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Crosscurrents logo 2021

Visit the site of this year's US Open, San Francisco's own Olympic Club

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Jill Clardy

John Abendroth is a member of the Olympic Club, the site of this year’s US Open. It’s the nation’s oldest athletic club – founded in 1860. Abendroth has been a member since 1967 and now he’s the media chair for the Open. KALW’s Ben Trefny joined him at the venerable space a few weeks ago, for a behind the scenes look at the Olympic Club as it was being transformed for golf’s national championship.

JOHN ABDENROTH: Welcome to the Olympic Club. We’re at a kind of bird’s eye view; we’re above the eighth green down to our left, and over to the right is the eighteenth green. This will probably be the most crowded area during the US Open Championship. We’ve got some maintenance workers that are working on the seventh green here, we’ve got ESPN’s TV studio that’s being built. You can see some kind of sound effects: they’re building in some plywood around it. A lot of activity out here and we’re here on one of the last days that the members are allowed to play the golf course.

BEN TREFNY: Alright, so where are we going to go from here, from our perch overlooking the course, with Lake Merced beyond that, and if we could see past the hill, we’d be looking at downtown about a little bit to our left here.

ABDENROTH: Exactly right, well we’ll take a little ride around the golf course and give you a little view without Tiger Woods here yet, and it’ll be easier to move around here today without the gallery here as well.

TREFNY: Alright, sounds good. Let’s go.

ABDENROTH: The Ocean golf course – we have two eighteen-hole golf courses and a nine-hole golf course here at Olympic – and the Ocean golf course is where a lot of the infrastructure is laid out for the championship. We’re just driving by the media tent, which is going to have about a thousand media credential people. And, this is the fourth fairway here on the ocean golf course, which now looks like a shipyard storage area. You’ve got containers, you’ve got trucks, there’s gravel laid out, there’s a tarp laid on the grass, and then all the roadbed is put on top.

TREFNY: This is practically unbelievable to think we’re on a golf course right now. There are all these temporary trailer facilities and so many stacks of building materials, and we’re on a gravel road and this is actually supposed to be a fairway, or something.

ABDENROTH: You’re exactly right, and it becomes a choice for the USGA when they have a championship of this size now, that they almost need to pick a facility that has a large fairground next to it, or in this case another golf course because it’s just that much infrastructure that needs to happen. Over to our right here, looks like a UPS yard where they store all their trucks. Well this happens to be the merchandise area. The merchandise tent is about 32,000 square feet. Here’s a good number for you: their goal for the week is to sell 100,000 hats. And that’s a kind of a wild number.

TREFNY: So, 100,000 hats that’s twenty bucks a hat, twenty-five bucks a hat, so that’s I guess two million, two and a half million dollars worth of hats. So if the hats themselves are worth two and a half million dollars, how big overall is this operation, dollar wise? Do you have any idea? It seems like it must be astronomical.

ABDENROTH: Well it’s actually a number they don’t like to talk about. Just imagine it’s a pretty strong number. So, let’s take a walk.

TREFNY: Alright.

ABDENROTH:This is kind of like the grand entrance where transportation and parking is really a huge thing. Candlestick park is the main parking area for the public. They’re going to have about 150 buses running at any time that will run from both BART is a major area, as well as from Candlestick, and you’ll come in through a grand entrance. So we’re right now at the main entrance point, and, kind of cool, they don’t just have an area you walk through, there’s architects who looked at the downtown Olympic Club building which has been there for over a hundred and fifty years and they took some architectural features from that to design the grand entrance.

TREFNY: There’s actually masons up there.

ABDENROTH: Exactly, so you’ll have all the folks come through here.

TREFNY: You don’t actually often see people building a brick wall. A temporary brick wall.

ABDENROTH: Yeah, exactly right.

TREFNY: I’m really stunned by these surfaces we’re walking on. Right now we’re walking on a ply-board surface, but if you continue down then it’s got some sort of outdoor carpeting and it’s all perfectly flat, but we’re on really hilly ground right now. We’re basically on a parkland hillside, but they’ve built huge flat surfaces for walking areas, and they’re all leveled out. That must have taken a lot of engineering.

