U.S. Open brings off-site fun to neighboring community

This year’s U.S. Open is reaching out to the community outside the golf championship gates in a big way, with a salute to the military and other nightly events such as movies and music.

The North Carolina Symphony performs Friday night. Kids can practice putting and chipping. And golf fans can watch live showings of the final rounds of tournament play on a big screen while drinking beer or wine.

It’s called the U.S. Open Experience, and it will be part of the fun again next year when the South Sound welcomes the major golf championship for the first time. But it could be held outside the host city of University Place, in Tacoma or possibly Seattle.

The Village of Pinehurst is hosting this year’s U.S. Open Experience. The village is also helping pay for the two weeks of nightly events during the U.S. Open and the U.S. Women’s Open. (Holding the tournaments back to back in the same location is unprecedented and won’t be repeated next year.)

About 500 people watched from Tufts Park during Wednesday night’s military tribute. With Fort Bragg 40 miles away, it was natural for U.S. Open organizers to pay tribute to service men and women.

Freedom’s Groove, a band of soldiers, cranked out Motown hits. North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory praised and thanked past and present military members.

United States Golf Association leaders say a U.S. Open Experience will be connected to next year’s U.S. Open at Chambers Bay golf course. It will mark the third consecutive year for the free event, designed to engage the public’s interest in one of the world’s biggest golf tournaments.

Other professional sports put on their own fan-friendly attractions, such as the NFL Experience at the Super Bowl.

“Beyond the gates, we saw a way that we could extend what happens during the day that would spill over out into the evenings,” said Dave Aznavorian, the USGA’s marketing director. “We thought it would be a great way to tie the community into the experience.”

For now, the USGA doesn’t have a plan or a place in mind for the 2015 U.S. Open Experience. Those decisions won’t be made until early next year.

Officials say the options include holding it in Seattle, Tacoma or University Place.

“Everything is on the table,” said Sarah Hirshland, managing director of business affairs for the USGA.

She said the USGA will work with Pierce County, University Place and potentially others in planning the event.

Holding it outside of University Place would be disappointing, UP Mayor Denise McCluskey said.

“We think 2015 is really the year of University Place,” she said. And the city has enough open space for the event at Town Center on Bridgeport Way, the mayor said.

While acknowledging the possibility of having events at different locations, McCluskey said she wants the primary one in UP.

Pierce County spokesman Hunter George also supported keeping the event local. But he said it’s the USGA’s event and its decision to make.

“We certainly hope they will have it in Pierce County,” George said. “We think we can make the business case for them to do it in Pierce County.”

The U.S. Open Experience was put on for the first time last year at Independence Mall in Philadelphia. The 2013 U.S. Open took place at Merion Golf Club East Course, at least a half-hour drive away.

Hirshland said the USGA decided to launch a U.S. Open Experience when the 25,000 tickets for Merion sold out several weeks in advance of the championship, shutting people out of the tournament.

“It became an alternative to being on the property,” Hirshland said.

That inaugural event was held for two days, with interactive exhibits and a live outdoor broadcast of the tournament.

This year, the outcome of the nightly programs in Pinehurst will help determine where the USGA holds the U.S. Open Experience next year.

Citing the Seattle Seahawks and Sounders, Aznavorian said the USGA is well aware of the “loyalty and the fervent nature of the fan base with the Seattle and Tacoma area.”

“We know that if we can tap into that same energy behind the U.S. Open Experience, we’ll have something really good,” he said.

The USGA would likely consider a program to honor military members again next year because of the tournament’s proximity to Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Aznavorian said.

This year’s crowds in Tufts Park are expected to range from 200 to 2,500, depending on the program. The park is about a mile away from Pinehurst No. 2, where the U.S. Open is being played.

Pinehurst has a population of 15,000, about half the size of University Place.

Nancy Fiorillo, Pinehurst’s mayor, said she thinks the cost of putting on the U.S. Open Experience is “upward of $500,000,” but she advised asking the USGA, which picks up most of the tab.

Aznavorian wouldn’t say the total cost.

The Village of Pinehurst worked with the USGA to prepare for the U.S. Open Experience. It legalized open consumption of beer and alcohol in the area of the outdoor park for the two-week period.

And it helped pay for the event: $25,000 for shuttles, $28,000 to the New York production company working on the event, and $3,000 to $4,000 for overnight security, Village Manager Natalie Dean said.

That’s part of the $177,000 the village is spending on the U.S. Open.

“This is a great experience,” Fiorillo said. “We feel it’s well spent.”

Steve Maynard: 253-597-8647