘Hell no,’” he says. “To me, the spirit of trying to raise $300,000 for amateur golf shouldn’t be another corporate event to promote your name. We were able to do it on a budget without having to sell it to the public.”
More than ever before, private clubs such as Desert Mountain in Scottsdale, Ariz.—which voted against hosting the U.S. Mid-Amateur several years ago—are taking a hard line against underwriting championships that bear few tangible rewards.
“I can’t go to the membership tomorrow and say we can get the U.S. Senior Amateur if we raise $400,000,” Mulvoy says. “They’re not going to do that.”
Given the USGA’s substantial financial war chest, former Executive Director David Fay says the association should guarantee that no club that hosts one of its championships is ever put in a financial bind.
In the last few years, the USGA has improved its contribution to the operational budget, lessening some of a club’s financial burden. Bodenhamer estimates the 2017 budget for the USGA’s 10 amateur championships is $12 million this year, an increase of $2.5 million from three years ago. Gorrie agrees that the USGA has stepped up its financial commitment from 2013 to 2016, when Country Club of Birmingham hosted the Men’s State Team Championship, but terms the increase “baby steps, rather than a transformation of the way they do it financially.” Mulvoy recommends the USGA should form a true 50–50 partnership and split the cost of hosting its championships.
Despite the watered down media exposure and fan interest, and overall lack of attention, top clubs continue to line up to host the USGA’s non-remunerative championships. Look no further than some of the upcoming sites: the 2018 and 2019 U.S. Junior Amateur at Baltusrol Golf Club and Inverness Club, which have hosted 11 U.S. Opens between them; the Walker Cup at Los Angeles Country Club this year, Seminole Golf Club in 2021, and Cypress Point in 2025; and Quaker Ridge Golf Club for the 2018 Curtis Cup, the female equivalent of the Walker Cup.
And count Country Club of Birmingham among the suitors to host another USGA amateur championship. Says Gorrie, “Our staff and membership can’t wait to do it again.”
Do you think the USGA should offer more financial support to host clubs? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!