Road Holes — 14 June 2015 by GW staff and news services
Open will impact the region for years

(With the U.S. Open Week starting Monday, Golferswest.com will re-publish many of the stories our writers have written of the course over the past months and years. This one, written by Bob Sherwin, is the lasting financial the Open will have on Chambers Bay and region. It appears in Cascade Golfer Magazine this month)

Cascade Golfer Magazine

So much technical analysis has taken place, logistics, time horizons, extrapolations, projections, predictions, propositions, all to discern this region’s residual economic benefit from the U.S. Open June 18-21 at Chambers Bay golf course.

Perhaps its impact can best be summed up with one highly technical term: Humongous

There simply is no comparison. Nothing previously in the history of the region has been staged on such a massive scale within such a short time frame.

Could this be the biggest financial event in the history of Pierce County?

“Absolutely. Unquestionably,” Pierce County Executive Pat McCarthy said. “I would even go further. It’s probably the biggest singular financial event ever in the state of Washington.”

Tom Norwalk, President and CEO of Visit Seattle, the arm of the convention and visitors bureau, added, “yes, it could be. I’m not sure we’ve had many events that comes close to this. We want to compete for a Super Bowl here one day. That would be the only thing right up there.”

Will more revenue be generated in one week at the University Place facility than that once productive gravel mine rendered in an entire century?

“That is also true,” McCarthy said. “This has never happened before in the Pacific Northwest.”

How much? About $140 million is the working number. For all the extensive research and simulated economic models, it’s not an exact science. It figure could push upwards of $200 million. One thing is sure, money will flow.

“We see about $140 million, that’s merchandise, hotels, restaurants, rental cars, among other things,” McCarthy said. “That’s based on a study after Torrey Pines (2008 U.S. Open).”

There are other studies that reach beyond that figure. The North Carolina Convention and Visitors Bureau estimated that Pinehurst, which held the men’s and women’s U.S. Opens on successive weeks last year, generated $169 million.

That report even broke down the revenue sources: Lodging (41 percent), food and beverage (25 percent), retail purchases (14 percent), recreation/golf (12 percent), transportation (five percent) and other (three percent).

John Ladenburg, the former Pierce County Executive, said Pinehurst’s back-to-back Opens “were estimated by the local convention bureau to have an impact of $238 million. The USGA typically estimates a economic impact of the men’s Open at $170 million. I think this one will be the best ever due to higher interest and I believe this will end up in the $200 million range.”

Ladenburg, who was instrumental in pushing for the 950-acre Chambers site to become a world class links golf facility, said the merchandise tent “will be 44,000-square feet, more than a football field and a half. There will be another 10,000-square foot tent at the other end. They will generate $20 million in sales. That’s enough to provide half of University Place’s budget for the year.”

He said will be like four consecutive days of the Super Bowl and all the local economies will feel the love.

“Our tax system is better here since we do not have a state income tax,” he said. “We have a high sales tax for hotels, rental cars. Of that (taxes), half will go to the state. And about a third of the second half will go to King County. Next would be Pierce County but Thurston, Kitsap and Snohomish will all receive multi-millions.”

With that kind of impact, why did it take 115 years to get one of these U.S. Open championships in the Northwest?

It wasn’t until the late 1990s that a handful of elected officials and local entrepreneurs, staring at a degraded gravel pit on the shores of the Puget Sound, who had the vision for a world-class course that would challenge the world’s best golfers.

Ladenburg said the property was never going to be “just another golf course. What if we could build a professional golf course that could hold a major tournament? Then we could use it as an economic tool like other areas, in Nevada, Arizona, the Carolinas and Florida. Build it to attract tourism. Why can’t we do that?”

They did, despite many who said they can’t or shouldn’t. Ladenburg and the others who drove that vision were lambasted for the folly of thinking big. It didn’t help their cause when the Pierce County Council kept transferring millions annually to cover the debt on the more than $25 million to develop the facility – during the toughest stages of the recession. It wasn’t until last year that the 8-year-old course finally turned a profit.

Throughout that rough ride to get the black column, Chambers Bay had two heavyweights to help the besieged local supporters. One was Robert Trent Jones, Sr., the renown golf course architect, whose team fashioned an inspired links course along the Puget Sound. The other was Mike Davis, the executive director of the United States Golf Association (USGA), who enthusiastically climbed aboard even before the first shovel was turned.

It was Davis, just nine months after Chambers Bay opened in 2007, who announced that the 2010 U.S. Amateur and the 2015 U.S. Open would be held there.

