Opening a new golf course is a great reason to throw a grand party.
It's a cause for celebration for all involved - the owner, the architect, the staff who toiled behind the scenes and the community members who get to enjoy their new toy. Building a new golf course is no small feat, often taking years of permits and planning, not to mention the millions of dollars. Getting to the finish line feels like a miracle these days.
And let's not forget that a party is a great way to get noticed. The press coverage and social media creates instant buzz. I've been fortunate enough to be a fly on the wall at more than dozen grand opening celebrations over the past 15 years.
Once you get past the work obligations - the press conference, ribbon cutting and ceremonial first-tee shot - it's really cool to be one of the first to leave a divot in pristine fairways. I might have even held a course record or two for a couple hours before other groups with more accomplished players finished their rounds.
I've attended some pretty good grand openings - playing golf with Greg Norman, enjoying intimate concerts played by former rock stars, fireworks, etc. - but the Payne's Valley Cup takes the concept next level.
Tiger Woods will open Payne's Valley, his first public/resort course in America, by competing with Justin Thomas against Rory McIlroy and Justin Rose in the Payne's Valley Cup from 3-7 p.m. ET Sept. 22. Stream the event LIVE on Golfpass here.
Leave it to Johnny Morris, the owner of Bass Pro Shops and Big Cedar Lodge in Missouri's Ozark Mountains, to throw what ranks among golf's splashiest grand opening of all time. It's the first course opening ever televised live nationally. All that's missing is the spectators.
My grand opening memories
Picking my best grand opening experience isn't an easy decision.
At the 2003 grand opening of Eagle Eye in Bath, Mich., I found Pete Dye petting his dog, trying hard to avoid the spotlight of the crowd of 500 people, among them Michigan State University men's basketball coach Tom Izzo. We had a fun, informal chat about his role in the Chris Lutzke design, including the replica of his island green at TPC Sawgrass.
The day Streamsong opened in 2012 was pretty special with Tom Doak's Blue course and Coore & Crenshaw's Red course hosting a double shotgun. I learned a lot about architecture in that press conference.
That gathering was minuscule, however, compared to the more than 3,600 fans who showed up for the Champions for Change Golf Challenge, a celebrity showcase at the new Harbor Shores in Benton Harbor, Mich., featuring Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Johnny Miller and Arnold Palmer in 2010. Walking inside the ropes with a photographer's pass was a career highlight. It was such a casual setting that Watson and I briefly walked up the 18th fairway together, chatting about Belvedere, a course he grew up playing in northern Michigan.
Unfortunately, I wasn't in position to capture the 102-foot putt Nicklaus made on his three-tiered 10th green. Watch the remarkable video here.
The best parties, I've found, are thrown south of the border. The grand openings I attended at TPC Danzante Bay in Loreto and Rancho San Lucas in Cabo San Lucas were mirror images in how over-the-top they were. TPC Danzante Bay brought in former Laker star Byron Scott, former Eagles guitarist Don Felder and architect Rees Jones. (I may or may not have danced on stage with Scott during a nightly show that required audience participation.)
Rancho San Lucas, featured in the video above, countered with Norman and former Journey lead singer Steve Augeri. Playing two of Mexico's most scenic courses, followed by lavish dinner parties and authentic versions of "Hotel California" and "Don't Stop Believin'" delivered the most perfect of days.
Not all grand openings are a smash. My worst experience was at the debut of The Grande Golf Club in Jackson, Mich. It started pouring the minute I arrived and never relented. With no clubhouse for shelter, guests huddled under tents for hours hoping for a break in the weather that never came. I still haven't played it. I do remember having a good time at the grand openings of The Jackal at Mount Brighton and Yarrow Golf Club. Too bad both courses have since closed. Ouch.
Golf's most legendary grand openings
Historically speaking, the most influential grand openings probably took place nearly a century ago. On Sept. 8, 1929, Pasatiempo celebrated its grand opening in Santa Cruz, Calif., with a foursome of founder Marion Hollins, Bobby Jones (who won golf's grand slam the following year), Glenna Collett (U.S. Women's Amateur champion) and Cyril Tolley (British Amateur champion). Legends Dr. Alister MacKenzie (the course architect); Ernest Jones (teaching professional) and Grantland Rice (sportwriter) were among the 2,000 spectators. Oh to have been able to listen to the conversations of MacKenzie, Hollins, Bobby Jones and Rice at the after-party.
