Tom Wilson took a business trip to New York in 1999 with the hope of squeezing in 18 memorable moments: He wanted to play Winged Foot Golf Club, the site of 11 national golf championships, including Bobby Jones' U.S. Open victory in 1929.
Wilson got his wish and more: the 2008 U.S. Open, which will be played June 12-15 at La Jolla's Torrey Pines Golf Course, a course that Wilson, as executive director of the Century Club of San Diego, knows quite well.
It will be the first time in 60 years the country's national championship will be held in Southern California, and Torrey Pines will be only the second publicly owned golf course to stage the event.
An estimated 60,000 people will attend each of the four competitive rounds, and the tournament is expected to generate up to $100 million in direct and indirect revenue for the area.
And had it not been for Wilson's business trip to New York - and the person whom he traveled with, Jay Rains - it probably wouldn't have happened.
The occasion was the annual sponsor relationship junket sponsored by Buick, held that year at Westchester Country Club in Rye, N.Y., the site of the Buick Classic. The Century Club, which has run San Diego's annual PGA Tour event since 1961 and partnered with Buick when the company became title sponsor in 1993, sent two representatives to the event: Wilson and then-club president Rains, who as an avid golfer with a sense of appreciation for the game's history, had an idea how he'd like the week to progress.
"I knew a member at Winged Foot (which is about 15 minutes from Rye) and told Jay that we could play there on Wednesday," Wilson recalled. "But he said he might want to play a little more golf. He said he'd get back to me."
A week later, Rains phoned Wilson with an alternative itinerary: they'd play two layouts at Baltusrol Golf Club on Monday and Tuesday; both Winged Foot courses on Wednesday; Merion Golf Club's east course on Thursday; and end the trip Friday at Pine Valley Golf Club.
By any measure, it was a golfer's dream week. Those four properties, located about four hours from each other, are among the most acclaimed in the world. As of 1999, they'd hosted 14 U.S. Opens and numerous other professional and amateur championships.
Two of the sites were 36-hole facilities, just like Torrey Pines. So while Rains and Wilson tackled the legendary layouts and soaked in the historical ambiance, one of them brought an imaginary yardstick to measure his hometown course against those legendary tracks.
On the plane ride home, Rains asked Wilson if he felt Torrey Pines was capable of hosting a U.S. Open.
At the time, Wilson thought it was an intriguing but theoretical question. For most of its history, the United States Golf Association rarely veered from its U.S. Open site formula where tournaments were held at old-school private clubs east of the Mississippi River. The only non-private courses that had hosted a U.S. Open at that time were resort-style venues such as Pebble Beach Golf Links.
But there were things in motion inside the USGA's Far Hills, N.J., offices that were altering that dynamic. First, the USGA announced three years prior that it would hold the 2002 U.S. Open at Bethpage Black, a course owned by the state of New York. Second, there were strong signals that the USGA was intrigued by the idea of bringing its championship back to Southern California, where it hadn't been since 1948, when played at Riviera Country Club in Pacific Palisades.
Rains knew that San Diego had a good course with a spectacular coastal location, a long association with the PGA Tour and, perhaps most important, a 36-hole facility that had plenty of acreage to host such a huge event.
What it didn't have, as that initial conversation with Wilson raised, was a U.S. Open-quality course.
"From our earliest conversations, everyone agreed that while Torrey Pines was a very good course, it wasn't a U.S. Open course," said Rains, a La Mesa resident and partner at one of San Diego's largest law firms.
So Rains, with help from past and current members of the Century Club, set out to make Torrey Pines worthy of a U.S. Open, knowing that there was no guarantee that even a retooled Torrey Pines would win out over high-profile courses such as Riviera.
"But the fact the USGA had at least indicated a willingness to host a championship on a truly public course did give us some confidence that maybe we could do some stuff at Torrey Pines and convince the USGA to bring the championship here," Rains said. "But, truthfully, there were no assurances from anyone until the official announcement was made."
Rains' hopes were buoyed by early conversations with the USGA, and he knew that San Diego had the hotel rooms, restaurants and other amenities to handle such a massive undertaking.
"(San Diego and Torrey Pines) had a lot going for it, but at the end of the day, it's our national championship, and the USGA takes that very seriously," Rains said. "So there would be no assurances until they saw a completed golf course."
The first major hurdle was gauging the city of San Diego's interest in renovating Torrey Pines' South Course because any construction would limit access for resident golfers.
But the city supported the idea, at least in principle. That prompted Rains to find a course designer who could tell him what needed to be done. The name at the top of every short list was Rees Jones, the so-called "U.S. Open doctor," who, by 1999, had renovated five courses that had hosted U.S. Opens.
