The golf world will be focused on Los Angeles this week as the 123rd U.S. Open is played at Los Angeles Country Club. It is the first time since the 1995 PGA Championship at Riviera Country Club that one of golf’s four major championships will be played in Los Angeles.
The attention and interest paid to golf’s major championships have increased dramatically since the 1995 PGA at Riviera. Much of the change has been driven by Tiger Woods, who turned professional a year after the PGA in Los Angeles.
When Woods won the 1997 Masters, the first of his 15 major titles, it created an explosion of interest in golf. At his historic win at Augusta where he became the first person of color to win the Masters, fans flocked to the tournaments or turned on their televisions to watch Tiger play, specifically when he competed in the majors.
Tod Leonard, a senior editor at Golf Digest, has been covering golf for more than 30 years. He has covered more than 50 majors since 2000, including 11 of Woods’ 15 major wins.
“Covering majors changed significantly when Tiger arrived,” Leonard said. “In all those years, at all those majors, following Tiger was the place to be in the sports world. Being inside the ropes to cover Tiger was the ultimate spot and was a sports writer’s dream. With his domination, the anticipation grew major by major. It was really amazing to experience.”
Leonard was Sports Editor of the Los Angeles Daily News in 1995 and directed the paper’s coverage of the 1995 PGA Championship. He said the infrastructure and interest for the event was a far cry from what it has become in the post-Tiger era.
While media from across the country turned out to cover the event, Leonard said the PGA was concerned about whether many fans in Los Angeles would care about attending a golf tournament in August when other sports like baseball and football were going on.
“Attendance was not great,” Leonard recalled. “I remember after the first round someone wrote you could fire a cannon down the middle of Riviera and not hit a spectator. There were no big grandstands and very few corporate hospitality tents. To put it in perspective, there is way more corporate hospitality and grandstands today for the annual Genesis Invitational at Riviera than there was for the PGA in 1995.”
Kerry Haigh, the Chief Championships Officer for the PGA of America, said the biggest challenge the PGA of America encountered with the 1995 PGA was finding the space needed to accommodate everyone involved in the event, such as vendors and media.
“The amount of space on site was maximized to the fullest extent possible,” Haigh said. “We also needed off-site parking for the many groups attending and parking in Los Angeles in the Pacific Palisades area was certainly limited and spread out.”
Haigh said one of the biggest changes in organizing a major today as compared to 1995 is the amount of additional space outside of the golf course itself that is now required to accommodate a major championship.
“In particular, the size of the television compound with all the additional television technology (drones, fly cams, feature groups etc.) which all require more equipment, more production trucks and more staffing,” Haigh said.
One thing the PGA of America did not have to worry about at Riviera was how to accommodate the large corporate structures that are now commonplace at major golf tournaments.
As Woods’ popularity continued to grow year-to-year, corporate America’s interest in being involved with golf’s major championships increased significantly. Anyone attending or watching this week’s U.S. Open will find it hard to miss the multi-level corporate suites that have been placed all around the golf course, bringing millions of added revenue to organizations like the USGA and the PGA of America.
“With the increase in corporate hospitality opportunities, the amount of space required to accommodate the vendors who support such structures also take up significantly more space,” Haigh said.
The money pumped into the events through increased corporate and vendor involvement has had a profound impact on the purses now offered at major championships.
At the 1995 U.S. Open, the total purse was $2 million with champion Corey Pavin taking home the winner’s share of $350,000. Ten years later for the 2005 U.S. Open at Pinehurst (N.C.), the total purse had increased to $6,250,000, with winner Michael Campbell pocketing $1,125,000. Jump to last year’s 2022 U.S. Open, which offered a total purse of $17.5 million, with champion Matt Fitzpatrick receiving $3,150,000.
The same is true for the prize money at the PGA Championship. The 1995 tournament offered a total purse of $2 million with champion Steve Elkington taking home the winner’s share of $360,000. Ten years later for the 2005 PGA, the total purse had increased to $6,500,000, with winner Phil Mickelson pocketing $1,170,000. At last month’s PGA Championship, the total purse was a whopping $17.5 million, of which champion Brooks Koepka received $3,150,000.
