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Hosting Championship Golf

The National Club Association (NCA) will be well-represented at professional golf’s marquee events in 2022, with all three of the majors held in the United States taking place at an NCA member clubs. It’s no surprise that NCA member clubs would be attractive venues for PGA major championships. NCA’s membership includes many of golf’s most storied clubs, and member clubs have been hosting PGA tour events for more than a century.

The major tournament schedule kicks off, as always, with the Masters in April. Augusta National Golf Club is one of the jewels of golf, and for many golf fans, the Masters serves as the unofficial start of spring—in 2022, that will be April 4-10. Golf fans don’t care about groundhogs and shadows; they know that when Masters weekend arrives, springtime has finally arrived with it. An NCA member for 40 years, Augusta National Golf Club is the permanent host of the Masters.

The PGA Championship, the second major of the year, will be held at Southern Hills Country Club in Tulsa, Okla., May 19-22. Southern Hills has hosted 17 championships including three U.S. Opens and four PGA Championships. The club hosted its first major championship in 1958. As club General Manager Nick Sidorakis boasts, “We host championships.” In recent years, the club has hosted seven championships, the 1994 PGA Championship, the 1995 and 1996 Tour Championships, the 2001 U.S. Open, the 2007 PGA Championship, the 2009 U.S. Amateur Championship, and the 2021 Senior PGA Championship. This will be a record fifth PGA Championship for Southern Hills, which has been an NCA member since 1998.

The final major to be held on American soil will be the 122nd U.S. Open, which will be held June 16-19, 2022. The championship will be hosted by The Country Club in Brookline, Mass, which has been an NCA member since 1999. One of the oldest country clubs in the United States and one of the USGA’s founding five members, The Country Club has hosted 16 USGA championships, plus the 1999 Ryder Cup Matches. The club’s celebrated past includes hosting “The Greatest Game Ever Played,” the 1913 U.S. Open Championship in which amateur Francis Ouimet defeated past champions Harry Vardon, John McDermott, Alex Smith, George Sargent, Alec Ross and Fred McCleod. The match is often credited with sparking the birth of modern golf.

Years of Preparation

As you might expect, hosting a major championship requires years of preparation. The course itself must be made ready to host the best players in the world. Courses that typically serve weekend golfers must be set up to test the world’s longest hitters, best ball strikers and most precise putters. For one weekend, each club must be converted to a golf course that can provide challenges of which members and their guests could never dream.

Of course, Augusta National is always prepared for championship play. As the permanent host of the Masters, the course is always ready to challenge the game’s best players. But for Southern Hills and The Country Club, special preparations had to be made.

The Country Club’s history and location close to downtown Boston combine to make it a regular championship stop. Still, it was up to the club to initiate the opportunity by sending an invitation to the United States Golf Association (USGA) asking to host the championship. The process began even before the invitation was sent, however, with the club working closely with board members and the membership to assure that they were supportive of the bid. Hosting a major championship impacts the club and its membership for several years, and it’s important to make sure that everyone is on the same page.

In 2015, The Country Club won the right to host the 2022 U.S. Open, and the club took full advantage of the seven years between the announcement and the championship to prepare. The process began in-house, with club leaders educating members and staff about what it would take to host a successful championship.

“We held off on doing planned golf course improvements after 2013 anticipating that if we had another championship on the horizon, we would have work to do,” said The Country Club General Manager/COO Kristen LaCount, CCM.

The process began with construction of tee boxes for the championship, later to include some of the club’s priorities for green expansions and bunker work. An expanded driving range to accommodate the full field for the U.S. Open was also required. Since the Championship Course is a composite course of the Main 18 and the extra 9 known as the Primrose Course, the 9th and 10th holes of the Main Course will be used for that driving range.

“With the club closed in March and April 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic, we were able to use that time to do a considerable amount of golf course construction without any impact on our members,” said LaCount.

The Country Club’s experience preparing for the U.S. Open was typical. Southern Hills’, on the other hand, was far from normal. The 2022 PGA Championship was originally scheduled to be held at Trump National in Bedminster, N.J. However, in January of 2021 the PGA board of directors voted to move the tournament. With a little less than a year and a half to prepare, it was necessary for the PGA to find a host that could ramp up quickly.

Southern Hills provided the perfect solution. The club has a long history of hosting PGA Championships. Most importantly, the course was already in championship form, having hosted the Senior PGA Championship in 2021.

“Having the 2021 Senior Championship was beneficial in many ways,” said Southern Hills General Manager/COO Nick Sidorakis, CCM, “The PGA staff was in place for the Senior PGA and the site plans of the two championships are somewhat similar, but different because the PGA Championship is five times larger. In terms of infrastructure, it’s night and day, but the same base map is there.”

