Sports

How Golf Won a Bet the Coronavirus Would Not Squelch Its U.S. Open

MAMARONECK, N.Y. — On a rainy day in mid-March, nearly 300 National Guard members in military fatigues arrived to set up a containment area in the New York City suburb of New Rochelle, one of the earliest coronavirus hot spots in North America.

Three miles away in the adjacent town of Mamaroneck, the United States Golf Association was getting ready to welcome 150,000 fans and the world’s best golfers to the 120th United States Open at Winged Foot Golf Club from June 18 to 21.

“At the time, you realize they’re trying to save lives and we’re just a golf event,” Mike Davis, the U.S.G.A. chief executive, recalled in an interview last month.

He was nonetheless stunned.

“You think to yourself, ‘Are you kidding me?’” Davis said. “This has to show up in the town next to Mamaroneck? What’s the chance of that happening?”

Within hours the U.S.G.A. had pulled the plug on playing in June in New York’s Westchester County, confidentially suspending the construction work necessary to build colossal grandstands and hospitality tents. The logistical planning, laborious prep work at the golf course and marketing of the event had begun five years earlier. Suddenly, no one in the organization knew when or where the championship might be played, or if it would be contested at all in 2020.

The following six months were a dizzying maze of global deliberations that acknowledged and yet defied the gloomy March prospects for holding the event, especially in New York. But next week, barring a new complication, the four-day U.S. Open, one of the oldest sporting events in America, will be conducted, albeit without fans, at Winged Foot beginning Sept. 17.

ImageNational Guard troops stood by New York’s first drive-through coronavirus testing center, at Glen Island Park in New Rochelle, on March 13.
Credit…Timothy A. Clary/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Credit…James Estrin/The New York Times

“It is really a bit of a miracle,” said George Latimer, the executive for Westchester County. “It could have easily turned the other way.”

Indeed, Davis had conversations with officials from at least four other states as he tried to find a new home for this year’s U.S. Open. At one point, unable to reschedule the event before the weather was expected to turn cold in New York, Davis agreed to hold the championship in December at the Riviera Country Club in Southern California. Only a furtive 11th-hour call altered the negotiations again.

In the end, there were hundreds of similar phone calls, emails and texts between the leaders of golf’s governing bodies and New York state and local officials. The talks branched in myriad directions, including — surprisingly — the office of Roger Goodell, the N.F.L. commissioner.

“It was an absolute roller coaster,” Davis said of the last several months. “An intricate jigsaw puzzle that everybody was trying to put together at the same time.”

But if there was a first piece of the puzzle that fell into place, it was a belief, spurred by medical experts, that Westchester County’s status as the one of the nation’s earliest coronavirus hot spots might mean a quicker recovery from the crisis than in other parts of the country.

“At one of our earliest meetings, our medial advisers told us to hang in there,” said John Bodenhamer, the U.S.G.A.’s senior managing director of championships. “Let it play out. Their point was that what is a hot spot now might not be one in late summer.”

At the time, however, the fear and anguish in and around New Rochelle was profound. At Winged Foot Golf Club, one employee died from the virus, according to the club’s general manager, Colin Burns.

“We felt we were under siege as a community,” Burns said. “New Rochelle was just blistering with cases. I don’t think the championship was in the forefront of anyone’s thinking. We were in a state of shock.”

Even outside New York, multiple obstacles were developing that seemed to doom the likelihood of a U.S. Open being held at Winged Foot this year, or anywhere in the northeastern United States. Most notably, a reconfigured golf calendar lacked an open week until October, and possibly later.

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The coronavirus pandemic shut down all golf competitions in mid-March, but the sport’s seven governing bodies (the PGA, L.P.G.A. and European tours, as well as the independent stewards of golf’s four major championships like the U.S.G.A.) had privately recast a tightly packed international golf schedule. The calendar had become a game of musical chairs, and the U.S. Open — still not officially postponed from June — appeared to be the one left standing.

Late in March, golf’s leaders decided they would announce the new schedule on April 6, with the U.S. Open shifting to December in California. News releases had already been drafted. On April 3, it was announced that the U.S. Women’s Open would move from June to December in Houston, its original site.

Early on the morning of Palm Sunday, April 5, Davis got a call at home from Martin Slumbers of the R&A, the organization that oversees the British Open. Slumbers told Davis that the British Open, which had been postponed from July to Sept. 17, was canceled for 2020.

