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Should elite golf clubs be rewarded by hosting majors?

By Chris Baldwin, Contributor

NEWPORT, R.I. - From the moment you pull into the parking lot of Newport Country Club, you feel the tug of history. The clubhouse lords over the grounds in the near distance, every bit as grand in scale and design as one of the old mansions along Bellevue Avenue that have tourists lined out the door in this seaport town.

Make that a Vanderbilt mansion, for Newport Country Club's clubhouse has few peers in even the "regular" historic palaces.

Below the clubhouse of 19th century grandeur, you see a green up on a ridge, with bunkers on the side. These are no trendy pot bunkers, no army of sand, just spare and strategic obstacles. An ocean breeze rolls through an overcast gray sky, adding to the sense of timelessness.

This is a golf version of the field of dreams. That much is apparent from first look.

One that's closed to you, me and about 35,099,773 of the reported 36.1 million golfers in the U.S.

That much becomes apparent soon after the initial wow wears off. All it takes is a look around the parking lot. Of course, calling it a parking lot is a stretch. It's a grass field down near the road, filled with Jaguars and Mercedes 600 Series.

Nothing too ostentatious here, no red sports cars or yellow Hummers in sight. These are the vehicles of the assuredly rich, the kind of longtime family wealth that prefers to low-key the portfolios.

Yet the truth is in the air as clearly as the sea scent. It even smells like old money.

These are the few, the proud, the society barons who get to hit shots on this golf museum.

Tom Fletcher, Newport C.C.'s first assistant golf professional, puts the club's membership in the 225-to-250 range. Memberships have stayed in some families from the club's 1893 beginning. Yes, these are the living Vanderbilts and Rockefellers of the world.

"It's a pretty select group of people that have ever played this course," Fletcher said. "You have to be recommended by a member to be considered to join, and you pretty much have to be a guest of a member to play."

Newport Country Club is one of the most interesting, historic golf courses in North America. The first U.S. Open was held here in 1895 and it's one of the five founding members of the United States Golf Association. And you can count the golfers who've had the chance to play it in the low thousands. It's no stretch to declare that one of Myrtle Beach's busier tracks welcomed far more duffers in the last year than Newport C.C. has in its entire 112.

This is a good symbol for golf?

It's a question worth asking with Newport Country Club being promoted all around town. The club is mentioned prominently on every sign for the 2006 U.S. Women's Open, and in Newport now, signs for the Women's Open are as ubiquitous as sailboats. Is the fact that the USGA chose one of the more elitist, closed clubs for its Open championship a good thing for golf or just a good thing for Newport Country Club?

Reality check

Paul Hag approaches the 2006 U.S. Women's Open counter, curious as can be. Hag never expected to see the U.S. Open in Newport and once the building with the striking blue awning in the center of downtown offering U.S. Open info, tickets and T-shirts caught his attention, he had to go in.

"Newport Country Club, huh?" Hag asks the women behind the counter.

"Can you play there?"

The woman smiles wide. "No, but anyone can volunteer." A form is shown to Hag.

This is how it often goes in the world of golf. Courses are trumpeted, layered in mystique on TV telecasts and golf magazine rankings, and then the average guy's told, "Oh yeah, you'll never play here." It's a strange way to build a sport, no matter how long-standing the tradition.

Don't have the six- or seven-figure membership fee and the proper secret handshake references? Too bad, so sad. But play this public course instead!

"I'd love to play Newport Country Club," Ron Cournoyer of nearby Bristol, R.I., said somewhat wistfully, standing outside the 2006 U.S. Women's Open storefront. Cournoyer also holds a volunteer form.

This isn't a call to end the use of private clubs in major championships. Even Martha Burk's Masters protests struck me as silly considering the bigger issues on which the National Organization for Women could have focused that energy.

This is about the USGA and the PGA of America, organizations that profess to be all about building golf on a grass-roots level, continuing to hold their major title events at elite private club after elite private club. Augusta National is a completely different matter. Hootie Johnson and the good ol' boys never professed to be anything but what they are.

Hootie's not the one running hokey TV ads that show a kid making a hole in one in the twilight, thinking he's the only one who saw it, only for a groundskeeper to show up and acknowledge the magic moment. It's time for USGA Executive Director David Fay to back up that this game's for everyone message with the full force of his power.

If the USGA truly wants to promote inclusionary golf, it should be searching far and wide for any course open for public play that could hold its own as a major championship venue, sacrificing tradition for a new symbolism. Bethpage Black and Torrey Pines are important steps, but where's the consistent mantra?

Wouldn't golf be better served if the USGA promoted spectacular public play courses like Oregon's Pacific Dunes rather than a 112-year closed-door Newport Country Club?

Unlikely battlefield

Packing up his golf bag in the parking lot of Newport National Golf Club - an Arthur Hills design open for public play - Joe Sousa is sure he'd just played "the best course in Rhode Island."

"You can't tell me they couldn't have a Women's U.S. Open here," Sousa said.

It's an argument you don't expect to hear in Newport, R.I. This is one of the ritziest vacation spots in the United States, a seaside ode to the joys of the high life. Only if you look deeper, you'll notice the families fishing for that evening's meal right alongside the pier with all the huge yachts at anchor.

