CHERRY HILLS VILLAGE — Around the back of the clubhouse at Cherry Hills Country Club, surrounding the 18th green, the gallery pulsed. It was the second day of the U.S. Amateur Championship featuring a field full of future PGA Tour talent, and as golfers finished out, a murmuring tension that only premium players can summon dominated the air.
It felt like the return of primetime golf in Colorado — and possibly a prelude for something much greater.
Since the last men’s major was held in Colorado in 1985, the state’s hosted plenty of notable golf tournaments such as the U.S. Amateur. But the fact remains it’s been 38 years since that ’85 PGA Championship at Cherry Hills, and 45 years since the club held the third of the state’s three U.S. Opens.
So what gives with the state’s major drought? And does Colorado, a cold-weather state with an above-average golf appetite, have a chance to land another major amid its decades-long absence from the game’s biggest stage?
“Absolutely Colorado has a shot to land a U.S. Open,” said Jim Hillary, a Cherry Hills member and the championship chairman for the 123rd U.S. Amateur. “And it has a good shot, in a lot of people’s opinion.”
The wait’s just going to be a while.
The U.S. Open is realistically the only major the state has a chance at now that the PGA Championship is played in May, instead of August. The threat of snow during Colorado’s notoriously unpredictable springs is likely too big of a risk for the PGA of America.
But there are only seven openings for the U.S. Open in the next 28 years, with the tournament booked out as far as 2051. The soonest available slot is in 13 years, 2036, and then ’38 and ’40 after that.
The good news for Colorado is that the state has a strong relationship with the USGA, the entity that stages the U.S. Open. This year’s U.S. Amateur was the 34th USGA championship conducted in Colorado, and 10th at Cherry Hills. The U.S. Amateur is a good bet to return to Cherry Hills for a fourth time at some point down the line.
“The USGA has a long history of coming to Colorado and some of the game’s greatest champions have earned their national championship in this state,” USGA chief championships officer John Bodenhamer said. “We love Colorado, and there’s more to come.”
In addition to The International, a PGA Tour tournament staged at Castle Pines Golf Club from 1986-06, Colorado’s hosted senior opens, U.S. Women’s Opens, mid-amateurs and the BMW Championship (returning to Castle Pines in 2024) over the course of its major drought.
A central factor in the absence of a men’s major in Colorado since 1985 is the state’s elevation. Golf changed drastically since Hubert Green prevailed at that ’85 PGA Championship, and the combination of long drives and advanced club technology make Colorado a less-than-ideal place to challenge the world’s best.
“It’s hard to get over (the elevation stigma),” said Steven Bartkowski, the executive director of the PGA Colorado Section. “The average PGA Tour event is about 7,200 yards at sea level, so if you think about that from a Colorado standpoint, and you consider about a 10% difference (that needs to be accounted for), that’s 7,900, 8,000 yards.”
Bodenhamer said Colorado’s elevation “is not a concern, but it’s a consideration” during the USGA’s evaluation process, which looks at a slew of criteria when choosing championship venues.
In Colorado, there’s a short list of clubs that meet USGA’s standards in terms of design, toughness, credibility, history, corporate/marketing support and the infrastructure needed to host an event of the U.S. Open’s magnitude.
Cherry Hills, Castle Pines (site of next year’s BMW Championship) and Colorado Golf Club, the co-host venue for this week’s U.S. Amateur, top that list — although infrastructure would be a challenge at all three.
Cherry Hills brass point to the 2014 BMW Championship held at the club, as well as this week’s tournament, as evidence that the area’s premier courses wouldn’t be easily conquered in a U.S. Open.
“Look at 2014, when the course was pretty dry and played pretty tricky, and you had guys like Rory (McIlroy) four-putting,” Cherry Hills president Kim Koehen said. “And this week, the young players can hit it a long way, but they still had to put it in play, avoid thick rough and putt well on fast, tricky greens.
“The fact that the cut for the match-play round was plus-one for two days of stroke play (in this week’s U.S. Amateur), that says both Cherry Hills and Colorado Golf Club held up very well.”
Cherry Hills played to a yardage of 7,394 yards this week, while Colorado Golf Club was 7,560. Castle Pines can be stretched to about 8,000 yards. Unforgiving rough and difficult greens can help offset the elevation advantage at all three venues.
A couple other courses outside the Big 3 could warrant a look by the USGA as well, especially if the association elects to go with a surprise pick at a relatively new course for the U.S. Open, as they did in 2015 (Chambers Bay in Washington) and ’17 (Erin Hills in Wisconsin).
Two Colorado courses that might fit that outlier billing are RainDance in Windsor and TPC Colorado in Berthoud. Though location relative to the Denver metro could be considered a drawback for both, each checks several boxes.
At 8,400 yards, RainDance is the longest course in North America. It opened last year and continues to build up its property, including a hotel. Meanwhile, TPC Colorado can be stretched to 7,991 yards and already hosts an annual Korn Ferry tournament.