“Golf has never been healthier. The industry’s doing really well,” Rory McIlroy said at a media conference at the Memorial. “There’s more money coming into the game than ever before. More people want to put money into the game. For the short- and medium-term, I don’t think it’s a problem. But long-term, I don’t really have a good answer for you. But right now, I think it’s at least sustainable for the next decade.”
During his 20 years of handling media for the USGA from 1999 through 2019, Pete Kowalski was tasked with handling the ever-growing media requests to cover the U.S. Open and other USGA events.
His first U.S. Open was the 1999 tournament at Pinehurst where the media center hosted more than 500 workstations for print journalists and radio booths and also provided other facilities for TV reporters outside of the actual media center.
“In my time it was the height of Tiger and he made things percolate,” Kowalski said. “Year after year we saw media requests escalate and it didn’t level off until COVID. From the middle 2000s through right before COVID, we were credentialing roughly 1,000 media on the non-rights holder’s side and another 500 credentials for the media outlets who held the rights to broadcast the event.”
With golf being more of an international sport than ever before, there has been a steady increase in international media covering the majors. Kowalski said East Coast venues tended to draw more media from Europe because the travel time was shorter, and the West Coast venues tended to draw more international media from Asia and Japan.
The advent of online publications and the explosion of social media also increased the media attention that major tournaments receive and forced Kowalski and his team to adjust their media guidelines several times when it came to who got credentialed to cover the U.S. Open.
“If an online publication’s content was legitimate and they could show people were paying attention, they were granted a credential to work alongside the traditional media outlets,” Kowalski said. “Cell phones also changed how we operated. There was a time when no one was allowed to have a cell phone on the course and now media and spectators are allowed to use their cell phones and take photos and videos whenever they choose.”
But the biggest media change over the last 25 years is on the TV and digital side. Back in 1995 viewers were only provided with a few hours of coverage of live coverage over the last two days, and for the most part, the coverage was on the final nine holes of the golf course.
With the advent of cable television and then streaming services, now viewers can literally see every round from start to finish and in some cases can select specific players they want to focus on to watch.
Viewers have essentially been turned into television directors with the ability to pick and choose which golfers and holes they want to see, customizing their viewing of these events.
The increased viewership of these events led organizers to intentionally schedule the tournaments to finish in prime time on the east coast because of the large number of viewers that now watch golf’s majors.
The TV part opened the eyes of the USGA to hosting more events on the West Coast because the courses created better opportunities for prime-time viewing. That need created the opportunity for courses like Torrey Pines in San Diego, Chambers Bay in Washington and now Los Angeles Country Club to host the U.S. Open.
The advent of online shopping has allowed organizations like the USGA and PGA of America to sell logoed merchandise for each major to golf fans around the year. You no longer have to attend a major or know someone going to be able to sport a hat or golf shirt representing a specific major.
Golf clothing manufacturers have also come to realize that the majors can provide them with increased interest in their branded clothing. It once again started with Woods. When Tiger was clothed by Nike, the company quickly learned that he is one of those rare athletes who move the needle at retail. The company had retailers calling them and telling them they were selling out of the shirts, hats and pants that Tiger wore at majors.
Woods’ ability to drive consumers to stores in search of the same shirt or cap he wears prompted the company to start scripting what he wore in the four majors. It was such a huge success that Nike did it with other golfers and eventually the other clothing manufacturers did the same.
A MAJOR UNDERTAKING
With every facet of putting on a major now heightened, the process of putting them on has become even more extensive. Officials from the various golf organizations have staff members for future majors on site two to three years before the actual event to ensure that when tournament week comes, they are as prepared as possible,
“As an organization you work as a team to prepare for a particular event,” Kowalski said. “The week comes, and the days are long and there are lots of challenges but every year we all walked out on Sunday night proud of what we did. Then you tear it down and start working toward the next one.”
Source: The Orange County Register