Wednesday, June 11, 2008|When the USGA called its first meeting of the Torrey Pines Golf Club to discuss the Club’s members volunteering as marshals at the U.S. Open Golf Championship, it was not the usual feel-good crowd. The Club, which dates from the very beginning of the course in 1957, provides San Diego residents, boys and girls, men and women, an opportunity to compete in weekly tournaments in a variety of serious and fun formats.

From the very beginning, the Club helped to financially support the course by having a large, regular group of players. That all changed with the coming of the U.S. Open. The 1,200-member men’s club and 400-member women’s club, which had supported the course for half a century, were virtually cut off from their long-standing access to the course as play dropped from eight tournaments a month to three.

To continue, the Club had to find tee times at other courses. It was as if they had been sent into exile.

This exodus came about because, as the city grew and matured, developers recognized the huge financial potential of this gem of a course by the sea and the city, always hungry for new sources of revenue, bought into the developer’s vision for the course as a cash cow. New luxury hotels along the 18th fairway were soon filled with well-heeled guests hungry for tee times.

As the wealthy took over the course, a new vision arose.

Bringing the U.S. Open to Torrey Pines meant luxury hospitality tents for the rich, and substantially more revenue for the city’s coffers.

Bringing the Open to Torrey Pines was made possible by the new policy of the USGA to expanding the courses where the Open was held to include municipal golf courses. The first was held in 2002 at New York’s Bethpage Black Course. Ironically, by bringing the Open to what had been a very public Torrey Pines Municipal Golf course, the USGA and the city transformed the South Course into a private course for the well-to-do. Plans to destroy the North Course in similar fashion were fortunately defeated.

Exclusive private, not municipal, golf courses had traditionally held the Open Championship. These courses had membership fees in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, and monthly dues of over a thousand dollars.

The Torrey Pines Golf Club, on the other hand is open to any resident of San Diego with a hundred dollars to spare for a membership fee. Its members are generally not lawyers, doctors and business tycoons, but carpenters, truck drivers and retirees, including retired military personnel. For them, a five dollar increase in greens fees is a burden. With the coming of the Open, greens fees increased substantially.

But the increase in greens fees paled in comparison to what the USGA did to the South Course.

As Brad Bruce, a former Men’s Club Senior Golf champion describes it, “The South Course is now virtually unplayable for the average golfer.”

No less a pro than Phil Mickelson declared it to be “the hardest golf course in the world.” And a six handicapper playing from the championship tee boxes, recently shot a round of 114. This is a golfer who normally shoots 78.

Even giving a very generous stroke a hole, or 18 strokes, for the fact he was playing the championship tees, he still would have shot 96. That’s almost 20 strokes above his average. This on a course that is supposed to be playable by young and old, skilled and duffer alike. Now, you might play the South course once to say you have played it, but you would never play it again to enjoy a round of golf.

And playing golf should be a pleasure offered to San Diego residents. Contrast this with the city of Coronado which is refurbishing its historic old municipal course. It’s not about the money, but about the people of Coronado.

“We’ve planned the course improvements carefully to enhance the course and keep it fun and challenging for player at all skill levels,” said Coronado course superintendent Dave Jones.

The South course at Torrey Pines is not only unplayable for golfers of average skill levels, it is almost unplayable for very good golfers. The irony is that because of all the tee times given to hotels and other organizations, it doesn’t matter that the city has made it impossible for residents to get a tee time to play the South, because they can’t and don’t want to play it anyway.

The city has effectively turned the South Course into a private country club for wealthy visitors.

How did they make the course so unplayable? Length is only one factor. The South was always fairly long, but it was also fair. The difficulty for average golfers on a long course is trying to land the ball and have it stay there. With a wedge, which is used to fly the ball a short distance very high so it lands softly on the green, this is possible.

But long courses force average golfers to use woods and long irons which have a low trajectory. This was possible on the old South where you could run the ball onto the green and, if you missed, it would be caught by a friendly sand trap which was level with or above the green. Now, the openings to the greens have been narrowed, the approaches sloped, and the sand traps turned into deep pits of despair to make it impossible to hit the green in regulation.

There is now a premium on sand trap play. This is fine for the professionals. The sand is perfectly groomed for them and they are experts at sand shots. For the average golfer, however, the sand traps are often damp, compacted and un-raked. This spells double doom. A course that provided a weekend of enjoyment for the masses has now become a monster only the elite can even attempt to play.

And the players in the U.S. Open are the elite of the elite. Holding a U.S. Open for the best golfers in the world is a monumental undertaking. It requires years of preparation and hard work. To make the task even more daunting, the USGA must also accommodate tens of thousands of spectators. It requires planning for security, food, movement of crowds, communications, television, the press and myriad other matters. The USGA does a brilliant job of this.

If they had been in charge of the war in Iraq, Iraq’s infrastructure would be in better shape than before the war and the country would be running itself. The USGA is also brilliant at diplomacy, which it needs to be. Because having destroyed the South Course, and for all practical purposes the Torrey Pines Golf Club along with it, the USGA now had to face that very same men’s club and convince them to volunteer as marshals for the Open.

At the diplomatic summit between the USGA and the Club, the USGA representative explained that there are several kinds of volunteer marshals who help control the tournament crowd. There are tee box marshals, fairway marshals, crosswalk marshals, greenside marshals, grandstand marshals and 19th-hole marshals. The best is tee box marshal. And the best of the tee box marshals are those who marshal the first and 18th holes because, as the USGA spokesman explained, “You get to welcome the greatest golfer’s in the world onto the course and see them off after their round.”

During the meeting, the USGA wined and dined the Club members, who were not used to such affluence or attention, and played an inspirational film on the history of the U.S. Open Golf Championship. This was all well and good, but the USGA had destroyed the South Course forever and had turned our golf course into an elite private club from which we were excluded.

When the film finished, the spokesman invited the Club members to become part of golfing history. He told them they would not only be marshaling the tee boxes, but, unlike private clubs where the members are spread around the various holes, the Torrey Pines Golf Club members would be marshaling the first and 18th holes.

“We would be welcoming the greatest golfers in the world onto the course and seeing them off after their round,” we thought. A silence immediately fell over the room. Then, just as quickly, enthusiastic applause echoed off the walls as the spokesman beamed.

Pulled along by this wave of enthusiasm, I saw myself standing on the first tee box with Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson. I was smiling, and clapping consumed by this thought. We’d be inside the ropes with Tiger and Phil. We were ecstatic.

And we were made to feel this way by the very organization that had destroyed our course and club. Brilliant.

Kevin McLean is a local lawyer and member of the Torrey Pines Men’s Club — e-mail him at kevmcl@gmail.com. What do you think about what he said? Send a letter and start the debate on your own terms.

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