Pitching together to open up Torrey Pines

IF THERE was ever any doubt as to the municipal heart of this week’s US Open venue, it can be dispelled by Henrik Stenson’s experience there just before Christmas.

The multi-millionaire Swede, currently ranked 13th in the world, rolled up at the southern California public course in December for a practice round. He paid, yes paid, his green fees — as a non-resident of San Diego he had to pay extra on top of the locals’ rate of $42 (€27) — and Stenson enjoyed the rare experience for a touring pro of buying a bucket of balls to use for his warm-up. Then he got paired with two beginners.

Welcome to Torrey Pines Golf Course, proudly owned by the City of San Diego and temporary home of the United States Golf Association’s national championship.

It has been a long time coming, this. In fact, Ben Hogan was the winner the last time the US Open visited southern California. It was 1948 at Riviera near Los Angeles, and Harry Truman was still in the White House.

That fact struck a nerve in San Diego, down on the Mexican border, where they take their golf seriously and many of the world’s leading equipment manufacturers choose to site their headquarters.

When your best course, Torrey Pines, is a municipal one, however, and the people that run the US Open have a history of choosing exclusive private clubs for their national championship, what chance did this coastal port city have of realising their dream?

There had been a couple of precedents, if you count Pinehurst and Pebble Beach as public courses. Theoretically they are, because as resort courses they are open to the public, but history was still against a push for Torrey Pines. Pebble Beach, way up the Pacific coast in northern California, had opened in 1919 and not landed its first US Open until 1972, while Pinehurst had been in existence since 1895, the year of the first US Open, and did not stage its own event until 1999.

Torrey Pines, for all the beauty of its location perched on cliffs above the Pacific, and its staging of a PGA Tour event, the Buick Invitational, had only been in existence since 1957.

It was not until the mid-1990s that San Diegans had any hope that Torrey Pines, their municipal pride and joy, would ever be a viable course for consideration by the USGA, the governing body of the game in the US and organisers of the US Open.

That was when they gave the nod to Bethpage State Park, home to wonderful, rolling municipal golf courses designed by the esteemed AW Tillinghast on New York’s Long Island.

The New York State-owned course was given around US$3.5m (€2.2m) in 1997 to remodel its Black course in time for the 2002 US Open and this did not go unnoticed on the west coast.

Having seen the success at Bethpage, which crowned Tiger Woods as its winner six years ago, a group called the Friends of Torrey Pines was formed to attract funds to their cause and raise the $3.5m needed to make the South Course suitable for a US Open.

They also stole something else out of the Bethpage handbook, bringing in Rees Jones to do the renovations.

Jones, a renowned course ‘doctor’, added 500 yards to Torrey Pines South, making it potentially the longest layout in major history at 7,673 yards. Perhaps more importantly, he has ensured that the USGA would get its traditional US Open set-up, the sort that made former USGA president Judy Bell describe the championship as “the examination” and the pros joke that the fairways are so narrow they have to walk single file.

When they descend on Torrey Pines this week, they will see those familiar narrow fairways and high rough, although the distance is not a worry.

“Length doesn’t concern anyone on our tour,” said Furyk, the 2003 US Open champion and runner-up the last two years. “You can’t make golf courses long enough anymore. Seventy-six hundred yards is not that long, especially if the course is playing fast and hard.

“But the golf course concerns me because it is hard. The greens are very severe, as severe as we’ve seen for a long time at a US Open. … A lot of the fairways are pitched … You have to carve the ball to keep the ball in the fairway.”

Furyk admits Torrey Pines isn’t his favourite course, a fact borne out by his rare appearances at the Buick Invitational. “It’s no secret I’ve only played Torrey Pines three times in 15 years,” he said. “And unless I win the Open, there’s a good chance I’m not going back next year.

“I don’t dislike it. I don’t think it’s a bad course. … It’s a good golf course and it’s hard.”

Furyk’s words are music to the ears of the USGA, whose senior director of rules and competition Mike Davis is proud of the decision to hand the US Open to a muni.

“There’s really no difference in setting up a private club for a championship and setting up a public course for a championship,” Davis said earlier this year. “We wouldn’t take the Open to a course that’s not up to our standards.

“If the course meets our standards, why not take it to a public course?”

Jay Rains could think of 3.5 million good reasons why not. A corporate securities lawyer in San Diego, Rains was charged with raising the money to pay for Rees Jones’ renovations.

In the summer of 2001, as the USGA’s deadline loomed to have the work finished, Rains was still half a million dollars short of his target, and with the PGA Tour set to walk into Torrey Pines the following February ready to play the Buick.

With the city of San Diego knee deep in a stadium building project for its Major League Baseball team the Padres, and only committed to spending $900,000 to renovating the greens, Rains and a colleague named Rich Gillette formed the Friends of Torrey Pines and set out across the community with begging bowls in hand.

“Terror is a great motivator,” Rains admits. “Turning back wasn’t an option so thank goodness the people in the San Diego area quickly delivered the funds and returned my blood pressure to only slightly off the chart.”

Rains put up a lot of his own money to generate goodwill among potential donors, recalling: “At the time that was a little painful but in the long term it made it a lot easier because people could relate to it.

“If I had enough passion and belief that I was willing to commit my own funds, they would believe in it too.”

With three levels of gifts up to $500,000, the Friends of Torrey Pines recruited 23 investors to their cause, their fundraising and Jones’ renovations only interrupted by the terrorist attacks of 9/11 when the Course Doctor was prevented from flying and shipments of sod and materials had to be shipped by road rather than by air.

By the summer of 2002, every member of the USGA Executive Committee had visited Torrey Pines and it was during that year’s US Open at Bethpage that the governing body gave notice that it tentatively was committed to their course for 2008.

The deal was sealed that October, thanks to the private donations of Rains and his cohorts, and for those who could not afford such a large gift there was still plenty of opportunity to give. More than 2,000 locals joined the waiting list for volunteers.


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