Six U.S. Open courses are accessible to the general public

By Art Stricklin

The U.S. Open, America’s national golf championship, is getting a lot more open these days.

Once the exclusive domain of elite private facilities, the U.S. Open went public for the first time in 1972 at majestic Pebble Beach Golf Links in California, then again 10 years later, and the trend has only grown larger in recent years.

From 1999 to 2010, the U.S. Open was held at public courses, open in every sense of the word, seven times. It’s scheduled for another four public-course venues the remainder of the decade.

After Pebble Beach in 1992, the public U.S. Open bandwagon rolled to the outskirts of New York City and the pine straw of North Carolina.

The Black Course at Bethpage State Park, less than an hour from the heart of New York City, was the site of a very successful Open in 2002 and, on the heels of that event, was awarded a second Open for ’09.

Pinehurst, the self-styled Capital of American Golf, received its first U.S. Open in 1999 and followed with another in 2005. It will be the host site again in 2014, when the men’s and the women’s opens are held in back-to-back weeks for the first time ever.

Scenic Southern California public golf icon Torrey Pines, located in the San Diego suburb of La Jolla, was the site of perhaps the most dramatic Open ever in 2008. Tiger Woods, playing on virtually one leg, defeated Rocco Mediate in an exciting extra-day, 18-hole playoff.

In upcoming years, two public-course newcomers will join this list: Chambers Bay, outside of Seattle, in 2015, along with Wisconsin’s Erin Hills in 2017.

Pebble Beach
Clearly, the U.S. Open Championship never has been more open to anyone who wants to play golf’s national championship battlefi eld. Yet, it’s equally clear that Pebble Beach remains the first among public course equals.

Since its Open debut, it added national golf championships in 1982, ‘92, 2000 and last year. Pebble Beach also is on the list for its sixth Open when it celebrates its centennial in 2019. The famed oceanside property was called by author Robert Louis Stevenson the greatest ever meeting of land and sea, and without question it is the king of public-access U.S. Open sites.

The choice of Pebble Beach as the most frequent public U.S. Open site has brought near universal praise from one of the toughest groups to please: PGA Tour players.

“As a venue, I don’t think you can get a better venue any place in the world,” said two-time U.S. Open champion Ernie Els.

Added Phil Mickelson: “The course can really bite you. It was a difficult test. It was very difficult in 1992, it was difficult in 2000, it was very difficult (last) year.”

“The first time I played here at age 12 or 13, I couldn’t believe how long it was,” recalled Tiger Woods. “As we’ve gone through the years, it’s certainly changed quite a bit with where the fairways used to be, the bunkers, the trees lost, but it’s still a great course.”

The United States Golf Association, which conducts the U.S. Open, certainly agrees.

Since 1972, the Open has been held here five times with a sixth already set. It’s the greatest repeat performance of any course in America, a fitting tribute to a fitting public showcase.

“This is one of our most treasured U.S. Open sites,” said Thomas O’Toole Jr., the chairman of the USGA’s Championship Committee, which decides where the event is played.

“This decade began with a memorable U.S. Open at Pebble Beach and it will surely end with one when we return to Pebble Beach in 2019,” added Mike Davis, recently named executive director of the USGA. “Pebble Beach is one of the greatest treasures in all of golf and we’re thrilled — for the players and fans worldwide who love major-championship golf — to sign on for ‘The U.S. Open at Pebble Beach – Chapter Six.’ ”

“If I only had one round of golf left to play,” said Jack Nicklaus, who won the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach in 1972 and finished second to Tom Watson there 10 years later, “I’d want to play it at Pebble Beach.”

Nicklaus also has called the second shot at Pebble’s par-4 eighth, a long iron over a 100-foot high chasm, “the greatest second shot in all of golf.”

Coincidence or not, the Opens at Pebble Beach have produced some of golf’s most memorable shots.

At the 71st hole in 1972, Nicklaus hit a sensational 1-iron tee shot to the par-3 17th. The shot hit the flagstick, leaving Nicklaus with a tap-in birdie.

Ten years later, Tom Watson denied Nicklaus a fifth U.S. Open title when he holed out from gnarly greenside rough at the same 17th hole. Watson added a birdie at the famed par-5 18th for an eventual two-stroke victory, with Arizona’s Dan Pohl finishing third.

