John Bodenhamer has had to use “cautiously optimistic” a lot this year. In his role as Senior Managing Director of Championships for the United States Golf Association, he has had to deal with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and cancel 10 USGA championships for 2020.
That leaves the USGA with four championships at this point: the U.S. Open, the U.S. Women’s Open, the U.S. Amateur and the U.S. Women’s Amateur. When discussing the U.S. Open on Friday, he dropped the “cautiously” and emphasized the “optimistic.”
“We are thinking about how were are going to conduct the event and not whether we are going to conduct it,” Bodenhamer said.
The Open was scheduled for this coming week on the West Course of the iconic Winged Foot Golf Club in Mamaroneck, New York, a six-time host of the national championship. The first round would have teed off on Thursday. But on April 6, with Westchester County and New York City at the epicenter of the pandemic, the USGA postponed its premier event to Sept. 17-20, and even then the organization was highly unsure if it could be played. Bodenhamer does use the word “agonizing” when it comes to the decisions to cancel other championships, and to canceling qualifying for the remaining events.
“It’s agonizing to get to the point where we have canceled any USGA championships, let alone the qualifying and let alone 10,” he said. “It’s been agonizing and I use that word intentionally; it’s been hard. But health and safety has been the paramount consideration.”
For the first time since 1924 there will be no qualifying for the U.S. Open, no pros and amateurs chasing the dream through the grueling two-stage qualifying process. The 156-player field at this year’s Open will be filled through exemptions which the USGA hopes to announce soon.
“We aren’t at the finish line yet,” said Bodenhamer of a final list of exemption categories. “We view this year as very much as a one-off because qualifying is right at the heart of our DNA for a U.S. Open or any USGA championship. We consider our championships the ultimate meritocracy. We provide a platform for players to earn their way into the championships. For a U.S. Open, nine to 10 thousand each year [try to qualify]. People can follow their dream through qualifying and we think that’s a big part of who we are, what we do.”
There’s also the issue of fan attendance. The usual big grandstands and hospitality suites will be missing this year as social-distancing rules just don’t allow for them.
“The way I’m thinking about it, we are thinking about it, it will be more of an old-fashioned U.S. Open if, and that’s a big if right now, but we are hoping to have fans,” Bodenhamer said. “Whatever that number is will be less than we normally have. It will be more along the lines of a U.S. Open of the 1960s and 1970s where you have fans along the rope lines.
“More of an outdoor, socially distant U.S. Open. If we have to have concessions it will be a grab and go; if we have merchandise sales, it might be on an app or just point out something [on display], but it wouldn’t be a crowded indoor merchandise tent.”
The U.S. Women's Open had been postponed until Dec. 10-13. Both the U.S. Amateur (Aug. 10-16) and U.S. Women's Amateur (Aug. 3-9) are still on schedule. But the big one is the U.S. Open, where Gary Woodland is the defending champion.
“When you think about it, the U.S. Open is going to be conducted in what has been for much of the year the epicenter of the virus,” said Bodenhamer, whose optimism is bolstered by declining virus numbers, business openings and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo encouraging sports to open. “We think it’s a great opportunity if we can conduct a U.S. Open and crown a champion. We’re excited about it, it could be inspiring for the entire state and country and the game, and that’s the way we are viewing it.”