The contrast between public and country club golf isn't so severe, of course, but it's growing if it's reaching places like Newport. Many people in the area are just excited to have the best women golfers in the world coming to town next June.

"They say it could bring a million people into town over that week," Joan Simmons said. "More than the entire population of Rhode Island."

Those are heady numbers, the stuff to make bed and breakfast owners care less which club is hosting the tournament as long as it brings Michelle Wie. Over at Newport County Club, Fletcher is going into the course's water views and how dramatic the setup will play on TV.

Facing the course itself, it's easy to make the argument that it is just like Yankee Stadium. Even if people just see the wonder, it's a plus for golf.

Of course, then the difference comes through as another member rolls up in a Mercedes. Having a net worth greater than the GNP of some third-world countries and a family name to match doesn't guarantee you can roam the center field at Yankee Stadium anytime you wish. Even Billy Crystal is locked out sometimes.

At Newport Country Club, history's only open for the elite. No doubt, that remains embedded in golf.

But is that really the part of the game we want to celebrate in 2006?

Chris BaldwinChris Baldwin, Contributor

Chris Baldwin keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment
  • Stop Complaining

    golfgolf wrote on: Dec 31, 2011

    Most people who complain about private country clubs like Newport have no idea why they exist. The membership is created to preserve the championship golf course, not to be a private play ground. If they let anyone play there, the place would be destroyed. It costs a lot of money to preserve a masterpiece, and that is why it typically the rich who are members, but that is not the requirement. It is the devotion to the game of golf with the desire to preserve the course for championships that is the ultimate requirement. There actually is tremendous access to play these courses.
    1. Every monday they have charity tournaments that anyone can play.
    2. They host USGA Open qualifiers, Rhode Island amateur events. Just sign up.
    3. Most members are more than willing to host an eager golf enthusiast. Like someone said...be friendly and you would be surprised how many people would take you out there.
    4. Caddie there. Caddies can play every monday before the charity tournaments. Most play 20-30 times a year, more than most members. The only requirement is devotion to golf.


  • newport cc

    Richard T wrote on: Feb 15, 2011

    Great course worth all the hype instead of paying all the money just buddy up w the maitnance crew and get to play there all summer for free like i do!


  • Newport Country Club

    Bill Robertson wrote on: Jul 2, 2006

    Stop complaining about not being able to play this fabulous golf course and go out and make money and become important enough to join these types of clubs. Or, get out and move in the right circles and meet people who will invite you to play at their clubs. I have played Newport C.C. many times and its certainly worth the effort. These members certainly deserve their privacy.


  • Why all the blue? Well...

    Scott Spears wrote on: Aug 26, 2005

    Blue-blood clubs have cornered the market on good clubs. They have the money not only to have them built, but to maintain them... and guard them. If most weekend hackers had a chance at some of them, they would lose much of their mystical quality simply because no one understood what was going on, and a move to get Rae's Creek filled in would be under way.
    The USGA does need to get off its high horse and start taking its championships to public courses. There are many that were built by the same guys that put together Oakland Hills (Ross), Winged Foot (Tillinghast), and Riviera (Thomas). The duffer also needs to stop complaining every time they encounter a design they can't figure out and don't like because it doesn't look like a TPC.
    If public courses take the same pride and care in not only creating but preserving their courses as exclusive private clubs, not only will the USGA start looking at them, but more golfers will learn what makes for good designs. They should cut corners in the "pretty" department (if it says muni, who cares if there is clover growing on the green and the bunker sand is brown?), but never, ever, in the design department.


  • USGA

    Bert wrote on: Aug 24, 2005

    I just played in the Colorado USGA Senior Am Sectional, and at a private club. The last 3 have been played at public or semi-private clubs, and were great experiences. This year was the worst; practice rounds were limited to Tues-Thurs after 1 P.M. at full rate, yardage was skimpy to non-existent in the fairways, there was no yardage book, and the greens were littered with dead poa. No more contributions to the USGA for this kind of play, and I'll have to reconsider my recently received membership renewal also, after Nina's comments.


  • USGA championships - and Ridley, while we're at it

    Nina wrote on: Aug 24, 2005

    I agree that the USGA should have more prestige events at public-access courses, and that it is hypocritical for its president to belong to exclusionary clubs. But all the editorials about what the USGA leadership should do are likely to fall on deaf ears. Why? Because the USGA is still overwhelmingly an association of members of private country clubs. That's who elects its officers, and hires its management.
    According to the USGA's by-laws, only golf clubs can become full voting members. A club is not defined as a course, but as a group of members that oversees play -- which means most truly public courses are not eligible for full membership. (Sure, you belong to the "golf association" of a muni or public course if you keep your handicap there. But do you set the policies and oversee play? No - the management does.)
    The 700,000+ ordinary golfers who pay annual "dues" - most in the mistaken belief that they are actually USGA members - have absolutely zero say in the organization. The "Members' Program" is a dishonest name for what is basically a subscription program for donations.
    It is also a little-known fact that "Clubs Without Real Estate" can become true members -- and that is the only effective way for public golfers to influence the USGA. So here's a tip: pool your $25 a year USGA "dues" with 10 or more friends, and form a club. For $100 a year, that club can really belong to the USGA, have a vote - and you'll all still get a rulebook each year.


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