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At about the time the USGA brought the 2002 U.S. Open to Bethpage State Park, it announced that the '08 Open would be held at Torrey Pines, a municipal course. Presumably the USGA picked these venues to counteract the belief that golf is an exclusive sport; the nation's open championship should be played, at least occasionally, at a public venue.
The incongruity is that at Torrey the USGA's decision has had the effect of limiting play for the citizens of San Diego. Fifty years after a public vote mandated that Torrey be operated on behalf of the city's residents, who own it, Torrey Pines is now less accessible physically and financially to San Diegans.
Last month, after long and contentious debate (Golf Plus, June 13), the city council voted 7--1 to change the way the two courses at Torrey are operated. The council raised resident greens fees, eliminated the majority of tee times for the men's and women's clubs, increased slots for tourist play during prime-time hours and allocated millions of dollars in greens-fee revenue for multimillion-dollar capital projects of questionable need. Overwhelming opposition from most public golfers in San Diego was all but ignored.
In taking such actions, a city desperate for money has effectively handed the courses to private interests--primarily concessionaires and the tourism industry--eager to cash in on the U.S. Open bonanza. So much for the USGA's decision to bring the Open to muni golfers.
This is not all the USGA's fault, but the association should feel some obligation to help. Thus far, the USGA's only contribution has been a tacit threat from senior director of competitions Mike Davis, who said, "If the USGA collectively feels we didn't get cooperation from the city and the community, then that would be seen as a big factor going forward [in awarding future Opens]."
Many people (including the USGA) have acknowledged that compromise on the access and cost issues was easily attainable, but every position offered by the public was rejected by the city. Instead of dropping ominous quotes, the USGA should stand behind its own rhetoric about supporting golf "at all levels" and use its influence to right the wrongs that have occurred here.
Finally, San Diego's mayor and city council need to take note of the USGA's threat about future U.S. Opens. The state of New York handled similar pressures at Bethpage by keeping in mind that residents are their main customers. Unlike at Torrey Pines, capital projects at Bethpage are privately financed, resident greens fees are kept remarkably low and access for resident golfers is paramount. Such civic-mindedness and lack of turmoil helped smooth the way for the USGA to give Bethpage another U.S. Open, in 2009.
Can the USGA and the politicians in San Diego work together to give muni golfers everywhere something to truly celebrate, or will the U.S. Open's arrival at a stellar municipal course remain a hollow victory for all of us?
Michael Zucchet is a former San Diego City Council member.