Greens fees: How taxpayer dollars are helping lure U.S. Opens and other national golf tournaments to Pa.

  • Charles Thompson/PennLive

It’s been a great summer for golf in Pennsylvania, and we’re not talking about the weather.

Pennsylvania golfing — and related hospitality interests — scored multiple major wins earlier this month when the United States Golf Association committed to playing nine additional men’s and women’s U.S. Open Golf Championships and a host of other national tournaments at two of the state’s top courses over the next 30 years.

And if you pay taxes here, welcome to the partnership.

Because in what have been described as “handshake deals,” legislative leaders and the Wolf administration have dangled the promise of millions of dollars of future economic assistance to the USGA and/or its partners to help make the magic happen.

The state’s part of the deal could eventually lead, for example, to publicly-funded construction of a new overpass over the Pennsylvania Turnpike, permanent foundations for temporary spectator grandstands that are put up for the major tournaments, or the permanent installation of underground cables to support international broadcast needs.

Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, a Republican from Centre County, and a champion of the effort, says it’s going to be worth it from an economic standpoint.

Matt Rourke / AP Photo

FILE PHOTO: Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre, speaks in Harrisburg on Feb. 5, 2019.

“We think it’s in the Commonwealth’s best interest to have them here,” Corman said. “As someone who represents an area that didn’t have a hundred thousand people for seven Saturdays last fall, these (events) can have a tremendous positive impact. And during a time where the hospitality industry really took it on the chin over the last year, this is a great commitment and we’re looking forward to working with them to put on these events.”

News of the fledgling partnership has drawn criticisms of unnecessary corporate welfare from one conservative policy group.

“I don’t think taxpayers want to see their money going to subsidize elite country clubs and PGA professional golfers,” said Nathan Benefield, chief operating officer of the Commonwealth Foundation. “That’s not who needs the money, and I think a lot of this most likely would have happened without state money at all.”

In all, the USGA awarded five more U.S. Open Championships and four U.S. Women’s Open Championships to what are considered two of the country’s most storied golf courses: Oakmont Country Club outside Pittsburgh and Merion Golf Club near Philadelphia. With the 2025 men’s Open already booked at Oakmont and the 2024 women’s Open scheduled in Lancaster, that makes a total of 11 majors coming here between now and 2050.

Merion has hosted 18 USGA championships in its history — the most of any single course in the nation. Oakmont is right behind with 17. The latter will become the second U.S. Open “anchor site” named by the USGA, joining North Carolina’s Pinehurst as one of a select number of courses that the association hopes to put in a permanent rotation for its premier title.

“We’ve asked players where they want to win their U.S. Open and we know the sites they speak of very highly,” said John Bodenhamer, USGA’s senior managing director for championships, in making last week’s announcements. “When a man or woman wins, ‘I won where this happened,’ that’s hugely important.”

Corman confirmed the state’s role last week, in an interview shortly after the future dates were announced in an Aug. 11 press conference at Oakmont. He was joined there by the Senate’s Democratic floor leader, Jay Costa, D-Allegheny County.

“It’s kind of funny. Golf’s a game of honor, right? You keep your own score and call penalties on yourself. And this is more of a handshake right now,” Corman said. “There’s no commitment of dollars or contracts, or anything like that.

“But, now that the USGA has agreed and has committed to putting on all these types of events here in Pennsylvania… we as a Commonwealth have said, look, we want to step up and be part of this because obviously there’s tremendous amount of economic activity that comes when you bring hundreds of thousands of people to one site.”

There is money to be made from a major PGA event, to be sure.

A report on the economic impact of the 2015 U.S. Open in Washington’s Puget Sound region showed direct spending of $70 million between visitors, the USGA and its vendors, and local governments. That tournament drew 20,000 to 47,000 visitors per day, including practice rounds, and drew more than 110,000 unique attendees.

Specifics of the state’s role in the new Pennsylvania tournaments and who has final approval of the allocations are hard to come by.

Neither sources in the legislature or Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration could point to specific sources of funds or a projected roll-out for any of the promised investments for this story.

“As we get closer to these things, they (USGA) will come to us with things that they would like help on, we’ll see what we can do – what fits our economic development or tourism or whatever programs that we currently have or things we need to address in the future. We haven’t designed exactly what it’s going to be. We’ll do that over the months and years ahead,” Corman said.

Gene J. Puskar / AP Photo

FILE PHOTO: Tiger Woods prepares to hit the ball during the fourth round of the U.S. Open golf tournament at Merion Golf Club in Ardmore, Pa., in this Sunday, June 16, 2013, file photo. Merion will host the U.S. Open in 2030 and 2050, along with two U.S. Women’s Opens.

Pennsylvania is not the only state to play this incentive game.

Last year, North Carolina’s legislature and governor approved $18 million in incentives to lure a USGA testing center to that state from New Jersey, along with Pinehurst’s designation as the first of its U.S. Open anchor courses. The bill also commits the association to build a museum and visitor center.

