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What Now for Sahalee?

By: Tony Dear


The dust kicked up by over 130,000 enthusiastic golf fans has settled, the cheers which resonated around Sahalee's grand cedars have subsided, and the "German Machine" is back home (in Florida) wondering where, amongst his 73 other plaques, medals, salvers and cups, to put the Francis Ouimet Trophy.

U.S. Senior Open week has come and gone, and Sahalee Country Club and the USGA are now busy crunching numbers and reading reviews to work out just how successful a tournament they put on. A quick glance at the most revealing statistics - number of paying spectators and TV audiences - plus a look at some of the players' overwhelmingly positive comments, will tell them that Tournament Director Mike Zinga, Championship Chairman Chris Falco, course superintendent Rich Taylor, dozens of USGA officials who worked on-site, and the 3,000 or so volunteers who parked cars, removed litter, worked the practice range and marshaled galleries absolutely and undeniably nailed it.

Not only did the number of spectators exceed most projections, and top that from the 1998 PGA Championship when attendance was capped at 25,000 per day, Seattle TV viewers were also glued to their sets while Bernhard Langer outdueled local favorite Fred Couples for his second major championship win in successive weeks.

Local NBC affiliate KING 5 reported an HH Rating of 2.0 for its Saturday afternoon telecast which rather put to shame the 0.7 rating the Greenbrier Classic attracted on local CBS affiliate KIRO 7. On Sunday, with the outcome in the balance all the way to the 18th hole (even if Couples had made it easier for Langer with that triple-bogey eight on the second hole), KING received an impressive 3.7 rating, which was 363% larger than what KIRO got in spite of Stuart Appleby's winning - and PGA Tour record-tying - 59.

In addition to, or perhaps because of, all those healthy numbers, tournament week progressed remarkably smoothly according to Zinga, who had encountered a number of unforeseen difficulties at previous tournaments but who got through last week with barely a scrape. "It is the first time I've experienced such a smooth event," he says.

"In the past, we've had to deal with serious parking issues, galleries that got out of control, problems with the course set-up and difficulties locating suitable accommodation for players and families. But we eliminated all those at Sahalee."

Zinga, who will move back to the East Coast in a few weeks' time after his three years' of work at Sahalee, adds that the week far exceeded his expectations, even after all that preparation. In fact, he can think of only three instances when his plans went awry, and two of them were completely out of his control. "Sprinklers popped up and started spraying water just a few yards in front of Couples during the clinic he put on for First Tee and Boys and Girls Club members on Tuesday afternoon," says Zinga. "And then Seafair, rather distastefully I think, ambushed the event on Sunday afternoon with a propeller plane flying over the course promoting their event along with Budweiser."

The third - staging the event in the midst of a deep recession - was definitely the most challenging and impactful. "If we could have avoided a recession during the planning, it would have made everything an awful lot easier," Zinga says. "But all in all, we persevered through a tough economy and everything worked out well."

Quick to distribute the credit, Zinga cites the club's commitment to the event, and the contributions of Couples, both on and off the course, as vital to the championship's success. "It's impossible to say how it would have turned out had Fred not been in the field, since he committed to being our Honorary Chairman two years in advance," says Zinga. "But we were lucky to get him involved early on. That was partly our good planning, but it was also a natural fit. He is a gentleman who obviously cares about kids and the Northwest."

As for Zinga's New Jersey-based colleagues at the USGA, they too appeared well pleased with what they saw. At a press conference the day before play started, the organization's President Jim Hyler alluded to how impressed he had been with the club's dedication and Jeff Hall, Managing Director of Rules and Competitions, said how well the course had been set up: playable but with characteristically firm greens, thick rough and narrow fairways (which Hall complimented with some extremely tough pin positions).

Following the completion of play, Hall elaborated, saying Sahalee had played exactly as he had wished. "The golf course performed as I hoped it would and provided a very solid test for the best senior players in the world."

With the USGA emitting so many good vibes, the players saying they wished they competed on more courses like Sahalee, and the region benefiting from an economic impact estimated at $25 million, you'd be hard pressed to find anyone who doesn't think the USGA should return to Sammamish some time in the near future.

