It's a relatively small event but a prelude to a humongous payoff.
And even if it's cloudy and cool, it's Pierce County's opportunity to shine.
This week's 110th U.S. Amateur golf championship is a big first test for Chambers Bay, the $21 million county-owned course in University Place.
The weeklong event, which begins Monday with play at Chambers Bay and the Home Course in DuPont, will bring some 300 amateur golfers and 3,000 to 5,000 spectators a day. It's expected to cost $1.4 million but pay for itself without county dollars. The Amateur - the nation's oldest golf championship - will be carried live on national television and covered closely by the traveling golf press.
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The Home Course is the bit player here; Chambers Bay is the major draw - and therefore is getting the most superlatives and scrutiny. The championship will be decided there Aug. 29 after seven days of play.
In many ways, it's a bit like the eighth-grade prom - a big dance, but the more elegant, expensive, satisfying partnership remains a few years away.
That would be the 2015 U.S. Open, a mega tournament that will bring professional golf's best to Puget Sound to play and as many as 65,000 spectators a day to watch.
The Open, one of the golfing world's "majors, " will rigorously try not only the course but the region's ability to master the logistics of filling hotel rooms, shuttling people to and from a venue that abuts residential neighborhoods, and attending to thousands of other details.
If the USGA deems the course - and the area - worthy, Chambers Bay could land a spot on the coveted U.S Open rotation, with the tournament coming around every nine years or so.
Organizers believe the Open will inject at least $140 million into the local economy, with the impact increasing each time thereafter.
The far smaller U.S. Amateur is seen variously by those involved as a "dry run, " a "proving ground, " a "coming out party" for the three-year-old Chambers Bay.
Based on a model from other cities' experiences, the Amateur could generate $2 million in local business, said Tammy Blount, President and CEO of the Tacoma Regional Convention & Visitor Bureau.
Each of those 300-plus golfers is expected to come with parents, family members and friends. Area businesses are bringing clients in to enjoy the festivities.
More than 2,000 hotel rooms have been booked in Tacoma, Lakewood and DuPont, Blount said.
Corporate jets and chartered planes will bring business to Tacoma Narrows Airport, though Pavco Flight Center owner Mike Pickett said last week that he didn't know how much.
"It will be a great test" for the course and the community, said Mike Davis, senior director of rules and competitions for the United States Golf Association, or USGA, which sanctions the event.
"It's kind of like going on a first date."
There will be legions of chaperones. NBC and the Golf Channel will televise much of the tournament. Spectators will likely watch stars in the making.
You won't see greats like Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson playing Chambers Bay this week, "but you could very well see the next Phil or Tiger, " Davis said.
Local corporate supporters, who've paid a total of some $850,000 for tickets and VIP treatment for themselves and their guests, are effusive about the prospects.
"This is historic. It's exciting. It will forever change University Place, " said Deanna Cleaveland, a founding partner of Cornerstone Financial Strategies. "We think it will forever become known as a golf destination community just like Pebble Beach" on California's Monterey Peninsula.
Paying its own way
Some looking at a $1.4 million tab for a weeklong golf tournament might ask: How can it possibly cost so much?
It's large-scale undertaking, with a fleet of lent Lexus GX460 SUVs and sedans ready to ferry golfers and officials around; a mile of rent-a-fence to keep nonpaying spectators out; a 60-foot scoreboard; $343,000 in administrative costs; a $276,000 marketing budget; and hundreds of thousands of dollars in merchandise, food and beverages ready to be bought and consumed.
The tab for the Amateur will be paid from a combination of local corporate support, ticket, food, beverage and merchandise sales, Pierce County Executive Pat McCarthy said.
The tournament is carefully budgeted, and taxpayer funds aren't being spent on the event, county officials said. Several county employees, however, are working on the tournament as part of their normal job duties.
County officials believe the income will pay for the outgo, Deputy County Executive Kevin Phelps said.
McCarthy and her staff launched a handful of teams to work on the event from the county side. KemperSports, which manages the golf course, is handling other details and is well-acquainted with staging prestigious golf events, Phelps said.
Chambers Bay general manager Matt Allen oversaw the USGA's Curtis Cup and U.S. Mid-Amateur while working for KemperSports at Oregon's Bandon Dunes in 2006 and 2007.
The county's financial staff is watchdogging expenses.
Though they're relying on figures provided by county employees and KemperSports organizers, accountants are "watching, asking questions, making sure we feel comfortable, " budget manager Aaron BeMiller said.
When all the totals are figured after the event, "We will very much go through and see where we are, what were the expenses, where did we miss, where did we hit, " BeMiller said.