Credit…James Estrin/The New York Times

It was a blow for golf over all, but Davis knew it was a game-changer for his signature event. There was now an opening for the U.S. Open to remain at venerable Winged Foot, in mid-September. Davis then placed a call to top executives at Fox Sports, which had broadcast the previous five U.S. Opens. Could Fox, which regularly televises multiple Sunday N.F.L. games in September, still handle the final round of golf’s national championship — not in June but on Sunday, Sept. 20?

Davis said Fox called Goodell about abandoning an N.F.L. doubleheader that day. “Roger came back and said, ‘Yeah, we’ll work with you,’” said Davis, who added, referring to Goodell: “Because he loves golf.”

As it played out, the decision to move the championship to September was, according to the U.S.G.A., the genesis of a new television deal for the event. In June, NBC Universal, which does not broadcast Sunday afternoon N.F.L. games, took over the rights to the U.S. Open, and all U.S.G.A. championships, from Fox.

By midafternoon on April 5, the heads of the seven governing golf bodies got together on a telephone call for what was, Davis said, about the 40th time since March. It was agreed that the U.S. Open at Winged Foot would assume the mid-September spot vacated by the British Open. Though that was the plan, it was still viewed as conditional.

On the same day, New York State’s death toll from the coronavirus climbed above 4,000, although Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo pointed to early indications that the crisis could be plateauing.

Larry Schwartz, Cuomo’s former chief of staff who rejoined the governor’s administration during the Covid-19 crisis, first contacted the U.S.G.A. in May, not long after Cuomo had announced his support for professional sports to return in New York if the state’s tally of virus cases sustained a decline and if the sports adhered to strict safety protocols. Schwartz had worked with the U.S.G.A. the last time the U.S. Open was at Winged Foot, in 2006.

But it wasn’t until July that Schwartz’s dialogue with the U.S.G.A. intensified as he, along with Dr. Howard A. Zucker, the state health commissioner, reviewed the safety guidelines prepared for the U.S. Open, which were modeled after those in place on the PGA Tour since its restart in mid-June.

Schwartz advised Cuomo that the U.S.G.A.’s safety protocols not only met state guidelines, but also went a step farther by insisting that the several hundred volunteers needed to run the championship would be entirely from the New York area. Typically, U.S. Open volunteers come from all the world. In addition, at Winged Foot, no one would be permitted on the grounds without first passing a coronavirus test.

There was one sticking point before the state would approve the event: The U.S.G.A. was holding out hope that a limited number of fans, between 2,000 and 5,000, could still attend the tournament daily, but Cuomo wanted all returning sporting events to be fan-free.

“And it’s not open for negotiation,” Schwartz said.

On July 29, Cuomo and the U.S.G.A. announced the U.S. Open would take place in September without spectators.

At Winged Foot, already several years into the arrangements for its sixth U.S. Open, there was renewed excitement, although not exactly celebration. The angst of March was not yet distant and may not be for a while.

“You have to keep going back to the context of things,” Burns, the club’s general manager, said. “You’d have to be living somewhere else to not understand that it’s still a very serious moment in time.”

Credit…James Estrin/The New York Times

Burns is heartened that club members are enthusiastic about being recruited to serve as New York-based U.S. Open volunteers, but he is also disappointed that because it is a fan-free event, businesses in the nearby village of Mamaroneck will not benefit from an influx of nearly 40,000 spectators daily. Burns had rented trolleys to shuttle fans from the club to the village and to a large waterfront park where food trucks and entertainment would serve as a hub for a festival-type atmosphere.

Justin Zeytoonian, the general manager of the Smokehouse Tailgate Grill in Mamaroneck, said he had estimated that the U.S. Open, including practice rounds, would have meant an additional $20,000 in revenue for his restaurant.

Latimer, the Westchester County executive, said he expected that the area would see only 20 percent of the usual economic benefit a U.S. Open yields. The nonprofit U.S.G.A. reported that the 2019 championship generated $165 million in revenue, with $70 million in profit that funds numerous golf initiatives nationwide, as well as more than a dozen other championships the association conducts. The U.S.G.A. has cancellation insurance, but Davis said that the organization’s loss on this year’s featured event would still be “well into eight figures.”

But as the U.S. Open that almost never was approaches in Westchester County, few are thinking in monetary terms.

“From a symbolic standpoint, it will be important to crown a champion in New York and to do it literally a town over from the epicenter of Covid-19,” Davis said. “That would be memorable and inspiring.”

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