The USGA sets up the practice range to prepare players for tough on-course conditions
BY: TONY L. STARKS
The U.S. Open is arguably the most challenging course setup tournament golfers face all year. Firm and fast golf course conditions make it immensely demanding from tee to green. Prior to stepping on the opening hole at Chambers Bay, a 560-yard hole that will alternate between a par-4 and a par-5 during the championship, players will have the chance to prepare for this first-time U.S. Open venue on an extensive practice area – set up by the USGA to mimic the severe conditions players will face during competition.
“We work closely with our championship agronomists to ensure that we provide the exact conditions (on the practice range) that players will see on course,” says Robbie Zalzneck, the USGA’s director of player services and onsite operations. “Everything from the firmness of the greens to how closely mown the fairways are. Even something as little as the same color flags and same flagsticks they’ll see on course.” A perfect example is the 2013 U.S. Open at Merion Golf Club outside of Philadelphia, where the USGA opted to use Merion’s traditional wicker basket flagsticks during the tournament. Those same wicker baskets were also found on the practice range. Due to limited area at Merion, the USGA elected to build its own practice complex for competitors on the Merion West Course – located about one mile from the main facility. In fact, creating a practice range on existing golf holes has been a trend with the USGA for the last decade-plus. “We do that more regularly than you think,” says Zalzneck. “We did it last year at Pinehurst, in 2013 at Merion and in 2008 at Torrey Pines. If you dial it back to 2000, about every other year we’ve had the opportunity to build our own practice facility on another course.”
The trend started in 2002 at Bethpage in Farmingdale, New York (which has five 18-hole courses), and continued the next year at Olympia Fields outside of Chicago (which has two 18-hole championship layouts).
“After Bethpage and Olympia Fields, we started to get some positive feedback from the players,” says Zalzneck, who is in his 15th year with the USGA. “If we find the right scenario, we’d almost prefer to do that instead of having the traditional practice range.” One reason for this preference is that players hit the ball farther at U.S. Opens than most other venues due to the firm conditions. If it comes to a point where they have to set up nets to contain balls on the traditional range, they generally make the choice to set up an on-course practice complex if the option is available.
However, building an on-course practice range or erecting nets won’t be necessary this year. “We’re thrilled that Chambers Bay has designed a practice facility already. They have an excellent set up,” comments Zalzneck. “We haven’t had to do a lot of upgrades or changes – all we need to do is match the conditions.”
The range at Chambers Bay is more than 300 yards long and may be lengthened for the championship. They also boast three practice putting greens, one at the practice center as well as two by the first and tenth tee. In addition, a short game area provides players with the chance to work on shots from various locations, including bunkers – which they will find plenty of on the award-winning Robert Trent Jones II design. Zalzneck, who was on-site at Chambers Bay for the 2010 U.S. Amateur Championship, is confident that players will find the course and the practice facilities top-notch. “The players had a wonderful chance for practice rounds in the weeks in advance, and once they arrive onsite they have access to the immaculate practice facilities,” he says. “It’s an awesome facility, and it was constructed that way from the start.”