Weighing the anchors: Could the USGA increase its stock of regular US Open courses?

One rare bright spot during the eye of the COVID storm came in early September 2020, when the U.S. Golf Association named Pinehurst Resort and Country Club’s No. 2 course its first “anchor site” for future Open Championships.

Due in large part to the success of the three previous U.S. Opens at No. 2 and the Women’s Open in 2014, the Donald Ross masterpiece was tapped to host the organization’s preeminent championships in 2024, 2029 — for a second men’s and women’s back-to-back — 2035, 2041 and 2047.

The USGA, which generally selects U.S. Open sites about eight years in advance, subsequently named legendary Pebble Beach Golf Links in California and venerable Oakmont Country Club in Pennsylvania as two additional anchor sites.

“We felt that if we identified three iconic sites where the players most wanted to win their U.S. Open, men or women, and went back more frequently, then we could do a lot of things,” said John Bodenhamer, the USGA’s Chief Championships Officer. “We could continuously improve that site with the right ownership who was willing to do it. And Pinehurst and Pebble Beach are, as well as Oakmont, a private club.”

Being named an anchor site represents an economic boon not only for Pinehurst and Moore County, but the entire state. Estimates reveal that every U.S. Open in Pinehurst brings with it about $500 million in economic impact. During the next quarter-century, these events are projected to have a $2 billion economic impact on North Carolina.

The USGA has transported some of its Liberty Corner, New Jersey operations to its new, second headquarters in Pinehurst — the six-acre “Golf House Pinehurst” complex — under a multi-million incentive package approved by state and local leaders. The Test Center and administrative building has been occupied by about 70 USGA staffers since late 2023.

“We go to the game’s greatest venues for the U.S. Open, the U.S. Women’s Open, all of our championships — the cathedrals of the game. Pinehurst is one of those,” Bodenhamer said. “Some of our cathedrals have grand sanctuaries, like Winged Foot. Some of them even have church pews — Oakmont, where we’ll be next year. And some of them, like Pebble Beach, are akin to a religious experience when you play them.

“We believe the ghosts of the past matter. Where (Ben) Hogan hit the one iron and Tom (Watson) chipped in and Payne (Stewart) sank that putt. That matters, where players win their U.S. Open. And that’s why we go to the cathedrals of the game.”

Discussions about anchor sites began to blossom based on the USGA’s engagement with key stakeholders — including players, fans, and host sites — to share their thoughts on what makes the U.S. Open a one-of-a-kind major championship.

Naming anchor sites signaled a philosophical shift for picking future U.S. Open venues; the USGA’s first overt indication that it was considering a rotation of fewer venues for its premier championship. Unlike the Open Championship, which features a rotation of nine courses around the British Isles— 10 if you add Royal Portrush — and schedules the championship on the Old Course at St. Andrews every five years, the U.S. Open has been to 16 different sites in the last 21 years.

In 2002, three years after bringing the U.S. Open to Pinehurst for the first time, the USGA celebrated with much fanfare taking the Open to Bethpage Black, the first municipal course to host the national championship.

The diversity of courses continued with the Open being played at three other first-time venues in a 10-year span: Torrey Pines (2008), Chambers Bay (2015) and Erin Hills (2017). In 2022, another new venue, Los Angeles Country Club, made its major debut.

That, however, appears to be the last for the foreseeable future. The youngest golf course that will host the U.S. Open between now and 2051 is 95 years old, and that is the redesigned Shinnecock Hills, completed by William Flynn in 1931.

Fans and influencers indicated to the USGA that they want fewer and more iconic locations, believing the familiarity will increase connectivity between players and fans at each venue.

And fewer sites with more return visits mean more efficiency. “There’s a familiarity with the golf course and the facilities for the players,” Bodenhamer said. “The things that we’re doing at Pinehurst right now, we’re installing underground water lines, electric lines. Those are things that we wouldn’t have contemplated if we weren’t coming back. But we know we’re coming back and we can think about those things at all three sites.

“It’s different with an anchor site and going back more frequently and the familiarity and sinking roots deeper in the community with our offices there. It’s just going to benefit everybody.”

So, what does it take to be a USGA anchor site?

Obviously the USGA seeks out sites that ooze history and tradition. In the northeast, the Shinnecock Hills and Winged Foots of the world seem logical candidates. Each must be willing to host the championship on a relatively regular basis, and Shinnecock’s membership seemingly has gotten over its frustration with the USGA after the 2004 Open.

Of course, some venues look better on TV. And logistically, some venues are more conducive for parking, and moving people in and out.

“We’re not going to be driven by just either revenue or size of footprint,” USGA CEO Mike Whan told Links Magazine. “We really think that one of the things we provide as the governing body of the United States, one of the things we provide in our great championships, is a chance to see all the cool venues that really exist. And so not just U.S. Opens, but U.S. Women’s Opens and U.S. Amateurs. We’re committed to playing places that some people might not otherwise want to play, but we think deserve to be part of this grand rotation.

The USGA would likely seek a venue in the Midwest, specifically Chicago, the nation’s third largest metropolitan area and traditionally a massive golf market. The U.S. Open has been to the Midwest once in the last 15 years and only five times has it been held at a course not on the East or West coasts in the last 40 years.

Florida, specifically south Florida where so many Tour professionals call home — somewhere like Seminole, another Donald Ross classic, which hosted the Walker Cup in 2021 — is a possibility. But as we know, the Sunshine State tends to be particularly “toasty” in mid-June.

Hazeltine National, Whistling Straits and even past U.S. Open venues Erin Hills and Olympia Fields — which helped its chances earlier this year when it stymied the PGA Tour’s elite at the BMW Championship — all could be future anchor possibilities.

Or, what about younger, more modern venues — like Bandon Dunes along the remote, Oregon coast?

“I think you’ll see some of those in our other 14 championships, separate from the Walker Cup and Curtis Cup and everything else,” Whan said. “We’ll learn about those other venues in other ways, right? If we come through a Junior Girls to a Senior Amateur, with a great younger course, they’ll find their way to be part of the biggest championships.

“We’ve got a couple of venues that aren’t built yet, that we’ve got scheduled to play U.S. Opens in the distant future, so to be determined. (They need to) meet all our criteria: They’re great tests of golf, they set up logistically either very well or well enough, and — being honest — we’re going to make money when we go there.”

Pinehurst Resort owner Bob Dedman, Jr. appreciates more than anyone the importance of being honored as one of the USGA’s anchor sites: “As players have often said, it’s not just what you win, but where you win that matters.”