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Inverness eyes a major tourney with $2M renovation

06/29/2014, 12:31am EDT
By DAVID BRIGGS BLADE SPORTS WRITER
Inverness eyes a major tourney with $2M renovation

Inverness Club had its biggest renovation since the 1970s, reopening last month after nine months of work when it tore up and regrassed all tees, fairways, and greens, including here on the Nos. 2 and 11 holes.

The Inverness Club spent its first century accumulating some of the biggest moments in golf history.

If a major series of changes have their intended effect, more could be on the way.

Inverness reopened last month after a nine-month shutdown with a new course and a new philosophy — in large part to make its latest run at bringing one of golf’s crown jewel events back to Toledo for the first time since 1993.

In the biggest overhaul since Tom Fazio redesigned the course in the 1970s, the club completed a $2 million renovation that reseeded the greens, fairways, and tees with pioneering strains of bent grass and ramped up the difficulty level.

Do not be fooled by the 130 trees excavated to open up the course, one of many nods to Donald Ross’ original design from 1903. The par-71 course is now about 100 yards longer, pushing its total length past 7,300 yards, and two to three shots tougher per round. Some 60 strategically planted new trees and six bunkers — including four in the landing areas between the adjacent Nos. 2 and 11 holes — were added, while the fairways were reshaped to feed into the sand traps.

Club officials anticipate the makeover will help vault the 250-acre oasis on Dorr Street back into the very top stratosphere of courses nationally. Inverness is 54th in Golf Digest’s latest annual top-100 rankings, down from its peak of 17th in 2001 — two years after the club’s last major renovation. Golf Magazine bills Inverness as 43rd in the U.S. and No. 83 in the world.

“We've been a nationally ranked golf course since they started ranking golf courses, and the members are committed to making sure the club remains a nationally ranked golf course,” Inverness president Greg Kopan said. “This is part of an ongoing process to make sure it remains a championship course.”

All the while, the club is changing its big-game strategy.

It was a simpler time when Inverness hosted its last of four U.S. Opens in 1979 and its last PGA Championship in 1993. Today, it takes far more than tradition and a breathtaking course to land a major professional event. A club must reside in a market with significant financial corporate support or have one heck of a plan.

If Inverness is to again snare one of golf’s three premier rotating events — including the Ryder Cup — it must get aggressive, which includes corralling statewide corporate support and a willingness to host secondary championship events for the USGA and perhaps the Western Golf Association.

While Inverness has traditionally hosted mostly pro USGA events — the 1973 U.S. Amateur endures as the lone exception — the club will now pursue amateur ones, too. Possibilities include the U.S. Amateur, Junior Amateur, and Walker Cup, a biennial match between the top amateurs from the U.S., Great Britain, and Ireland. The idea is to bring high-level golf to Toledo while also scratching the USGA’s back, helping the governing body host some of its 12 championship events with the hope that it lands them the biggest fish of all, the men’s U.S. Open.

“It's in our mission statement now, our goal is to host events of national prominence, and that can be either amateur of professional,” Kopan said. “We've had a lot of discussions with the USGA, and they would like us to do more championships for them.

”We’ve agreed that we will love to continue to have a good relationship with them, and we will do amateur and professional events. which is a little different. ... They won't really tell you that if you do this, this and this, you'll get the next big event. [But] historically, what they'd like to have is an ongoing relationship with you and then you'll get ‘‍X’ amount of amateur events and you'll get a big pro event. We don’t have any problem with that.”

USGA president Thomas O’Toole, Jr., who visited Toledo to play the rebuilt course last month, praised Inverness’ commitment.

“You certainly want to have partnerships with clubs that are focused and diligent in trying to make themselves better,” he said. “That's what the Inverness Club has done. That certainly puts them in a position different than a club that maybe is not quite as interested and not quite as proactive. ... Let's continue to have the dialogue and see where things shake out.”

