Sunday, November 19

Open is 'engine that drives train'

Amid the stress and suspense of the final round, Fred Ridley walked inside the ropes at last year's U.S. Open, within arm's length from those competing for the trophy.

The U.S. Open is the USGA's crown jewel, which is why director David Fay and the rest of the organization spend so much time trying to protect it.

Ridley wasn't just there for the view. A vice president of the United States Golf Association, Ridley walked alongside Phil Mickelson and Jeff Maggert as a rules official.

This week, he will perform similar duties during the 103rd U.S. Open at Olympia Fields Country Club outside of Chicago, as he will later this summer at the U.S. Senior Open and U.S. Amateur.

But his most important duties might be scouting future venues for any of those championships, including the Open. To bring the U.S. Open to Chicago this week was a process that had been in the works for some seven years.

"Certainly the U.S. Open is the engine that drives the train,'' said Ridley, 53, a former U.S. Amateur champion who is an attorney in Tampa. "Because of that, the selection process is very important. No question, the Open is our crown jewel. That is why we spend so much time to try and protect it.''

The USGA governs golf in the United States. It runs 13 national championships, refines the rules, develops a national handicapping system, does research on agronomy and equipment, makes rulings on amateur status, among other things.

But other than a membership program for golfers around the country, the organization's biggest money-making vehicle is the U.S. Open. No other championship the USGA runs comes close to the revenue produced by this one. In fact, almost all the rest are money-losers.

In essence, the U.S. Open helps support all of the championships, not unlike a college football or basketball program helping prop up all of a school's other sports.

The U.S. Open does big business with ticket sales, corporate hospitality tents and merchandise sales. It also has a lucrative broadcast contract with NBC-TV. And the organization did some shrewd negotiating, getting its broadcast partner to also televise the U.S. Women's Open, U.S. Senior Open, U.S. Amateur and other USGA events as part of the U.S. Open package.

And that's why the U.S. Open is such a big deal -- to the players who want to win it, to the organization that runs it, to the venues looking to host it. In fact, the process is so unique that U.S. Opens have already been awarded through 2009. That year, the tournament will return to Bethpage Black on Long Island, where Tiger Woods won last year. Next year, it returns the Shinnecock Hills, also on Long Island, where Corey Pavin won in 1995 and where Raymond Floyd was victorious in 1986.

"It's pretty involved,'' Ridley said. "It's really an assessment of the golf course, the playing field. The rotation is such that you've got some courses that will come back around every 10 or 15 years. But there is some significant outside-the-ropes analysis. Where is all this going to happen? There's TV, vendors, media, parking. . . on and on.''

Olympia Fields didn't give the USGA much history with which to work. The last U.S. Open at the venue was in 1928. The 1961 PGA Championship doesn't provide much of a framework, either. Same for the Western Open, which was last played at Olympia Fields in 1971.

But Olympia Fields, which was first conceived in 1913 and at one time had four courses (now there are two), wanted to get back into major-championship golf. The first step was securing the 1997 U.S. Senior Open, won by Graham Marsh.

"They basically said they'd do whatever it takes to have the Open,'' Ridley said. "And we went in and said, "If you were to be awarded the Open, these are the types of things that need to be done, and we'll consider Olympia Fields.''

The club's North course underwent a $2.4-million remodeling project, which included the deepening of bunkers and the removal of many trees. And some five years ago, it was awarded the Open that will be played this week.

"It might not have been an expected choice, but the closer we get to the championship, the more comfortable I am with the site,'' Ridley said.

Ridley chairs the USGA's championship committee, which is in charge of selecting golf courses and setting them up. So some of the venom directed at USGA executives for the severity of the venues might indirectly go the way of Ridley, who played college golf at the University of Florida.

Passing on a pro career, Ridley went to law school and entered the 1975 U.S. Amateur, where he knocked off Andy Bean, Curtis Strange and Keith Fergus on the way to the title. Two years later, when Ridley played on the U.S. Walker Cup team, he twice defeated Scotland's Sandy Lyle, who later won the British Open and Masters. Today, Ridley, a member at Augusta National, still plays to a low single-digit handicap.

"It's nice to have a fella of his quality as a player, let alone as a person, in a key role with the USGA,'' said William Campbell, USGA president in 1983-84. "He has to deal with a lot of situations and the fact that they know he is a fine golfer and knows the game inside and out helps. Fred is a winner. He is very effective.''

Bob Harig covers golf for the St. Petersburg Times, and is a frequent contributor to He can be reached at

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