Others to win the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach were Tom Kite in 1992, Tiger Woods with a stunning 15-stroke victory in 2000, and Graeme McDowell last year.

“We are dedicated to upholding the legacy of golf at Pebble Beach and share the passion that golfers around the world have for the golf course,” said Pebble Beach CEO Bill Perocchi. “As a golf course that is open to the public, Pebble Beach Golf Links is able to give every golfer the opportunity to walk in the same footsteps as the greatest players in the game. To celebrate the 100th anniversary of Pebble Beach’s opening by hosting the national championship adds to that experience.”

The 2019 U.S. Open will mark the 12th USGA championship conducted at Pebble Beach since 1929—the first coming only 10 years after Samuel F.B. Morse founded Pebble Beach Company and the now famous properties so closely synonymous with USGA championships.

Pinehurst Resort and Country Club, which first opened in 1899, has been a host of a wide variety of championship events, from the Ryder Cup to the PGA Championship and North and South Amateur, but didn’t get its fi rst U.S. Open until 1999.

With Payne Stewart’s dramatic final hole victory over Phil Mickelson as the church bells sounded over the Sandhills of mid-North Carolina, Pinehurst was an immediate hit.

“When you see and feel Pinehurst, you know it’s something different. It remains a masterpiece, a course so beautifully balanced and testing,” said player and architect Ben Crenshaw, who teamed with partner Bill Coore to restore the No. 2 course to its original Donald Ross design; it reopened in March.

“No. 2 is the ultimate as far as I’m concerned. What they are doing is just fantastic,” added two-time U.S. Open champion Curtis Strange.

The USGA choose Pinehurst for its unique double experiment of having the men’s and women’s opens on back-to-back weeks — a unique idea for a most unique American original.

“We are certainly excited about the project,” said James Hyler, now in his second year as USGA president. “To have Pinehurst in its original state is a meaningful statement, and something we’re really glad to see.”

Bethpage State Park Black course is another unique American original, designed by American golf architect legend A.W. Tillinghast.

The spacious facility once was owned by a local family. Part of it was originally converted to a country club, Lennox Hills, and in the 1930s, the state of New York acquired the land.

To the delight of public course golfers everywhere, they hired Tillinghast to build three new courses (Black, Red and Blue), along with turning Lennox Hills to the public Green layout. Eventually a fifth public course (Yellow) was built in the 1950s.

The Black is considered the toughest and perhaps Tillinghast’s finest public course work.

Bethpage’s first U.S. Open in 2002 was won in dramatic fashion by Woods.

It delighted tens of thousands of New York public-course players, many of whom think nothing of sleeping in their cars overnight in order to get a prime weekend starting time.

Torrey Pines
Torrey Pines, which has 36 holes (North and South), was built by the father-son partnership of William P. and William F. Bell. It was opened in 1957 and its dramatic oceanside, cliff-top views made it an instant success with Southern California golfers, who could rightfully claim it as a city service they could love.

The 2008 U.S. Open staged at the South Course was the first held in Southern California in nearly a half century and the first-ever at a city owned course. Woods’s dramatic extra day playoff win and the nearly 50,000 paid spectators each round stamped Torrey Pines as the prime possible site for future public Opens.

Erin Hills and Chambers Bay
Though relatively young — Erin Hills opened in 2006 and Chambers Bay in ’07 — each of the two U.S. Open newcomers has made its share of headlines.

Erin Hills, located about 25 miles northwest of Milwaukee, was built by Wisconsin developer Bob Lang, who funded construction with his own money. The course had its quirks, including an extra hole that could be inserted as part of the course if another hole needed to be shut down. Several architecture changes were made after the course was opened, and eventually, Lang was unable to fund further construction and was forced to sell the property. The course will be the host site of this year’s U.S. Amateur.

Pierce County owns Chambers Bay, which was the site of a sand and gravel quarry. Designed by Robert Trent Jones Jr. and the site of last year’s U.S. Amateur, it opened in June 2007.

There are at least two noteworthy aspects of Chambers Bay: There is only one tree on the entire property, which has some stunning views of Puget Sound, and golf carts are prohibited for all players but those with medical exceptions.

All of these courses should be on an Arizona golfer’s bucket list for two reasons — to play and to watch a U.S. Open.