“While we like the old tried-and-true where history has been made, we certainly keep an open mind to any venues that we think would deliver on our strategies,” Bodenhamer said. “That could definitely be a new course.”
Still, Cherry Hills — with its close ties to the USGA and longstanding history — remains the heavy favorite to eventually land another U.S. Open.
“We think of the greatest venues in America as the cathedrals of the game,” Bodenhamer said. “Cherry Hills is a cathedral, make no mistake about it.”
The club hosted the first U.S. Open west of the Mississippi in 1938, and its first PGA Championship three years after that. But its signature moment came in 1960 as the host of the U.S. Open that ushered golf into its modern era. In that tournament, Arnold Palmer famously drove the first green en route to erasing a seven-shot deficit on the final day to beat aging legend Ben Hogan and up-and-comer Jack Nicklaus, who finished second.
Hillary said that history is not lost on players, who value the course they win a U.S. Open on nearly as much as the trophy itself.
“The lessons of history from a given course suggests that in future championships, more great history can be made, and that it’s not by accident that magic happens,” Hillary said. “And there’s a history of great champions here. We have Palmer, Nicklaus, Andy North, Hubert Green, Phil Mickelson, Babe Didrikson Zaharias.”
Cherry Hills, which has a requirement to host championship tournaments written within its bylaws, is intent on capitalizing on its prestigious standing in order to secure one of the handful of open slots for the U.S. Open over the next quarter-century.
Hence the club’s Championships Committee, whose sole focus is “to try to attract the most important events in the world,” committee and club member Dave Lee explained. The committee, which features Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning and former PGA Tour star David Duval, met with Bodenhamer on Friday to discuss the possibility of a U.S. Open at Cherry Hills.
“Rest assured we’re pursuing (a U.S. Open bid), and we’re doing everything we can to see that happen,” Lee said. “And no matter what happens with that, championship golf is our history, and will continue to be.”
In the meantime, those within the game here remind local fans to relish the action in front of them, even if the state doesn’t currently have an annual PGA event or a future major to look forward to yet.
“There’s been many of us who tried to bring a men’s senior tournament or a women’s annual tournament here since The International went away in ’07, and it’s not for the lack of trying, it just hasn’t worked out,” said Kevin Laura, the president of Green Valley Ranch Golf Club and CEO of the Colorado Open Golf Foundation.
“But remember, just recently or ahead, we had the U.S. Girls Junior Championship this year at Eisenhower Golf Course (in Colorado Springs), the U.S. Am, the BMW in ’24, the U.S. Senior Open at The Broadmoor in ’25. We’re not just getting a lick at the lollipop. We’re getting the big tournaments coming here, and that’s big for our state.”
Championship Golf in Colorado
A look at the most notable tournaments played in Colorado dating back to the 1938 U.S. Open at Cherry Hills.
1938 U.S. Open: Ralph Guldahl, Cherry Hills
1941 PGA Championship: Vic Ghezzi, Cherry Hills
1959 U.S. Amateur Championship: Jack Nicklaus, The Broadmoor
1960 U.S. Open: Arnold Palmer, Cherry Hills
1967 PGA Championship: Don January, Columbine
1967 U.S. Amateur Championship: Bob Dickson, The Broadmoor
1976 U.S. Senior Amateur: Lewis Oehmig, Cherry Hills
1978 U.S. Open: Andy North, Cherry Hills
1983 U.S. Mid-Amateur Championship: Jay Sigel, Cherry Hills
1985 PGA Championship: Hubert Green, Cherry Hills
1990 U.S. Amateur Championship: Phil Mickelson, Cherry Hills
1993 U.S. Senior Open: Jack Nicklaus, Cherry Hills
1995 U.S. Women’s Open: Annika Sörenstam, The Broadmoor
2005 U.S. Women’s Open: Birdie Kim, Cherry Hills
2008 U.S. Senior Open: Eduardo Romero, The Broadmoor
2011 U.S. Women’s Open: So Yeon Ryu, The Broadmoor
2012 U.S. Amateur Championship: Steven Fox, Cherry Hills
2014 BMW Championship: Billy Horschel, Cherry Hills
2018 U.S. Senior Open: David Toms, The Broadmoor
2019 U.S. Mid-Amateur Championship: Lukas Michel, Colorado GC
2023 U.S. Amateur Championship: Nick Dunlap/Neal Shipley, Cherry Hills
2024 BMW Championship: TBD, Castle Pines
Future U.S. Open Sites
A look at future sites for the U.S. Open as announced by the USGA; the closest opening is 2036.
2025: Oakmont CC
2026: Shinnecock Hills GC
2027: Pebble Beach
2028: Winged Foot GC
2030: Merion GC
2031: Riviera CC
2032: Pebble Beach
2033: Oakmont CC
2034: Oakland Hills CC
2037: Pebble Beach
2039: Los Angeles CC
2042: Oakmont CC
2044: Pebble Beach
2049: Oakmont CC
2050: Merion GC
2051: Oakland Hills CC
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