A few years later, in January 1933, Bobby Jones, Rice and MacKenzie were again among the social elite who ushered in the grand opening celebration at Augusta National. It was somewhat common during that era for top golfers like Jones, Walter Hagen, Sam Snead and others to show up at grand openings for exhibition matches. It was more lucrative than playing on Tour in those days.
As lucky as I've been, in no way can I brag about attending all the best grand openings from golf's modern era. The prominent golf writers during the course building boom of the 1990s had all the fun. Joe Passov estimates he attended at least 50 grand openings during his career as "Travelin' Joe" at Golf Magazine. Passov has fond memories of caddying for Nicklaus at the grand opening of Puerto Los Cabos and being 1-up on Woods after the first hole at the 2014 debut of El Cardonal at Diamante Cabo San Lucas, Woods' first design.
I would have loved to have hung out with Passov to see three of my childhood idols - Phil Mickelson, Robin Yount (Milwaukee Brewers' Hall-of-Fame shortstop) and Huey Lewis - at the 1994 grand opening of the Talon course at Grayhawk Golf Club in Scottsdale, Ariz. A young Mickelson played in an exhibition match with two-time major champion David Graham, three-time Tour winner Howard Twitty and TV analysts Gary McCord and Peter Kostis. Bands Duck Soup and Huey Lewis & The News rocked a concert on the range that night.
The 1998 grand opening of The Course at Wente Vineyards in Livermore, Calif., brought Norman and actor Samuel L. Jackson together in a foursome with CBS Sports Announcer Bill Macatee as the M.C. "If you're into wine, that was a good one," Passov recalled.
Norman, being a global brand, has had his share of celebrity-laden internationally grand openings. Traditionally, Norman plays a few holes with VIPs and media. Dragons and fireworks were part of the festivities at the Links course at KN Golf Links (2018) in Vietnam, while famous cricketers, Aussie Rules football players and the Australian Prime Minister were probably thrilled to rub elbows with The Shark on his native turf during the Cathedral Lodge opening in Australia in 2017.
Sisters Kristen Hunter and Karen Moraghan estimate that their company, Hunter Public Relations, has helped stage more than 70 grand openings (including TPC Danzante Bay and Wente) over the years. Moraghan believes the first might have been the most memorable. The Links at Spanish Bay opened in 1986 as its trio of star architects, Watson, Sandy Tatum and Robert Trent Jones Jr., were the headliners. When the bagpiper emerged from the fog and Watson shot a 67 that still stands as the course record, the event made national news. A bagpiper plays every day at dusk, rain or shine, to this day.
The lowest collective handicap of any grand opening field was assembled at Silo Ridge, a Discovery Land property in New York. Held on the Monday following the 2016 PGA Championship at Baltusrol, 19 Tour pros, including Justin Thomas, Dustin Johnson, Rickie Fowler, Jordan Spieth and Matt Kuchar, showed up, plus athletes like Mark Messier and Mark Teixeira. The 21 lucky foursomes played nine holes with a Tour player and nine with a celebrity, raising money for a local charity.
U.S. Presidents who love their golf have been known to crash a few grand openings. William Taft crossed the border to open the Le Manoir Richelieu's 27-hole golf course in Quebec, Canada, in 1925. Gerald Ford showed up on the first tee with Nicklaus for the launch party of the Summit Course at Cordillera in Colorado in 2001. George H.W. Bush played in the grand opening of the Straits course at Whistling Straits, a $30,000-a-foursome fundraiser for the United States Golf Association's First Tee program that drew singer Amy Grant, among other celebrities.
Prior to his presidency, Donald Trump and Colin Montgomerie christened the controversial Trump International Golf Links Scotland in 2012. The Donald also held court at the 2015 grand opening of the Trump Golf Links at Ferry Point in the Bronx in what the New York Post surprisingly called an understated affair. Ivanka Trump hit her ceremonial tee shot in heels.
