Swinging North
A national tournament elevates Alaska golf
By Amy Newman
Carter Damaska | Alaska Business

olf courses in every state and the District of Columbia have hosted a championship for the United States Golf Association (USGA) during its 128-year history. Every state, that is, except Alaska—until this summer.

The 2022 US Senior Women’s Amateur Championship tees off at Anchorage Golf Course on July 30, finally completing the USGA’s scorecard of states.

“It’s a monumental occasion for us to bring a championship to Alaska, something that has been a long time coming,” USGA CEO Mike Davis said in an October press release announcing Alaska’s selection. “Players from all over the country dream of becoming USGA champions, so it is important we bring our events to all corners of the United States to expose golfers and golf fans to the inspiration and competitiveness of our championships. We’re so thankful to Anchorage Golf Course for working with us to make this dream a reality.”

Turning that dream into reality didn’t happen overnight. When the first golfer steps onto the greens at the end of the month, it will mark the culmination of five years of work by Anchorage Golf Course staff and volunteers to design and implement course improvements, recruit volunteers to run the tournament, and raise the funds needed to bring it all together.

And it will be a feather in the cap for the thirty-five-year-old course.

“Having a USGA event at your facility as kind of a nod to a profession is really nice,” says Rich Sayers, general manager of Anchorage Golf Course, a city-owned facility off O’Malley Road. “It’s fascinating for myself and all the staff to be involved in so many facets of this event. It’s been pretty exciting.”

Road to the Championship
Bringing a USGA championship tournament to Anchorage was a lesson in patience, persistence, and timing. For years, Sayers and architect Forrest Richardson, who has designed several projects for the course over the past fifteen years, “put the bug in the ear” of USGA officials.

Sayers’ desire to host a USGA tournament is part personal, part professional. A competitive junior and collegiate golfer with local and national tournament wins under his belt, golf has been a lifelong passion. He took a step back after college graduation when he moved to Alaska and took a job on the North Slope, but he gravitated back to the sport and began working as an assistant golf pro and instructor at the Anchorage Golf Course in 1988. In 2008, he was named general manager.

But it wasn’t until 2017, when Davis became CEO of the USGA, that the organization began to show real interest in Alaska, Sayers says. Davis and members of the USGA’s future sites committee came to Anchorage to play a round of golf and conduct a preliminary assessment to determine whether Anchorage Golf Course was a viable host facility. That trip was followed by an invitation for Sayers to attend the 2017 Senior Women’s Amateur Championship in Portland, and the championship tournament in Florida the following year, to provide a first-hand look at what goes into organizing and hosting a championship.

For the Florida trip, Sayers invited Jim and Bobbi Olson, former organizers of the Great Alaska Shootout college basketball tournament, to join him.

“We went down there and saw what a really amazing program they have,” Jim Olson says. “The USGA is first class at everything they do, and it just overwhelmed us at how wonderful it would be to host one of these in Anchorage because it’s never been done.”

“I definitely think it’s going to be a little bit different… I don’t think a lot of people have seen moose or bears on the golf course, and certainly there’s the scenery. I think it’s going to be pretty impactful for those players who advance and get to compete.”
Tracy Parsons, Director of Competitions, USGA
The USGA also needed to determine whether the Anchorage Golf Course could accommodate everything needed to host a championship.

“When you look at the championship week, it’s a marathon of golf,” says Tracy Parsons, director of competitions for the USGA and manager of the US Girls’ Junior and US Senior Women’s Amateur championships. “Not only do we have a registration day, two practice days, two days of match play, [but] they’re hosting different types of social functions, and there are different homes we have to find for communications, directors, player hospitality, so it’s really important that we find a facility that can support those kinds of things.”

With 132 players, the Senior Women’s Amateur is one of the USGA’s smaller fields—other championships can be as large as 156 players and require two courses—making it a good fit for Anchorage, Parsons says. But it isn’t the only factor that goes into choosing a host facility, she adds.

“Beyond the facility, I think another thing that is really factored into [site selection] is the community,” Parsons says. “Is the community going to get behind it? Are they going to get involved? Are we going to have issues finding volunteers?”

To prepare for the USGA, bunkers have been reshaped and their drainage improved. On the right, a tarp covers grass to warm it up, changing the growth of the turf.

Carter Damaska | Alaska Business

To prepare for the USGA, bunkers have been reshaped and their drainage improved. On the right, a tarp covers grass to warm it up, changing the growth of the turf.

Carter Damaska | Alaska Business

To prepare for the USGA, bunkers
Golf dirt
Tarp covers
That’s where the Olsons came in. Although the USGA dictates the championship layout and hole location and brings in its scorers and judges, the host site is responsible for day-to-day tournament operations. All of that, Jim Olson says, requires money and volunteers.

