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Thursday, April 18, 2024

NC Golf: USGA executive Reg Jones preps for the U.S. Open’s return to Moore County.

March 1 marked 100 days until the start of Reg Jones’ professional apex, when the eyes of the golf world will turn to view the fruits of his labor. Yet on this day, Jones appears remarkably calm.

Jones is managing director of the United States Open Championship for the U.S. Golf Association, the game’s ruling body in America. On the men’s side, the U.S. Open is one of four “major championships” and is contested annually in mid-June.

Jones oversees every logistical detail, including parking, spectator transportation, merchandise and concession venues, grandstands, sponsorships, volunteers and nearly everything else. While the world’s best golfers battle to capture the national championship inside the ropes, Jones’ job is to ensure that everyone else, hanging around outside those ropes, is happy.

After overseeing U.S. Open tourneys in Los Angeles and Boston over the past two years, this year’s 124th U.S. Open will be what he calls “a home game.” It will be held from June 13-16 at the Pinehurst Resort & Country Club’s historic No. 2 course. It marks the fourth U.S. Open and 11th USGA championship there.

Iconic Pinehurst No. 2 is the host of the 2024 US Open. It opened in 1907.

 

That may explain his outwardly calm demeanor on a day when tent and flooring companies are arriving in Pinehurst with equipment and supplies. “At least I get to sleep
in my own bed,” Jones says.

This year’s event falls on the 25th anniversary of Pinehurst’s U.S. Open debut, when Payne Stewart drained a 15-foot par putt on the
18th green to win his second U.S. Open. It was an iconic showing by one of golf’s most recognizable stars due to his signature knickers and tam-o’-shanter cap.

Stewart’s title in 1999 was rendered even more poignant by his untimely death in a plane crash just four months later. The golfer is immortalized near the 18th green by a bronze statue of his victorious fist pump and leg kick.

It also marked a turning point for Pinehurst. The USGA returned its premier men’s championship to the Sandhills in 2005 and again in 2014, when the U.S. Open and
Women’s Open were conducted on No. 2 in historic back-to-back weeks.

“The great thing about coming back here for a fourth U.S. Open is that we’ve got a model,” says Jones. “We’ve got a plan that has worked out. It gives us the opportunity to focus on how we can make things better. And I think for us, a lot of that right now is around the fan experience.”

Better, not bigger
“Fan experience” is a frequent topic for Jones and his staff. In 1999, some 40,000 spectators came through the gates daily. Things got even bigger in 2005, when Pinehurst set a record for the most-attended U.S. Open ever.

“Our peak day (in 2005) was right at 60,000 people,” Jones says. “The energy, the
crowds were certainly amazing. But I’m not sure it was necessarily the best experience for our fans.”

Those events generated more than $140 million in visitor spending with a statewide economic impact of nearly $240 million, according to a study by N.C. State University, the USGA and the area’s tourism bureau. Overall, 26 counties benefited from spending on lodging, food, beverage, shopping, retail, construction, transportation and recreation.

This year, the USGA anticipates as many as 275,000 attending throughout the week, intentionally downshifting from the 325,000 who came in 2005. “We’ll have the rope lines
a little closer to the action,” says John Bodenhamer, the USGA’s chief championships officer. “The lines of concessions are shorter, the lines in merchandise are shorter or hopefully
non-existent. So, the overall experience will be better. We think it’s better for traffic,
we think it’s better for the community, and it just creates a more premium experience
for everybody.”

Golf’s fracture
This year’s event comes amid unprecedented off-the-course tumult in professional golf, which requires a little explanation. The USGA and its British peer, the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, Scotland, are considered golf’s blue-blood governing bodies. Both focus on administering rules, overseeing handicapping systems, conducting national championships and ensuring integrity.

The distinct PGA Tour oversees prestigious events such as The Players Championship and the FedExCup playoffs during its season. The tour operates as a nonprofit run by a board and executive leaders, and includes a player advisory board.

The PGA Tour is embroiled in a battle with Saudi Arabian-based LIV Golf Investments, which created a global golf league in 2021, paying lavishly to attract Phil Mickelson, Harold Varner III and other former PGA Tour stars. They can’t play in the Pinehurst tournament in June unless they have won a major tournament in recent years or excel in a spring U.S. Open qualifying event.

The two groups planned to unify by the end of 2023, but no deal has been reached.

Due to previous successful U.S. Opens in Pinehurst, the USGA said in 2020 that it would build a new center there to complement its headquarters in Liberty Corners, New Jersey. The decision followed an $18 million incentive package approved by state leaders, which hinged on the USGA investing as much as $36 million and hiring 50 people.

The Pinehurst Resort, which was founded in 1895, one year after the USGA, is now home to the 6-acre “Golf House Pinehurst” complex, which is nearing completion after nearly two years of construction. About 70 staffers are already occupying the Test Center and administrative building. Next door, the USGA Experience Building, including the World Golf Hall of Fame on the second floor, is scheduled to open on May 1.

Pinehurst roots
Jones, 55, started as an intern at Pinehurst Resort before the 1994 U.S. Senior Open, so the USGA’s move represents a cyclical transition. He was named operations manager of the Pinehurst championship office in late 1994, then director of operations in 1996. Following the 1999 U.S. Open Championship, Jones became championship director, a title he held until 2006 when he was hired by the USGA.

During his time at Pinehurst, the Womens’ Open was held at the nearby Pine Needles course in 1996 and 2001. He also worked on the U.S. Senior Open in Maryland in 2002 and the U.S. Clay Court Tennis Championships at Pinehurst in 1995-96.

