A few days ago I penned a piece in this space that I titled “The Tragedy That Was The U.S. Open At Chambers Bay.” In hindsight I regret the title: as I explained near the bottom of that column, the national open in my beloved home state wasn’t all bad:
Jordan Spieth’s Grand-Slam-maintaining victory meant the right guy won (Cameron Smith or Brendan Grace, not so much). Eight guys finished under par — well more than average for a U.S. Open in recent years — and Spieth’s minus 5 winning score was certainly more palatable than, say, plus 5. (Angel Cabrera and Geoff Ogilvy at 2007 Oakmont and 2006 Winged Foot, respectively.) The cream rose to the top: the world’s second-best player won, and of the top eleven finishers, ten are ranked top 50 in the world. There were a few decent places to actually see some action — most notably left of the ninth tee and above no. 14.
The record-breaking merchandise was outstanding: I spent a bundle in the main swag tent, and the Lee Wybranski water color I picked up on Wednesday will be on my office wall by week’s end. The big picture setting showcased the Pacific Northwest’s stunning beauty. Not all the greens were awful: the putting surfaces at 7 and 13 were reportedly fine if a bit fast. The weather was chamber-of-commerce perfect. The marshals didn’t enforce the “no photos” rule, which enabled me to take the photos above as well as some decent selfies and groupies.
And the drama of Sunday’s remarkable finish will be tough for the golf-is-boring crowd to rebut. Already Golf Channel’s Tim Rosaforte is reporting that it’s not a question of if but when the U.S. Open will return – not, I’m sure, before the course gets a serious overhaul.
What was undoubtedly tragic, however, was the spectator experience. Aside from the CourseCast radios (provided by American Express) and the stunning views (provided by Mother Nature), it stunk. And since I am not a guy to complain without offering solutions, here are a few ideas the USGA might consider in no particular order:
1. Level some of the hillocks. This has been said so often by so many that I take it as given it’ll be done. I’m not sure, however, that it will solve much: a small hillock is just as slippery as a tall one.
2. Allow fans to flank both sides of the first- and tenth fairways — at least up to the hillocks. Spectators closely flank the fairways at every event on the PGA Tour. There’s no reason whatsoever that this couldn’t be done at Chambers, especially in the first few hundred yards of nos. 1 and 10.
3. Narrow the fairways. The fairways at Chambers were mighty wide — at least 100 yards on No. 13 I’m told. Narrower fairways let fans get closer to the players, especially if they decide to:
4. Put the ropes a lot closer to the fairways. Check out this selfie:
Notice how far away the ropes are from the wildly-wide-to-begin-with fairway? It was like that all over the place, except on holes like no. 8 where, because fans weren’t allowed, there were no ropes at all. Players don’t need thirty yards of fan-free rough to make their way through the championship.
5. Improve the f&B experience. Last week the concession stands were few and far between and the lines for lunch in the Spectator Pavilion were thirty minutes long on Saturday. Waiting half an hour for a $7 Bud Light is downright un-American. Some simple fixes:
- Install more, if smaller, concession stands. I can’t tell you how many times I pointed out spots where I wish there’d have been concession stands — but they weren’t there.
- Simplify the menu. At Augusta National there were roughly two dozen items on the menu — total. At the Spectator Pavilion at Chambers I’m guessing there were closer to 100. The U.S. Open doesn’t need to be Starbucks: in this case, simpler would be better. And while I’m at it, the USGA doesn’t need multiple f&b vendors, as there were at the Spectator Pavilion. One, a la Augusta National, should suffice. Make a decent pb&j ubiquitous, a la Augusta’s pimento cheese sandwich, and you’re really on to something. (Buffet lines instead of single-file ones would be nice, too — at least at the larger concession stands.)
If priced and made correctly, the pb&j could become the U.S. Open’s version of …
the Masters’ pimento cheese.
- Lower the prices — especially on beer. At Augusta National domestic beers were $4 — up from $3 last year — and the suds were flowin’. At Chambers, Bud Lights ran $7 — and the hops consumption was largely absent amongst the riff raff. More beer makes the day better for most folks, and there’s no reason the non-profit USGA needs to price beer like it’s running a ballpark.
- Do promos. Maybe every 5,000th beer gets free tickets to the next year’s U.S. Open. Or the 10,000th pb&j gets U.S. Open tickets for life. Something to get fans extra excited about digging into their wallets.
6. Set up several grandstands on the path alongside 16 and 17. A half dozen grandstands behind which spectators could walk would make 16 and 17 great stadium-like experiences and would be great vantage points to watch the action. I wouldn’t make them too tall — those passing trains were very much part of the Chambers landscape and it would be nice to keep them in sight. (Brendan Grace coulda used these on his 71st hole.)
Imagine a grandstand on the gravel to the left of where the people are walking. Might have helped Brendan Grace.
7. Sell folding chairs and create designated seating areas. One of the coolest things at Augusta National is what I call “the chair thing.” Most “patrons” buy or bring in a $30 folding chair. It fits in a chair bag and comes with a shoulder strap so you can carry it like a rifle. We — and tens of thousands of others — marked our chairs as “ours” by dropping our business cards in the business card slot. From there, we left ’em open for anyone and everyone to sit, usually in areas that ANGC had roped off as designated for sitting. When we wanted our seats back, all we had to do was tell the people sitting in them. Instant desired seating — provided by the fans. Thousands of other patrons did the same thing. Do that anywhere and everywhere at Chambers Bay — the USGA’s revenue spikes, spectators have places to chill, slippage becomes less of a concern — and the chairs are all anyone’s talkin’ about. (Tan, though, not Masters green.)
8. Create an inside-the-ropes ticket. Remember GolfWatch? Back in the mid-90’s, the PGA Tour experimented with an idea of letting fans pay extra for premium tickets. Fans who were willing to pay for it could walk in a designated lane inside the ropes, thus effectively giving themselves front row seats on every hole. GolfWatch didn’t stick, but at Chambers Bay a similar program might make sense. The reason is those hillocks. It’s not a great idea to open them up to everyone — there’d be just too many spills. But if the only people on said hillocks were people willing to pay for the privilege, chances are the crowds would be young, nimble — and happy. (I’m thinking specifically about the hills on 1, 10 and 12 here.)
9. Allow dads and kids inside the ropes on 18 on Sunday. You know how the British Open used to let fans inside the ropes on the final hole of the championship? The USGA could do something similar on 18 on Sunday — dads and their kids only.
Like most of my ideas, these aren’t perfect. I have no idea, for example, what it would cost to add grandstands to the right of 16 and 17. I have not considered the security ramifications of my dads-and-kids-inside-the-ropes idea. (The R&A presumably dropped that tradition for a reason.) And a lot of these concepts obviously come straight from Augusta, and the USGA may be sensitive to accusations of copying. Still, they’re starting points.