They were the titans of the game, bringing one of the most competitive tournaments in U.S. Open history to a memorable conclusion.
As Lee Trevino defeated Jack Nicklaus by three strokes in a Monday playoff in 1971, 14-year-old Steve Sugg watched from the edge of the 18th green with his brother Kevin. The boys grew up nearby.
Sugg recalled last week that the atmosphere was electric at Merion Golf Club outside Philadelphia. “If you weren’t excited about golf, there was something wrong.”
Fast forward 42 years to to the same golf course, the same golf tournament.
Sugg, now the city manager of University Place, is among about two dozen public officials from the South Sound visiting Merion over the last several days as it hosts its first U.S. Open in more than three decades.
Sugg is there not to watch history this time, but to help his city make some. UP is the host community for the major championship that tees off at county-owned Chambers Bay in just two years. The United States Golf Association is running the tournament, and the county is supporting its planning efforts.
The timeframe can feel compressed for officials preparing for the largest sporting event ever held in the Pacific Northwest. The 2015 U.S. Open will draw an estimated 235,000 people, introduce University Place and Pierce County to a worldwide television audience, and pump a projected $140 million into the local economy.
“The clock is ticking on us,” said Pierce County Executive Pat McCarthy, who also traveled to the U.S. Opens in 2009, 2010 and 2012. “Before you know it, we’re going to have this on our doorstep and we want to make sure we’re fully prepared.”
Those preparations meant sending 13 Pierce County employees to Merion, its largest delegation dispatched to a U.S. Open since the USGA announced in 2008 that Chambers Bay would join the championship fraternity.
University Place and West Pierce Fire and Rescue, which will be in charge of emergency fire and medical response for the tournament, each also sent representatives for the first time.
The estimated cost to local taxpayers: at least $31,500, according to public records and inquiries.
Officials defend the expense, saying they can’t understand how this complex, carefully tuned sporting event runs without looking under the hood.
The pressure is on the county, which wants the 2015 U.S. Open to go off without a hitch to earn the confidence of the USGA and earn another U.S. Open appearance in the future.
“You can’t learn it in a PowerPoint,” McCarthy said. “You can’t learn it in a video. The only way you can learn it is to experience it.”
By midweek, the experience had included an evening tour of Merion with Chambers Bay championship director Danny Sink, and lots of meetings with emergency responders, tourism officials and support staff.
Pierce County delegates are learning about volunteers, merchandising and corporate hospitality. They also are talking with representatives from Pinehurst in North Carolina, which will host the event next year.
Hunter George, Pierce County communications director who is in charge of community outreach for the U.S. Open, said his office is filming at Merion to produce videos to give Puget Sound residents a behind-the-scenes look at the event. They will be shown to community groups and on the county’s public television station and Web site.
His instruction to videographer Gregg McClellan: Show everything people back home can’t see when they’re watching the tournament on television.
George, who attended two prior U.S. Opens, said those trips helped him develop a foundation of understanding.
“My questions are a lot more detailed this time around,” he said. “At the others, you’re so blown away by the size and scope of it. This time around, I’m able to drill down and get specific with these folks. I’m able to visualize now what tasks need to be done.”
SAFETY AND SECURITY
One of the biggest tasks of any major sporting event is security, and Merion poses more challenges than Chambers Bay will.
Merion is far smaller than the county’s golf course and surrounded by houses. Due to lack of space, Merion’s organizers even had to rent the backyards of adjacent homes to put up their hospitality tents.
UP Police Chief Mike Blair said he initially questioned how Chambers Bay would manage tens of thousands of visitors until he saw how the USGA is handling the masses at Merion’s wooded confines.
“The anxiety level just dropped dramatically,” Blair said last week during his first U.S. Open visit. “If they can do it here, we can pull it off.”
Perimeter security is paramount, Blair said. The course is fenced off, and most visitors are shuttled in from off-site parking areas to control access and free up local roads – the same approach that will be used to get visitors to Chambers Bay.
All delivery vans that arrive at Merion are checked by bomb-sniffing dogs.
More than 450 uniformed police officers and volunteers are tasked with around-the-clock security. Numerous law enforcement agencies run out of a incident command center, a fenced collection of trailers and tents set up next to a Catholic church on the west side of the course.
The crowds have been well-behaved, Blair said. He was told there were no arrests Wednesday, the last practice day, although public drunkenness calls are expected as the tournament continues.
“I truly thought there’d be more chaos than there has been,” he said.
West Pierce Fire and Rescue Deputy Chief Mitch Sagers also found an orderly fire and medical emergency response.
Merion, he explained, is divided into four response zone, each covered by an ambulance, a golf cart and two bicycles. Responders can treat ill patients at the scene or take them to the medical tent staffed with doctors and nurses or transport them to the local hospital.
MultiCare staff will care for patients when the U.S. Open arrives at Chambers Bay, Sagers said.
Visitors at Merion primarily have been treated for dehydration due to the high humidity; blisters and sprains have also cropped up as heavy rains have muddied the course and made it slippery for spectators. (Some areas resembled the livestock area of the Puyallup Fair, Sagers said.)
Sprained ankles and knees may also be the prevailing diagnosis when the U.S. Open comes to Chambers Bay. The fescue-covered sand dunes of the Scottish links course caused many a spectator to fall during the 2010 U.S. Amateur.
While Merion is relying on the combined efforts of numerous — and separate — fire and emergency medical response agencies, West Pierce wears both hats and should be able to handle most demands of the U.S. Open, Sagers said. He said his agency had about a dozen responders at the 2010 U.S. Amateur and will at least double that number when the main event comes to town.
‘MAKING THEM REMEMBER US’
Denise Dyer, Pierce County’s economic development director, has had her eyes mostly turned away from the course at Merion.
She met with city, business and tourism officials in Ardmore, Pa., where the golf course is located, and in surrounding communities. Her goal is learning how to give visitors a great experience and ensuring they spend as much money as possible.
The draw of the U.S. Open became apparent to her when she took some time to count the number of states represented on license plates at an off-site parking area: 24, including one vehicle from Washington state.
One challenge for her is that U.S. Open visitors are usually more interested in returning to their hotel rooms for sleep after a long day on the course than venturing out to local businesses, Dyer explained.
“I discovered a rain delay is good for the economy,” she said, after heavy rains suspended play for three hours at Merion Thursday morning.
Dyer said the 2015 U.S. Open is a great opportunity to advertise that Pierce County is open for business.
Almost a century of golf history separate Merion and Chambers Bay, and Dyer said that can help her recruitment efforts. Merion opened in 1912, and reporters and broadcasters can draw on its lore during the event.
But Chambers Bay will be just eight years old when the U.S. Open arrives, and Dyer said the media will have to turn to the community for some of its stories.
“Making them remember us – that might be the most important thing we do so we are on the radar screen,” she said.
Christian Hill: 253-597-7390