ABDENROTH: Yeah this is a golf hole that we’re on right now. You can see there’s a bunker right down here. The third green is right behind us here. And, they’ve literally built these wood platforms to be level, rather than having folks walk the fairway areas.

TREFNY: This is incredible; they’re building a city.

ABDENROTH: Well, a small city is exactly what it’s been referred to. And what’s really unique – they’ve had a great opportunity to hire a lot of local carpenters and other employees here, because of the way the economy has been. And they’ve realty gotten some great quality of work. They say a higher quality of work than they would normally get in other cities, so I think a lot of the temporary workers here have had a great experience and a great job opportunity.

TREFNY: How important is that corporate presence here at an event like this?

ABDENROTH: Well, it’s a big presence. The USGA now has what they’re calling partners. For corporations,  I believe it is, they have official partnerships, and as that yearlong partnership goes on they have the rights to bring guests to the course. Lexus, for example, is the official vehicle, and they have courtesy cars for all of the players. And, the way the USGA looks at this is that they have thirteen national championships they hold. They have a girl’s junior championship, which is actually at Lake Merced this summer; they have a boy’s championship; they have a men’s senior-amateur; women’s senior-amateur. So, thirteen major championships. The US Open is the one that funds all of those things. And, research for the game. Research for equipment. And, as their tagline: for the good of the game. So, the US Open is a one-week activity that funds all that activity. And, they do the handicapping for the entire game of golf, and many many other things. So, this whole thing, and the corporations, and the TV contracts are really what funds all of this. So it’s a big deal.

So we can get through this way and then here’s the first tee where they will start. I’d say normally a par 5, it’s been converted to par 4, and it’s said that the first six holes are going to be the toughest starting holes in USGA history. So it’ll be really a major challenge.

TREFNY: This is slightly a narrow shoot off the tee box, because you have some trees that are really framing it. If somebody is a big right-to-left or left-to-right hitter they would have to think about that.

ABDENROTH: Yeah and this sort of a moderate shoot. I’ll show you a couple others that are – there’s one hole that a couple members have nicknamed the hallway. Very, very narrow, and that’s really a feature that the Olympic Club has been known for over the years. We’ve got a lot of these really grand Cyprus trees that border a lot of the holes. So we’re now crossing over – this is the second fairway.

TREFNY: And this is just a series of terraces we’re looking down here, as we go from number one, which is kind of at the top of the hill for the lake course. And we’re crossing fairways and roughs here; we’re just going down hills, across flat, down, flat, down. It’s like rice paddy fields in Thailand or something.

ABDENROTH: Yeah, it’s really a fun terrain.

TREFNY: There are a lot of Porta-potties out here.

ABDENROTH: Well, you know, with about 35,000 to 40,000 people out here, Porta-potties are going to become a kind of necessity, if you know what I mean. And, I’ll show you a couple that are kind of the upgraded Porta-potties that they have for some of the corporate areas. They’re sort of the Cadillac – it’s sort of a trailer with a couple of restrooms.

TREFNY: The Lexus of Porta-potties.

ABDENROTH: There you go. Exactly. Yeah. I don’t know if the Porta-potty company is a sponsor, but I bet they’d like to be.

TREFNY: Well, I’m sure they’d like to be the provider. That’s a lot of business.

ABDENROTH: Right, exactly. So we’re standing on the sixteenth hole, and this is the longest golf hole in USGA history, US Open history. It’s 670 yards.

TREFNY: And that is a shoot we’re looking down here for our first shot.

ABDENROTH: Yeah, this is a real shoot here. And, this tee was devised fairly late in the game, where normally the hole plays at 609 – and then there was another tee market built at 620 yards – but Mike Davis, who is the executive director of the United States Golf Association, and the head of the setup of the Open, he felt he wanted to lengthen this hole because the last five holes are potentially relatively short holes. So, he wanted to put a little bit more mustard into this hole. But, he wants it to be exciting and fun. And he is more of what they call a “player friendly” official. The players like what he is doing, so that’s a good thing. 

Ben was hired as Interim Executive Director of KALW in November, 2021.