USGA’s Bodenhamer told PennLive the association’s immediate ask in Pennsylvania isn’t that high, because it’s not building a headquarters campus. He said the association sought and received the latitude to seek up to $5 million at different times to help cover the costs of putting the Opens, one of golf’s four annual Grand Slam events.

One of the most expensive asks could be for help with a new bridge over the Pennsylvania Turnpike at Oakmont – hard as it is to believe, the Turnpike bisects the course, leaving 11 holes on one side and seven on the other.

That never seems to hurt the course’s reputation with players or golf aficionados. But the USGA, Bodenhamer said, would be helped greatly if a new overpass could be added to better separate fans and tournament operations on the crossovers; players and tournament officials have had exclusive use of an original bridge since the second overpass was built in 2003.

“That would really enhance vendor and broadcast access,” Bodenhamer said. “Lots of carts go through across that bridge that exists now at Oakmont, and it’s really hard to get fans through there with all those carts. That’s one thing we’ve talked about is that makes sense to just kind of build an enhancement to the bridge.”

There are other ways the state’s support could help.

In the past, Bodenhamer said, spectator grandstands have been built as temporary structures and then are landfilled when they come down.

“What if we could put something permanent in the ground (at the anchor sites) that, when we come back we just pull back some sod and we just build on top of it? And it’s just there, because we’re coming back so frequently… Those are the sorts of ideas that when we know we’re coming back we can look at and really plan with the club and the state to do, and it benefits everybody.”

Bodenhamer says while it’s true that the USGA makes a lot of money off of its broadcast rights for the Open — total revenue was $211 million in 2019 — the organization itself is a non-profit and plows almost all its proceeds back into the sport and/or related charities.

It’s in that vein, he said, he thinks it’s fair to ask for some level of state assistance, which he added, should come back many times over in the tourism jolt. “What the state is assisting us with is what we need to conduct these championships, and without the state’s assistance with some of the things I mentioned like public safety, with transportation, we just wouldn’t bring the U.S. Open here.”

Three other Pennsylvania courses are also on the USGA’s itinerary at present. They are:

  • Saucon Valley Country Club in Bethlehem, hosting the 2022 U.S. Senior Open;
  • Lancaster Country Club, hosting the 2024 U.S. Women’s Open;
  • Philadelphia Cricket Club, hosting the 2024 U.S. Amateur Four-Ball.

Many are just learning about the state’s commitment and it’s not likely to be unanimously accepted. Progressive Democrats in the state legislature were already angry that majority Republicans weren’t willing to spend federal pandemic relief funds on other big needs in the 2021-22 budget this June.

PennLive’s attempts to reach several of the progressives on the promises to Big Golf were not successful.

At the Commonwealth Foundation, meanwhile, Benefield argued the state’s economy would likely do better if policy makers saved money on industry-specific tax credits and grants and focused on lowering business tax rates for all.

“When you add up all these little programs, they add up to hundreds of millions, even billions of dollars… If we got of all of these, together, we could lower business taxes across the board. Everyone would benefit. Pennsylvania would become a destination state (for businesses) because of having a better tax climate,” Benefield said.

That kind of long-term growth, he said, is a better objective to shoot for than a temporary bump in spending in a specific region.

The potential for such pushback may be one reason why this project flew under the radar this year and ended as a promise, with no specific allocation or language in the current-year budget, even though the talks dated to last winter.

“I think that’s why it went the way that it did without a specific piece of legislation,” Bodenhamer said.

“There were a lot of people that said: ‘Well, this federal money, maybe we can really do some things…’ Then it kind of turned to: ‘Let’s use economic development money which is there. That makes sense. It’s always there. This is what this should be for and we’ll have that other money… to be put in the bank for a Rainy Day,’” he continued.

“And look, our feet are going to be held to the fire to demonstrate what the needs are and what the return will be. And we’re prepared to do that. We’re proud of our record in that regard.”

But to be clear, the state’s most important Democrat is on board.

Gov. Tom Wolf’s Secretary for Community and Economic Development Dennis Davin lent his name to last week’s announcement, stating:

“Pennsylvania is proud to enter into this new partnership with the United States Golf Association. When visitors come to our state to watch or play golf, they’re staying in our hotels, eating in our restaurants, and shopping at our small businesses. We look forward to hosting new visitors at our world-class golf courses, generating tourism revenue and creating new opportunities for golf fans for years to come.”

Wolf’s Press Secretary Lyndsay Kensinger said the announcement has pandemic recovery implications, too.

“Coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic, we need to support our downtowns and hospitality industry as much as possible, and tourism is an effective driver to do so. As more Pennsylvanians get vaccinated and can safely resume travel, we believe that a partnership with USGA will serve as another tool in our tool belt to bolster the tourism industry.”


This story originally appeared at pennlive.com.

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