Inverness also wants to increase its dialogue with the PGA of America, which administers the PGA Championship and the Ryder Cup. One big-time gateway event could be the BMW Championship, a rotating PGA Tour event with an $8 million purse run by the Western Golf Association. Inverness hopes to host one of the WGA’s amateur events.

PGA chief championships officer Kerry Haigh plans to visit the club next month. He called the upgrades “exciting.”

“We have great memories of Inverness Club, along with the great support that we received from the club membership and surrounding community,” he said.

Kopan said Inverness hopes to host a pro or amateur event every three to five years and a major championship every 20 to 25 years, though the latter goal remains squarely in the dream phase.

The top events are all doled out through at least 2021 — the next Ryder Cup open to a U.S. bidder is in 2028 — while the competition for them grows more cutthroat by the year. With only three Fortune 500 companies still based in metro Toledo, questions endure about the corporate community’s ability to support a showcase national tournament.

Judd Silverman, the longtime director of the LPGA’s Marathon Classic, previously said the U.S. Senior Open at Inverness in 2011 produced $5 million to $6 million in revenue for the USGA. A U.S. Open would need to generate more than four times that figure.

The 2015 Open in University Place, Wash., for instance, will sell upward of 50 corporate hospitality tents and suites along the course, with prices running as high as $235,000 per unit. It is little wonder the New York City market will host four Opens or PGA Championships in the next six years.

Yet, there are mid-market success stories that give Inverness hope, including last year’s PGA Championship in Rochester, N.Y. The top corporations in Northwest Ohio have long pledged their support for a major championship, while Ohio Gov. John Kasich has offered his help in galvanizing the state’s top companies.

“Rochester put on a great PGA Championship, and we’re of similar size,” said Silverman, who also served as tournament director for the 2011 Senior Open. “If they can do it, I have full confidence that we can put on a successful event as well from a financial perspective.”

The goal now is to make the updated Inverness impossible to avoid.

Club members believe it has too much to sell, beginning with the appeal to history. For Toledo, head club pro Derek Brody calls Inverness “our Fenway Park.”

Before money talked, it is where legends walked, where Bobby Jones and Gene Sarazen and Jack Nicklaus played their first U.S. Opens and Harry Vardon played his last, and where drama was assured. Inverness hosted the longest playoff ever — a 72-hole clash of attrition at the 1931 Open — a sudden-death showdown at the 1993 PGA Championship, and Bob Tway’s famed hole-out from a bunker on the 18th hole to capture the 1986 PGA title.

Then, more important, there is what the course is now.

Golfers will notice a longer, tougher, faster, and greener course. Beyond the redesign — which also rebuilt and moved back the conjoined Nos. 1 and 10 tees — the most significant change is the new playing surface. Inverness superintendent Steve Anderson put more than a dozen strains of grass for the fairways and greens through more than a year of testing in the nursery, then, along with top club officials, unanimously selected two Oregon-based varieties. The grasses so outperformed the others in the trials that Anderson told a reporter, “You would have picked them out.”

The course is gaining particular attention for its greens. Inverness is just the second club to regrass with the seed known as Pure Distinction. Anderson described the greens as much finer, denser, and upright than the old ones.

“The USGA and most of governing organizations want to have a firm, fast golf course, so your turf has to be in the right condition to do that,” Kopan said. “In order to create those conditions on a regular basis, we thought it was time to make these changes.”

So far, he said, the course has “exceeded our expectations.”

The new grasses are also more resistant to wear, which is fitting. If an updated course and a new strategy yield the desired payoff, tens of thousands of fans will someday return to Inverness to watch the old course add another chapter to its immense history.

“We're waiting our turn,” Silverman said of landing a major championship. “We're being a good partner. We're doing all the right things to keep the golf course relevant. There are not many courses that can play 7,400 yards right now that hosted the 1920 U.S. Open and were built in 1903. The membership is doing everything it can to keep the course relevant. Now we just have to sell the USGA and the PGA on the fact that we can raise the money that it costs now.”

Contact David Briggs at: dbriggs@theblade.com, 419-724-6084 or on Twitter @DBriggsBlade.

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