Like all sports organizations, the United States Golf Association, overlords of the U.S. Open championship, has been crushed by the recession. For example, there are 54 cozy, steak-and-shrimp-filled corporate hospitality tents, going for about $240,000 a pop, at this year's Open at the Bethpage Black golf course in Farmingdale, N.Y. Back in 2002, the last time the Open was held at Bethpage, there were 78. The financial-services companies, knowing the government will pounce on an unnecessary golf junket, are staying away from the fairways. "That's a significant drop-off," says Peter Bevacqua, chief business officer for the USGA. "We have certainly been affected by the economic downturn."
Think the USGA had it tough going in? Well, Mother Nature just capped the golf world in the knees with a nine iron.
Torrential rain wiped out the grand opening of this year's U.S. Open on Thursday, and the USGA will be poorer for it. Although 42,500 tickets were already sold for the first day of play, many stayed away because of weather, and those that showed up weren't milling about buying hamburgers. "It stinks," says Bevacqua. "We lose the revenue from food and merchandising, and it costs us more money to restore the golf course. Bad weather takes its toll on us." Merchandising and food make up about 30% of the USGA's revenues from the Open, and when people aren't buying ridiculously overpriced items the $66 golf shirt, the $9 card that details the yardage on each hole that isn't good for business. Though at least the umbrellas sold out.
What's even worse, this Open was supposed to have significant recession-fighting qualities. The location is advantageous Bethpage Black is just a par-5 from New York City, a ravenous sports market whose economy hasn't completely crashed. The fans would be loud and ready to spend. Also, terrific story lines were going to amp up even more interest Tiger Woods, who got through six holes on Thursday and was one over par, trying to repeat as U.S. Open champ; New York fan favorite Phil Mickelson playing in his first major since his wife was stricken with breast cancer. But now, with bad weather forecast throughout the weekend, the Open is all about the rain.
And the griping. Golfers tend to be meticulous, and some would say anal retentive, to being with. They hate it when a fan accidentally clicks a camera during their swing. Think they like playing with drizzle in their face? "They should have called it off one or two holes earlier," says Steve Stricker, who finished at one over par on the sixth hole. When their rhythm is disrupted, the carping will commence. "It's such a hard golf course anyway," says veteran Fred Funk. "Add the elements to it, your ball is not going anywhere, it's not rolling anywhere, your body is not moving. Everything is working against you."
The rain doesn't put just golfers in a bad mood. Those corporate sponsors shelling out $240,000 just love schmoozing clients ticked off they can't follow Tiger. And forget about the fans. During a walk around Bethpage on Thursday, it was easy to stumble into tales of woe. One guy was stuck on a bus for three hours before getting to the course, only to be told that play was canceled. Many shelled out big bucks for opening day. "I waited a year-and-a-half for this and paid $200 for a ticket, and this is what I got," says Joe Pucci, a maintenance worker from Hicksville, N.Y. "Was it worth it?" No, sir. "I'm screwed," he says.
One not-so-slightly inebriated fan spoke for many outside the U.S. Open merchandise tent. The USGA waited until nearly 2 p.m. to officially call off golf for the day, even though there was a better chance of Tiger Woods signing autographs than the weather clearing up. "Make us stand out here all day in the [expletive] rain, but sure, we can go buy something," he shouted. That drunk guy might have been the loudest complainer. But at this year's U.S. Open, he surely won't be the last.