But first, says Hall, they have to be invited.

"It would be an honor to work with the USGA again," says Falco who remembers there was an 86% approval rating among the members when the offer of a U.S. Senior Open was first put to them, a number he says would likely be replicated today. "It's difficult to speculate over how the membership would react to a similar offer now because we've had a lot of turnover," he says. "But I assume it would be just as popular."

And, given what transpired last week, Falco believes the club of which he's president would be well placed to earn a USGA return. "They seemed very impressed with the course and our organization," he says. "The players obviously liked it and the crowds were phenomenal, so I don't think it would be hard to persuade them back."

But, as Falco adds, you don't really try to lobby the USGA. "They decide based on their criteria, but as everyone saw, we have the ability to stage a great tournament."

What the USGA may or may not propose doesn't really concern Falco at this point. He says the club would have to look at the revenue model of whichever tournament they were offered to see if it fit the club, but adds he would probably be happy with any USGA event.

It's unlikely, however, that Falco and his members would be as pleased with, say, a U.S. Junior Girls Championship or U.S. Womens Amateur as they would another U.S. Senior Open, the U.S. Womens Open, or even the U.S. Open itself.

The question of Sahalee hosting the national championship came up last week and, while Falco said he would, of course, be interested in bringing it to Sahalee one day, he thought it probably wouldn't happen because of the property's compact nature. The 180 acres of Sahalee Country Club do not compare favorably with the 930 on offer at Chambers Bay in University Place, Wash., venue for the 2015 championship, for instance. And it is positively dwarfed by the 2,000-plus acres available at New York's Bethpage State Park, whose Black Course staged the 2002 and 2009 events.

'They are not only great courses, they have so much more room for peripheral things like car parking and corporate hospitality," says Falco, "and they are huge factors in the decision."

And on top of Chambers Bay apparently becoming the darling of the USGA in Washington State (it will host the U.S. Amateur in three weeks as well as the U.S. Open in five years), Sahalee isn't even top among the USGA's list of preferred smaller sites as Merion in suburban Philadelphia is probably the popular favorite in that category. The East Course, where Bobby Jones won the 1930 U.S. Amateur to complete the Grand Slam, Ben Hogan hit the now-famous 1-iron to the 18th green in the 1950 U.S. Open, and Lee Trevino apparently threw a plastic snake at Jack Nicklaus before their playoff at the '71 U.S. Open, will be the venue for the 2013 Open having been significantly lengthened prior to its hosting the 2005 U.S. Amateur, which was considered a great success.

With the U.S. Open a dim and distant prospect then, the Womens Open or Senior Open surely rank as favorites among Sahalee's members. But the next available opportunity for the Womens Open is 2016 while the soonest the Senior Open could return is 2015, by which time Fred Couples will be 55 and possibly not the competitor he is now.

That's not to say Seattle's golf fans wouldn't flock to Sahalee to watch their favorite player's last hurrah in his hometown, but if he isn't near the lead going into the final 36 holes or, God forbid, misses the cut, the weekend attendance would be nowhere near as big as it was a week ago. "I think we still would have had a successful event this year without Fred," says Falco, "but he definitely had a big impact. We might not have had the enormous crowds we saw on Saturday and Sunday had he not been here.

"He is the rock star the Champions Tour has been waiting for and we were just fortunate it all timed out for us as well. We had quite a few non-golfers in the crowd over the week that we might not normally have seen. And we sold a ton of single-day passes for the weekend."

Passes the USGA might not be willing to lose.

Tony Dear is an Englishman living in Bellingham, Wash. In the early 1990s he was a member of the Liverpool University golf team which played its home matches at Royal Liverpool GC. Easy access to Hoylake made it increasingly difficult for him to focus on Politics (his chosen major) and, after dropping out, he ended up teaching golf at a club just south of London where he also made a futile attempt at becoming a "player." He moved into writing when it became abundantly clear he had no business playing the game for a living. A one-time golf correspondent of the New York Sun, Tony is a member of the Golf Writers Association of America, the Pacific Northwest Golf Media Association and the Golf Travel Writers Association. He is a multi-award winning journalist, and edits his own web site at www.bellinghamgolfer.com.

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