The many memorable grand openings of Jack Nicklaus
Not even the leaders of the free world, though, have lived a life as charmed as The Golden Bear. Nicklaus sure knows how to stick it to his foes, even during casual competition. Besides Miller, count Gary Player, Palmer and Tom Weiskopf among his victims at grand openings.
Nicklaus, Palmer and Player - Golf's Big Three - played an exhibition match Dec. 8, 1964, to celebrate the opening of Mauna Kea, the first course on the Island of Hawaii. As the story goes, Nicklaus wanted to play from the tips at the third hole, an epic par 3 requiring a 260-plus yard carry to the green perched on a rocky cliff above the ocean. Nicklaus knew the diminutive Player would have trouble clearing the cove. A decade later, Nicklaus shot 66 in an exhibition against Weiskopf, opening his own Muirfield Village on May 27, 1974. That course record held until 1979. Talk about a home course advantage.
The Monarch's Challenge celebrated the 1993 debut of the PGA Centenary course at Gleneagles, site of the 2014 Ryder Cup, with Nicklaus surrounded by Scottish royalty dressed in kilts - Sir Sean Connery and racing legend Jackie Stewart.
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Throwback Thursday: On May 15, 1993, Jackie Stewart and Sean Connery joined Jack Nicklaus to open his design at the PGA Centenary Course at Gleneagles in Scotland, site of this week’s Ryder Cup. In all, 44 players, including royalty and those from the sports, entertainment and professional worlds played in “The Monarch’s Challenge.” #rydercup #gleneagles #nicklausdesign #jacknicklaus #nicklaus #goldenbear #jackiestewart #seanconnery #golf
Nicklaus teed it up with another famous actor, Kevin Costner, in 2005 at The Cliffs at Walnut Cove in North Carolina, and became good friends with country singer Vince Gill after a 2002 exhibition match at The Bear Trace at Ross Creek Landing in Tennessee. His 2006 grand opening with Tony Jacklin at The Concession Golf Club in Florida was produced into a documentary dedicated to their special bond. Nicklaus gave Jacklin a critical short putt on the 18th hole to end the 1969 Ryder Cup in a tie. Even today, it is considered one of the purest acts of sportsmanship of all time.
True to form for Canada, the 2005 grand opening at Nicklaus' Mountain course at Bear Mountain on Vancouver island felt more like an NHL reunion than a grand opening of a golf course. More than a dozen of owner Len Barrie's investors who were current and former NHL players teed it up, including goalie Mike Vernon and Ray Whitney, fresh off a Stanley Cup victory with the Carolina Panthers.
If Tiger wants to catch Nicklaus in memorable grand openings, he's got about 400 more courses to build. He's off to a decent start. At Bluejack National outside of Houston, Woods hung out with buddy Mark O'Meara, while David Feherty was on hand for comic relief. When Woods later returned for the opening of the short course called The Playgrounds, he witnessed his 11-year-old playing partner land an ace on the first official tee shot. The YouTube video from 2016 sports more than 4 million views.
Surprisingly, or maybe not given the state of Tiger's game in those days, Hall-of-Fame pitcher Roger Clemens beat Woods at the December 2016 debut of The Oasis Short course, a 12-hole par 3 at Diamante Cabo San Lucas in Mexico. Following Payne's Valley, Woods will probably headline some sort of cool grand opening at his redesigned Peter Hay Par 3 at Pebble Beach Resorts next spring.
Perhaps my favorite grand opening story occurred in, of all places, India, involving a virtual nobody in the world of golf. Celebrating his new course, Kalhaar Blues & Greens, owner Devang Shah not only won his TAEGA Cup match but aced the 11th hole of the Nicklaus design along the way. Why is this noteworthy? With so many guests already drinking on his dime, Shah's hole-in-one led to, theoretically, the most expensive hole-in-one bar bill of all time ... a small price to pay for the party (and memory) of a lifetime.
Have you been lucky enough to attend a course grand opening? Tell us about your experience in the comments below.