Since 2006, Jones’ office in downtown Pinehurst, above the Villager Deli, grew to where it had “about 20 people stacked on top of each other.” The new offices provide more space and perspective. “When I first came here in 1994, I was an intern working in the basement of the members’ clubhouse,” he says. “Now I can look out of our new offices here and see that building. So, it’s come full circle.”

Reflecting its close relationship with the Sandhills and strong support from North Carolina’s business community, the USGA announced Pinehurst as its first “anchor site.” That means the No. 2 course is slated to host the organization’s men’s championships in 2024, 2029, 2035, 2041 and 2047. In 2029, the U.S. Women’s Open will come to Pinehurst.

Over the 25-year period, these events are projected to have an economic impact of more than $1 billion.

The USGA has named two other anchor sites — Pebble Beach Golf Links near San Francisco and  Oakmont Country Club near Pittsburgh.

“We felt that if we identified three iconic sites where the players most wanted to win
their U.S. Open, men or women, and went back more frequently, then we could do a lot
of things,”  Bodenhamer says. “One, we could continuously improve that site with the right ownership who was willing to do it.” Pinehurst, Pebble Beach and Oakmont are private clubs.

The USGA is installing underground water and electric lines, which are “things that we wouldn’t have contemplated if we weren’t coming back. But we know we’re coming back, and we can think about those things at all three sites,” Bodenhamer adds. “It’s different with an anchor site and going back more frequently and the familiarity and sinking roots deeper in the community with our offices there.”

Pinehurst Resort CEO Tom Pashley says “there’s a comfort level when working with Reg and lots of the USGA staff as several of them worked at Pinehurst prior to joining the USGA.  Reg often says that it’s nice to have a `home game’ and we definitely agree.

The U.S. Open funds about 80% of the USGA’s annual revenue, enabling investments for its many other golf-related services. “So it has to succeed in order for us to do what we do for this game,” says Janeen Driscoll, USGA’s director of brand communications.

None of it, he says, could be done without Jones’ steady guidance. “He’s kind of the glue that holds the U.S. Open together,” he says. “Reg knows every aspect of our business. Everything from public safety to transportation and parking and player facilities, player dining, volunteer dining, volunteer facilities. I could go on and on … he does a magnificent job with it.”

“People don’t understand how enormous it is to bring the circus to town,” adds Driscoll. She cites Jones’ work with state and local leaders on a range of issues including safety and security, incentives and logistics. “Reg has built roads overnight. He’s reconstructed bleachers. He is just a miracle worker.”

Pashley says Jones “is working on a puzzle with hundreds of pieces. Many times you’re only aware of the most visible components, but Reg is outstanding at completing the puzzle so all involved feel recognized and benefit.”

Hooked on golf
Jones grew up two blocks from Henderson Country Club in Vance County, where the general manager and head golf professional at the time, Jimmy Gurkin, became like a second father. “We had a lot of events, so just to be a part of the inner workings of the golf operation there, I think sort of got me hooked on it, but it also taught me a lot about creatively addressing problems,” says Jones.

After earning a bachelor’s degree in business from Wake Forest University, Jones took an entry-level banking job but missed the golf industry. (He, his wife and oldest daughter are Wake Forest graduates, while his two younger daughters are current students.)

He took advice from his uncle, who said,
“You’re still young. If there’s something that you
want to try, now’s the time to do it.”

That’s when Gurkin hired Jones at the former Wilson Country Club, which is now Willow Springs Country Club. His job ran the gamut from pulling up the golf carts in the morning, cutting greens, opening and running the golf shop, then working in the dining room at night.

That variety has continued throughout his career. “I’ve been fortunate through my career to have been involved in nearly every aspect of running our championships, whether it’s ticketing, whether it’s operations, whether it’s volunteers, hospitality, sales, parking and transportation — I’ve certainly been involved in every aspect of it,” Jones says.

While Bodenhamer oversees hole and tee locations, “Reg knows every other aspect of the U.S. Open like nobody else at the USGA. And what I mean by that is ticket sales, how many we can get around the site, whether it’s Pinehurst or elsewhere, hospitality from anywhere from our partners like Lexus to Deloitte, to Rolex to Cisco, all of them.”

Each year presents unique challenges, Jones says. “It’s trying to figure out ways to present [the tournaments] in a way that reflects what’s special about them, but making it convenient for the players, the fans and the rest of our stakeholders.”

On March 11, 2020, Jones learned that the Players Championship had been canceled after
the first round, because of the COVID-19 pandemic. That year’s U.S. Open, scheduled
for June at Winged Foot Country Club in a New York City suburb, was rescheduled
to September.

The course was about a mile and a half from New Rochelle, which was a ground zero for COVID-19 in a highly restrictive states.

“The world of sports was dead shut down,” Bodenhamer says. “But Reg, to his credit, navigated all of that, the move from June to September. No fans, no volunteers, no media, none of that — talk about an abnormal U.S. Open.”

Jones’ contacts developed in previous tournaments helped him stay in touch with key New York state officials, who eventually allowed the event to take place. “Those are the sorts of things that Reg does that nobody knows but me and some of our leadership,”
Bodenhamer says.

Now, Jones is looking forward to getting back for another home game, 25 years after the memorable ‘99 Open.

“It has taken a lot of support from a lot of great people — from the state, from our village here, the leadership at the resort, a lot of those people from years ago,” he says.

“It’s great to see some of that vision and some of that thinking that started back in the ‘90s come to fruition and to be what it is today. It really is a phenomenal story about the last 25 years and what’s happened here.” 

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