Phelps is confident.
"We are on track to break even, " he said.
Gravel to gold?
Still, those connected with the tournament look at it less as a break-even affair than as a watershed big-break event, showcasing the area and Chambers Bay in a flattering light that will make people want to come here, stay here, spend here.
County officials remain convinced that sculpting a former gravel pit into a stark brown-and-green field of play will bring long-term dividends.
The Amateur also might forever blunt the complaints that dogged the county's creation of an elite public golf course, one that has yet to pay dividends.
Should the county be in the business of golf at all? Aren't some residents subsidizing the recreational pleasure of out-of-towners? Isn't the high-end course too pricey and too difficult for average-Joe players?
After opening to rave reviews in 2007, the course has struggled to break even during a deep recession.
The course generated a surplus of just $45,202 on revenue of more than $6 million in 2008 and finished 2009 with a deficit of $1.3 million on revenue of $5.5 million. It's counting on the Amateur and the Open, and the business they generate, to help pay off some $26 million in debt that funded construction, operating losses and tournament-related improvements.
"If this event is successful, not only will it dampen some of the criticisms or concerns that some individuals have, it will really position University Place, the greater Tacoma area and Pierce County as a destination, " said Brad Berger, managing partner of Cornerstone Financial Services.
His University Place firm was one of the first to sign up as a tournament sponsor and plans both to host clients and distribute some of its tickets free to several area youth groups.
The owners of Chuckal's Office Products believe so deeply in the mission, they've turned their trucks into rolling billboards bearing the U.S. Amateur logo.
They've invited customers and vendors to a dinner cruise and provided tickets to the tournament, owner Al Lynden said. Chuckal's guests will spend dozens of hotel nights here. So will guests of NoteWorld, a Tacoma payment processing center that's booked 65 room nights at the Hotel Murano for quests from across the country.
County officials point to intangible benefits from the course, too, citing the legions of walkers and bikers who use the trails that wind around it and run their dogs in the lush grasses of the Central Meadow.
The golf course is pricey to play, Chuckal's Lynden admits, referring to green fees of $70 to $109 per round, plus caddie charges, for Pierce County residents. "But it costs nothing to walk, " he added.
THE OPEN QUESTION
Is there a lock on the Open? Pretty much, Davis said. USGA officials were so impressed with the Scottish links-style course (scenic, stark, nearly treeless), they awarded the 2010 U.S. Amateur and the 2015 U.S. Open to it just months after opening day.
The move was rare, particularly for a municipal course.
"We did so much analysis on it before we chose it, the only thing that could happen (to scotch the Open here) would be some sort of catastrophic event" that would destroy or thoroughly compromise the course, he added.
During and after this week's Amateur, USGA officials will carefully scrutinize the condition of the course and analyze how each hole played, whether fairways were wide enough or too wide, if balls rolled correctly on the greens, Davis said.
County officials and KemperSports also will hold comprehensive debriefings, looking for victories accomplished, opportunities missed, lessons learned, Phelps said. They'll work with the USGA on a to-do list for the Open. Major people-movement strategies will be part of the planning, they say.
Area residents are watching closely to see whether crowds and cars overwhelm their neighborhoods during the Amateur, though county officials promise they've arranged plenty of offsite parking.
University Place has been closely involved in the planning, Deputy City Manager Mariza Craig said.
"We're very excited about this, " she added. The city is getting exposure "we can't buy."
Ready for play
For this week, the players are in town, the greens are ready, golf enthusiasts are watching. Community members are excited, proud, curious, consternated by turns.
There's some grumbling that the Chambers Creek properties, their popular hiking trails and meadows, will be closed this week to nonpaying spectators.
"I don't think that's right. What are we supposed to do?" said Lee Johnson as she sat trying to catch some shade in the Central Meadow on a 90-plus-degree day.
Jill Conner, who was walking her 2-year-old Yorkie, Ruka, had mixed emotions. She might miss a few days of using the facilities, but "if it brings money to the community, the more the better. Any golf tournament brings certain attractions" to town, she said.
McCarthy sees the tournament as allowing "the eyes of the world to really see our little slice of heaven here."
It definitely caught the eye of British Columbia golfers Don Rieder, 69, and Kyle Sartorius, 21.
"It's great. It's awesome. It's absolutely a great golf course, " Rieder said as he finished play.
"The views were phenomenal. The greens were in great shape, " Sartorius added.
They were part of a group of 16 who came to town to play. Five rounds. Four days. Three nights. And a lot of money spent in the area, Sartorius said.