Rains and Jones met at the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach in June 2000, and Jones agreed to a consultation. In late 2000, Jones submitted his plan, which called for new green complexes, lengthening the course by more than 400 yards, 28 new bunkers and recontouring of other bunkers and fairways.
It also carried a $3 million price tag.
The city had other financial pressures, including a protracted struggle to build a downtown stadium for the San Diego Padres. It was clear to Rains that "if we were going to make anything happen, we'd have to pay for it."
The Century Club agreed to contribute the money upfront, but Rains made calls to members of the business and sports communities that resulted in the formation of the Friends of Torrey Pines, a nonprofit organization that would raise money for the redesign. In four months, the group raised the money from 29 individuals, families and organizations, including the family of San Diego Chargers owner Alex Spanos.
The redesign began in the summer of 2001. It was finished late that year, just in time for a critical test: the 2002 Buick Invitational.
"That was a very big step," Rains said. "If the best players in the world came out and said the (changes) weren't very good, that would have killed us. But fortunately for us, it was universally acclaimed, and that proved very important."
Then Rains and friends took a four-month deep breath to see how the U.S. Open would fare at Bethpage Black.
"Today, everybody thinks of Bethpage Black as a great U.S. Open site, but at the time there were a lot of negatives being discussed about having the championship at a state-owned public facility, and whether someone would shoot a score of 20-under par," Rains said. "If anything had gone badly, that would reflect poorly on us. But, fortunately for us, just like Torrey Pines was the star of the Buick in February, Bethpage Black really stood up in June."
Then followed four months of waiting, rumors and more waiting as the USGA considered its options. Finally, in October 2002, the USGA announced that Torrey Pines would get the event.
It was time for high-fives and the real work to begin.
Shortly after the USGA's announcement, the city reached an agreement with the Friends of Torrey Pines to serve as the host committee, with Rains and Rich Gillette acting as co-chairmen. But while a great deal of planning and discussions took place the next couple of years, little time was spent getting the conditions of one of the two most heavily trafficked courses in U.S. Open history up to U.S. Open standards.
That was due to the fractious climate of San Diego politics. A long and often acrimonious battle over resident tee times at Torrey Pines, as well as a five-year city golf plan that called for across-the-board fee increases and a $12 million clubhouse to be built before the U.S. Open, consumed most local attention. Compounding the situation, the position of golf operations manager was vacant for most of 2004.
The hiring of Mark Woodward in January 2005 brought some stability to the situation. But though an expert on golf course agronomy as president of the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America in 2004, Woodward admits that little work on the course was done early in his tenure.
"That's one of the main reasons I came. I wanted to be involved in getting the course ready for the U.S. Open," said Woodward, who will leave the city post after the event to become chief executive officer of the GCSAA. "And the city hadn't done a whole lot in terms of getting the course ready, other than the redesign. But my first 15 months were consumed with politics and the five-year plan, so really it's only been the last 18 months that we could focus all our energies on course conditions."
Steven Roberts, the president of the San Diego Municipal Golf Club, formerly the Torrey Pines Men's Club, said "even the crankiest members" of the 50-year-old organization are enthusiastic about the U.S. Open showcasing their course to the world.
"We were very concerned early on that the redesign wouldn't be user-friendly, that it'd turn out to be a Pete Dye kind of thing - just terrible for regular municipal courses," Roberts said. "But it's turned out to be exemplary, just a phenomenal course. And the conditions are far better than they've ever been. Mark Woodward is the pinnacle of professionalism and the USGA has been a joy to work with."
Enticing the USGA to bring its national championship to Torrey Pines is a role Rains played quite well. Rains said Gillette worked just as diligently to reach out to the local golf community to make it feel that the 108th U.S. Open belongs as much to them as it will to the man who will walk away with the trophy.
"No ifs or buts about it," Wilson said when asked if Rains deserves credit for bringing the U.S. Open to Torrey Pines. "He'd be the first to admit that he's received a lot of help from Rich Gillette and others, but (Rains) was the driving force behind the idea, raised the dollars and oversaw the creation of the host organization."
Rains, who describes himself as a Type-A personality, isn't content to sit back and revel in his dream becoming a reality.
"We didn't do this with the idea that it would be a one-shot deal," he said. "Just speaking personally, I'd like it to be incredibly successful because Southern California is a very important part of the golf world. It has a tremendous golfing heritage and if the crowds show up and the event is good, nothing would make me happier than seeing the U.S. Open return to Torrey Pines.
"And I think it will. I think that when the crowds come out and sense the excitement of the event, they'll realize how extraordinary it truly is: It's our national championship." SG