Selling Corporate Sponsorships

Perhaps one of the biggest challenges facing the club was corporate sponsorships. Corporate hospitality is an essential element of hosting a tournament, particularly a major championship. Typically, host clubs turn to local businesses to purchase sponsorships and hospitality tents, but Southern Hills had just done this for the Senior PGA Championship. In fact, they sold $5 million in sponsorships for that tournament. How could they turn to the same companies one year later, asking for even more support?

But that’s what they did, and the response was overwhelming. Even before Southern Hills was awarded the 2022 PGA Championship, the club went to the companies that had sponsored the 2021 Senior PGA Championship and asked them if they would do so for the PGA in 2022 if it was awarded. By the time the 2022 PGA was awarded to the club, it had already raised approximately $12 million in sponsorships. Even more impressive, 75% of all corporate hospitality sold was to members.

“All of the legwork that would usually take 12-18 months was done in two days,” said Sidorakis.

While The Country Club didn’t face the same time limitations, the club did have the same corporate sponsorship responsibilities. The club’s membership came through in a big way, selling all the sponsorship opportunities. According to LaCount, 60% of the sponsorships were sold to New England-based companies and 30% were sold to member-owned or operated companies.

Infrastructure Considerations

Even though Southern Hills had recently hosted a PGA Senior Championship, accommodating the PGA Championship is another thing entirely. The land needs to support the required infrastructure are enormous.

“The television compound alone will require eight acres,” said Sidorakis. “Then there is the merchandise facility, which will take up another 55,000-plus-square-feet. Altogether, there will be more than 575,000 square feet of flooring and more than 350,000 square feet of tenting installed. The build will start in February 2022 and take 12 weeks.

“In a sense, our club is going to become a city from May 16-22,” continued Sidorakis. “We are going to have 40,000 to 45,000 patrons attend the championship each day, Thursday through Sunday.”

When it comes to the physical requirements of hosting a championship, Southern Hills’ preparations for the PGA Senior Championship also served the club well. The club underwent an intensive restoration of the golf course and practice facilities in 2018 and 2019. As part of that restoration, an extensive hydronic system was installed beneath all the course’s greens to regulate the subsurface temperature of the greens. With this system, the club can change the subsurface temperature of the greens by as much as 17 degrees when it gets too hot or cold.

“We are basically fooling mother nature to help the grass on the greens grow whether it’s very hot or cold,” said Sidorakis. “This allowed us to install premier greens with bent grass in the transition zone where it is extremely difficult during the summer months. The system assures the best playing condition possible on the greens, regardless of the weather.”

Because of the extensive nature of the restoration, minimal improvements were required to host the PGA Championship. In fact, there were only three changes required for the entire course, the most significant of which was to build a new tee box on the 13th hole.

Member Benefits

Of course, one of the primary concerns of any club that hosts a tournament, particularly a major championship, is how it will affect members.

“Whether you are hosting a PGA or USGA event, you try to limit the impact on your membership,” said Sidorakis. “Members want to know how long the golf course will be closed because of the tournament.”

In the case of Southern Hills, the course will be closed to member play three weeks before the tournament.  The course will remain closed for a couple of days after the tournament to permit Southern Hills golf course staff to do some agronomic work.

“We host majors,” said Sidorakis. “This will be our record fifth PGA Championship, and we are very proud of that. While there’s inevitably some sacrifice involved, the excitement level that the championship brings to our members and the city of Tulsa is huge.”

LaCount is also focused on the member benefits.

“There’s just an electricity,” said LaCount, “a shot of adrenaline for members, staff and even the USGA staff. It’s a strong partnership.”

As preparations ramp up next spring, The Country Club members will be able to continue to use the course as USGA staff begin erecting corporate and merchandise tents. In May and June, the club will eliminate early tee times, which will allow the USGA agronomy team to prepare the course with championship length rough and other playing conditions. Also, the entire Primrose Course will be closed and unavailable for play in 2022, though the club’s primary course (the outbound nine holes are known as the Clyde Course and the inbound holes are known as the Squirrel Course) will be available until about two weeks before the championship. A few weeks before that, guest play and cart use will be put on hold.

“Even though we’ll have a few weeks without member golf, the benefits greatly outweigh any inconvenience,” said LaCount. “Our members get an earlier crack at tickets than the general public, and they also have a chance to volunteer to help out with the championship. In fact, more than 1,000 of the volunteers who will be helping run the championship will come from our membership.”

After the championship, LaCount expects the golf course and clubhouse to reopen in just a few days. The USGA agronomy team will repair the fairways and greens and break down and remove all their structures.

“At the end of the day, my priority is the club,” said LaCount. “I’m focused on our members and employees, and our neighbors in Brookline and other towns in the area. We need to make sure that we remain a great neighbor before, during and after the U.S. Open.”

“Our members and staff and the USGA are working so hard to make this championship a success, and I’m excited for them,” continued LaCount. “And I’m excited for the town of Brookline and the whole state, that we will be hosting the first normal U.S. Open post-pandemic. It’s going to be awesome.”

Bill Smith is president of Smith Phillips Strategic Communications. He can be reached at [email protected].