PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – The U.S. Open at Pebble Beach was an ideal time for the USGA to bring together its U.S. Open champions for a dinner, which it last did in 2013 at Merion. The attendance was overwhelming and more exclusive than any other such celebration at a dinner.
It attracted 33 of the living 36 champions, spanning 56 years of U.S. Opens – from Jack Nicklaus in 1962 at Oakmont to Brooks Koepka in 2018 at Shinnecock Hills. The only champions who couldn’t attend were Larry Nelson (1983), Fuzzy Zoeller (1984) and Raymond Floyd (1986) because of commitments that had already been scheduled or family health issues.
The Masters and the PGA Championship have a dinner for champions every year. The R&A gathers its champions when the British Open is at St. Andrews.
What made this so exclusive was that no one from the USGA staff was invited. The USGA’s top staff – its CEO, president and incoming president – hosted a reception, and then left. The dinner was co-hosted by Nicklaus and Tom Watson.
“I walked away from that dinner wishing that they did it every year,” Rory McIlroy said. “But I think it is so special that we do it every 5 or 6 years.”
McIlroy said Gary Player, who completed the Grand Slam at the U.S. Open in 1965 at Bellerive, gave a passionate speech about coming to America with no money and winning $26,000 that year.
He also listened to Lee Trevino talk about the 1981 Ryder Cup at Walton Heath. The USGA had artifacts on display from its museum, ranging from the visor Arnold Palmer threw into the air when he won at Cherry Hills in 1960 to the 1-iron Ben Hogan hit on the final hole in regulation at Merion in 1950.
McIlroy and his wife shared a table with Jordan Spieth and his wife, and Brooks Koepka and his girlfriend.
“We were obviously the young table,” McIlroy said. “We must have stayed about an hour-and-a-half after everyone else had left. We shut the place down, just chatting, and it was really, really cool.”
Rory McIlroy is keeping a gift he got after winning the Canadian Open last week under wraps while he’s in Northern California for the U.S. Open.
McIlroy was given a Toronto Raptors jersey on Sunday but knows better than to wear it this week at Pebble Beach, just a few hours away from the home of the Golden State Warriors. Toronto and Golden State are playing in the NBA Finals with the Raptors leading the best-of-seven series 3-2 heading into Game 6 tonight.
McIlroy said he appreciates the dominance of the Warriors, who have won three of the past four titles, and the atmosphere in Canada behind the Raptors. But he doesn’t want to pick sides.
“I’ll be obviously an interested onlooker this week,” he said. “And it’s a nice distraction from what we’re doing. But that Raptors jersey this week is probably staying in the suitcase.”
PAYS TO PLAY
The 16 amateurs playing in the U.S. Open this week won’t be going home completely empty-handed.
For the third straight year, the USGA will reimburse amateurs for their travel expenses this week in order to ease the burden on them.
“We kind of quietly behind the scenes look at our commitment to the amateur game,” said John Bodenhamer, the senior managing director of championships for the USGA. “And that’s just something we felt was the right thing to do.”
There is a limit to the support as evidenced by the USGA response when asked whether the amateurs get to stay at The Lodge, the decadent five-star hotel at Pebble Beach.
“I tell you that’s a no,” USGA executive director Mike Davis said.
The amateurs also got to take part in a special dinner Monday night at the Cypress Point Club, where former U.S. Amateur champion Mark O’Meara delivered a message.
The USGA also will give some money to the professionals who miss the cut.
The USGA has taken notice of the change in greens at Chambers Bay, site of the 2015 U.S. Open.
After that tournament in Washington state was marred by greens that featured fescue grass that was all but dead when the tournament started, the course has now finished its transformation to new, lush poa annua greens.
Bodenhamer took a tour of the course earlier this year to see the new greens that will be on display in 2021 for the U.S. Amateur Four-Ball Championship in 2021.
Whether that’s enough to bring the U.S. Open back to Chambers Bay in the future remains to be seen. The USGA has announced sites through 2027, when the tournament returns to Pebble Beach.
“The good part is we’ve got time to figure that out,” Bodenhamer said. “And Chambers Bay was certainly on our radar screen.”
The U.S. Open always exempts the U.S. Amateur champion and runner-up, the U.S. Mid-Amateur champion, the British Amateur champion and the U.S. Junior Amateur. It apparently isn’t a one-and-done experience.
This year features the last three Mid-Amateur champions, the event for players 25 and older.
Kevin O’Connell won the Mid-Amateur last year. Matt Parziale and Stewart Hagestad, the 2017 and 2016 Mid-Amateur champions, each made it through sectional qualifying. Parziale shared low amateur honors last year with Luis Gagne of Costa Rica, who also returned through sectional qualifying.