Now here we are, a month from where vision confronts reality.

“The heads of all the major corporations will be here, Rolex, American Express, NASDAQ,” Ladenburg said. “Coke will have three planes fly here from Atlanta with their executives. When they’re talking about where to put new plants, they can look at Seattle/Tacoma and say, ‘I’ve been there. Let’s look at that.’ Suddenly, we’re on the map. That helps economic development.”

Norwalk said his Visit Seattle will take a proactive approach.

“The invitation is out,” he said. “This is our chance to use this to our best advantage. We can show off the area to our best customers and meeting planners from around the world and have them join us during that week. It will put us on the map. We’ll have a global spotlight on us that week. It’s a rare and spectacular opportunity.”

In addition, a major tournament historically also casts a pre-shadow and post-shadow on the home region. Chambers Bay already has seen an increase of out-of-state players – 3,200 last year – who came here to experience the course in the same way as the professionals. Based on patterns of other U.S. Open host courses, that post-shadow will continue with vigor for at least another two years.

“Our bookings each year have steadily increased,” said John Morrissett, chief marketing director for Erin Hills, the 9-year-old Wisconsin golf course that will host the 2017 U.S. Open. “We don’t open until May 11 but half our tee times and 70 percent of our lodging is already booked.”

He said he’s aware of the post-shadow and “we’re hoping and planning for it.”

Even the oldest course in the world, Scotland’s St. Andrews’ Old Course, which has held the British Open Championship 28 times, follows the same pattern. St. Andrews will host the Open for the 29th time in July and, because of that renewed exposure, the course has been inundated again with increased bookings for the foreseeable future.

“We actually did a fair amount of research on that,” said Mike Hein, VP of Sales and Business Development for Oki Golf, which controls 11 golf facilities in the Puget Sound region. “When the Open comes to the area what happens to third-party tour planners? What’s going on, what can we expect and how we can benefit?”

He said his courses already have booked more than 1,000 rounds for the three weeks before during and after the Open.

“I think it’s going to be a boost for us,” Hein said.

Hein said much of the increased bookings have been for Washington National and Trophy Lake – two courses in close proximity to Chambers Bay.

If the U.S. Open at Chambers shows well and is successful, that alters the local landscape. Chambers Bay becomes the centerpiece for the mostly male-dominated ‘buddy golf trips.’ Seattle/Tacoma suddenly will be a golf destination where groups can also play nearby courses such as Gold Mountain, McCormick Woods, The Home Course or Trophy Lake.

Hein said his company is developing an Oki Golf Trail to facilitate destination trips.

“We expect a lot of out-of-area golfers coming in, from Canada, Oregon, buddies coming in,” Hein said. “Some of that might be Joe from Florida and a little bit of international play, from Asia. There are non-stops from Seoul, Tokyo, Shanghai.”

That not merely benefits local courses but hotels, rental-car agencies, restaurants and tourist sites.

A major contributing factor is that Chambers is a public course and accessible for the average ‘buddy,’ much like Erin Hills, Torrey Pines, Pebble Beach, Beth Page Black and Whistling Straits, among others. Some may be quite costly but at least a golfer has a chance of getting on them.

“When people see those TV shots of the Sound and the (mountain) backdrop that boosts the reputation of the Northwest,” Hein said. “They could go and play Pebble and pay $500-600-plus, or come here and pay maybe $200 for a round and spent $1,000 or $1,200 for the week. They’d like that deal.”

How this region rakes the benefit of the post-shadow after those four days in June depends much on what the world sees. FOX Sports inaugurates its new golf television package with Chambers. More than 45 million people will watch it in 118 countries. The network will have 1,100 people working the event and a brand new team of broadcasters that includes Greg Norman.

“They’re huge. They’re like ESPN. They know what they are doing,” Ladenburg said. “They’ll want to go over the top because they are new to the game and they know people will judge them on this U.S. Open. They’ll do a good job of showcasing this.”

The USGA generates just about all of its operating revenues from the U.S. Open Championship so it’s in their best interest as well attract as many eyeballs as possible.

What the planners and promoters are most interested in impressing, however, is Mike Davis and the USGA. Chambers Bay folks want to be in the rotation for another Open, maybe in another decade or so.

There will be 2,200 credentials media members and nearly 40,000 spectators a day who will pass on their evaluations of Chambers Bay and the region. This area is going to be exposed in a fashion not seen previously. No more isolation in the Northwest. Our little secret up here will be out there for all to witness. This is the big time. This is going to be, well, humongous.

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