Sports

The U.S. Open That Almost Didn’t Happen

BROOKLINE, Mass. — The Country Club, the site of this year’s U.S. Open, had come close to not staging the major tournament at all, until the club realized there was something to the adage of being the smallest house in the nicest neighborhood.

The Country Club is on the short list of the United States Golf Association’s most cherished institutions, one of the five clubs that banded together in the 1890s to form the association. It was the site of arguably the most important moment in American golf history — the 1913 U.S. Open won by the amateur Francis Ouimet in a playoff over the celebrated British professionals Ted Ray and Harry Vardon.

But the club is tucked away in an exclusive neighborhood in a Boston suburb with little room to accommodate the growing demands of modern major tournaments. The P.G.A. of America awarded the club its 2005 championship, but it decided it would be too much and pulled out.

Explaining the decision in 2002, John Cornish, the chairman of the 1999 Ryder Cup matches at the club, said, “we were faced with the need to downsize the scope of services, local corporations and the media. The club presented this to the P.G.A. and concurred with the P.G.A. that the changes would not be in the best interests of the P.G.A. Championship.”

The U.S.G.A was not convinced that the Country Club could host a modern U.S. Open. John Bodenhamer, the association’s chief championships officer, said Wednesday “this Open almost didn’t happen.” The 1988 Open was held in Brookline, for the third time over a 75-year period, but Bodenhamer was skeptical there would be a fourth at the course.

“The footprint was small,” Bodenhamer said. “It was in a residential community. There were just too many hurdles to overcome in what we do and what you see out there now.”

Bodenhamer said the U.S.G.A.’s position changed in 2013. That year, the U.S. Open was held at Merion Golf Club, outside Philadelphia. It, too, has a small footprint and is in a residential suburban neighborhood. But the tournament proved to be a success and soon Bodenhamer was in touch with officials at the Country Club to see if there was any interest in hosting a U.S. Open. There was.

Grounds crew workers mowing a rough on No. 4 at the Country Club earlier this week.Credit…Robert F. Bukaty/Associated Press

In July 2015, the U.S.G.A made it official: The Country Club would hold its fourth U.S. Open, in 2022, and put on a U.S.G.A. event for a 17th time. Only Merion, with 19, has been the site of more, and the Open is scheduled to return there in 2030.

“This is a throwback U.S. Open,” Bodenhamer said. “I think when you go around this place and you just see, they didn’t move much dirt with donkeys. They had a little bit of dynamite, but that was it.”

There are rock outcroppings, blind shots, small greens and the punitive U.S. Open rough. There is a short, downhill par-3 that hasn’t been used in a U.S. Open since 1913. There is the famed dogleg left 17th hole, scene of Vardon’s bogey in the playoff in 1913 and Justin Leonard’s long birdie putt in the 1999 Ryder Cup as part of the U.S. team’s comeback.

“I promise you something magical will happen on No. 17,” Bodenhamer said. “It just has to.”

The Australian player Cameron Smith called the Country Club “my favorite U.S. Open venue I think I’ve been to. I love it, mate.” He is competing in his seventh Open, which has included stops at Pebble Beach in California, Oakmont near Pittsburgh and Shinnecock Hills and Winged Foot in New York.

That is the message Bodenhamer said he has been receiving all week.

“The players love this place,” Bodenhamer said. “The ghosts of the past matter. You can’t buy history. You can only earn it. And the Country Club has it.”

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