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Tuesday, July 29, 2014
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Published: Wednesday, 6/19/2013

Inverness hardly to blame for U.S. Open’s long absence

BY DAVE HACKENBERG
BLADE SPORTS COLUMNIST
Inverness Club has hosted four U.S. Opens, but none since 1979. The Dorr Street course also welcomed two PGA Championships (1986, ’93) and two U.S. Senior Opens (2003, 2011). Inverness Club has hosted four U.S. Opens, but none since 1979. The Dorr Street course also welcomed two PGA Championships (1986, ’93) and two U.S. Senior Opens (2003, 2011).
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So, you may be wondering, will the United States Golf Association bring its U.S. Open back to little, old Inverness Club after 34 years — and counting — since it just visited little, old Merion Golf Club for the first time in 32 years?

Remember, the critics said Merion was too short, too compact, too antiquated for a modern-day Open. And in some ways the landlocked club near Philadelphia was less than ideal. With only 115 acres, max, the infrastructure was sorely lacking and many of the facilities were off-property and makeshift.

But a golf course that topped out at 6,996 yards, the shortest Open course since 2004 — Torrey Pines, for contrast, played at 7,643 yards in 2008 — more than held its own. No golfer bettered par of 280 on the legendary, tradition-soaked Merion East course with Justin Rose winning at 1-over.

One of the knocks on Inverness is that it is too short for the Tigers and Phils and Justins of the world and, perhaps, too easy for countless pros.

Maybe that stems from the scoring in a couple of the PGA Championships (1986, ’93) and two U.S. Senior Opens held on Dorr Street in the last decade. Winning scores ranged from 7-under to 15-under.

But that’s all silliness. The PGA of America sets its championship courses up for birdies and excitement. The USGA, at least at its regular Open, bites hard and sets par as the standard for which to shoot. The Senior Open setups at Inverness, especially the most recent under wet conditions in 2011, were surprisingly tame by USGA standards.

Inverness has hosted four Opens, which in some ways is ancient history. No current PGA Tour player was in the field in 1979, the last time it was staged in Toledo and in Ohio. Heck, some current tour players hadn’t been born. Hale Irwin was the champion, and he is now 68 years old.

Ancient or otherwise, it’s still history, dating to 1920. Bobby Jones played in his first Open at Inverness. Same for Gene Sarazen. Ditto Jack Nicklaus. The longest playoff in golf history took place here. When Irwin staggered a bit down the stretch in ’79 and finished at level par on a 6,982-yard course, it assured that no Open champ at Inverness had ever bettered that number.

This may surprise you, but Inverness’ course plays at 7,255 yards from the tips now with room for additional length. The infrastructure, from parking availability to room for corporate hospitality facilities to necessary media accommodations, takes a backseat to few if any of the best clubs in America.

The Inverness property totals about 300 acres, according to chief operating officer Eric Rhodes. That doesn’t include considerable acreage owned by Health Care REIT across Dorr Street that has been made available to the club for past major championships, or some city-owned land to the west that could be used.

“We might be the only tournament club in the country that is capable of parking every car on site,” Rhodes said.

Meanwhile, the golf course is about to get even better. Inverness is going to close its course for the year in August to regrass all greens and many fairways, renovate all those bunkers that were not dealt with prior to the 2011 Senior Open, and to reconfigure the Nos. 1 and 10 tees in a manner that could lengthen and considerably toughen those holes.

If Merion was capable of standing up to the best players in the world at 6,996 yards, then Inverness — and we’d be talking eight or more years down the road, plenty of time to adjust length — would be more than capable.

But the course isn’t the problem. The USGA has told Inverness as much. Selling 35,000 to 40,000 tickets a day — Merion was limited to 25,000 daily because of space — would not be a problem. It’s the U.S. Open, and fans would come. And they would buy all the merchandise the USGA could stack on the sales racks.

The holy revenue trinity of major championships is tickets, merchandise, and corporate hospitality sales. The latter is the issue. Two out of three ain’t bad, but it might not be good enough.

The sanctioning bodies, be it the USGA or the PGA of America, which has never returned to Inverness after staging two of its best-ever PGA Championships there, are concerned with Toledo’s economy and limited big corporate/sponsorship support. It’s a show-me-the-money thing.

The Open is a once-a-year tournament, and the USGA has its pick of markets. It can be choosy. It loves the East Coast and particularly the New York City market (Shinnecock Hills is already on the schedule in 2018 for a fourth time since Inverness last held an Open; Winged Foot will host again in 2020), and it adores Pebble Beach, which in 2019 will host for the fifth time since Inverness in 1979.

And when the USGA does deem to come to the Midwest, it has no favorite quite like Oakmont, near Pittsburgh, which will stage its ninth Open in 2016.

The USGA, frankly, has Inverness hooked like a small fish, saying it is under constant consideration, but there has been no payoff to reel in for hosting the two Senior Opens.

Inverness officials actively sought the 2020 Open because it would be the 100th anniversary of the club’s first Open. But they learned Winged Foot won the same way the rest of us did, reading about it in the newspaper.

The Toledo club could load up on all the lesser USGA events it might want, but for reasons Inverness can’t really control, the U.S. Open will likely be the big one that continues to get away.

Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: dhack@theblade.com or 419-724-6398.



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