“Private clubs don’t need fundraising,” he says. “They just ask their members to help them out. That’s not the case up here.”

The Olsons created the nonprofit Anchorage Golf Legacy and drew on their thirty years of experience and contacts in sports fundraising to recruit and assemble a 22-member committee—95 percent of them golfers, Jim Olson says—to spearhead the effort. As of May, the committee had raised more than $500,000, and was on its way to recruiting close to 200 volunteers to act as course marshals, serve meals to USGA officials and players during the tournament, help in the medical and hospitality tents, run registration, and perform other tasks to keep things running smoothly, he says.

Businesses also donated time, materials, and equipment to help with course renovations, Sayers says. Retired contractor Jim St. George donated his time to help with course upgrades and arranged for members of the Associated General Contractors of Alaska to donate equipment, Sayers says. B.C. Excavating also provided their time at a discounted rate.

“It’s going to be kind of a status thing, that you were part of the committee that put on a national event in Alaska,” Olson says of the eagerness of community members and businesses to step up and volunteer. “If you’re a golfer, you want to do that.”

Bringing the championship to Anchorage also meant the USGA had to rearrange its tournament schedule, Sayers says. The Senior Women’s Amateur is usually held in the fall, “but for us to host this event—we obviously couldn’t do it in October—they had to find a hole in their schedule and move some things to accommodate it.”

A Long-Term Investment
Beyond the flex that comes with hosting Alaska’s first professional golf championship, there are long-term, tangible benefits to the Anchorage Golf Course and the golf community as a whole—benefits Sayers hadn’t truly considered until several years ago when the US Cross Country Ski Championships were held at Kincaid Park. He recalls a friend mentioning that after the championships were finished, Anchorage skiers would have use of the upgraded facilities for years to come.

“It just kind of struck me at that point, that’s a great way to help get upgrades to facilities,” he says. “We’re a municipal course, and we’re 99 percent local play, so I always thought that’s a big way we can package that altogether. We can have a USGA event, we can have improvements, and when it’s all said and done, we can have an upgraded course for years to come.”

Olson says the long-term benefits are a focal point of the committee’s fundraising efforts.

“We’re hosting a golf tournament, but we’re really using it as a vehicle to improve the golf course and improve the community through the golf course,” he explains. “We’re developing this place that’s really health-conscious and environmentally conscious, and this is a way you can do that in just a normal fashion and have some fun at the same time.”

The USGA didn’t mandate any specific upgrades to the course as a prerequisite for hosting the championship, Sayers says, though they’ve been supportive of the changes. The USGA dictates the pin placement and length of the course, the bunkers have been reshaped, and Sayers is working to increase the speeds of the green—“They like a fast green,” he says.

Beyond that, the renovations and upgrades were a mix of capital improvements and additions Sayers believes were necessary.

“The golf course is now thirty-five years old, and golf courses are not just built and then go stagnant,” he says. “They need funds and improvements in a capital sense. You don’t build a sand trap and it stays a sand trap. It degrades. And quite honestly, there were certain things done in the [original] construction period that wouldn’t necessarily be considered best practices now.”

Some of the improvements, like upgrading drainage in the bunkers, won’t necessarily be noticed—nobody pays attention to drainage unless a bunker floods, Sayers says. Other improvements, like expanding the driving range and adding a second practice tee on the back end of the range, will have an immediate impact.

“Any professional golf course needs to have a practice facility where you can practice your short game with bunkers, and that was lacking here,” Sayers says. “We widened and lengthened the range, then added an additional practice tee on the back end of the range. It is now a fully operational practice facility, not just a driving range. If we want to show them a first-class golf course, then these were things that needed to be done.”

Fill taken from the area near the 18th hole to expand the practice facility had the added benefit of improving the course’s already spectacular views. The overall result, Sayers says, is “the prettiest range I’ve ever seen.”

“Now when you play the 18th hole, you’re on the tee box on the fairway, looking toward the green, and Denali is in your view right on the horizon,” Sayers says. “You could really never see Denali from the golf course—you could see it from the clubhouse—so now as you’re playing, you’ll get a stunning view.”

Built thirty-five years ago, Anchorage Golf Course was due for upgrades to antiquated construction techniques.

Carter Damaska | Alaska Business

Built thirty-five years ago, Anchorage Golf Course was due for upgrades to antiquated construction techniques.

Carter Damaska | Alaska Business

Built thirty-five years ago, Anchorage Golf Course
An Alaska-Sized Party
Although the USGA controls tournament specifics, host facilities have free rein on how they operate the non-play components. Olson says the host committee plans to put Alaska on full display beginning with the welcome reception, which is open to USGA officials and players, their partners, committee members, and supporters.

“That’s going to be a Taste of Alaska,” Olson says. “We’re going to have the reindeer hot dogs, lots of fish of course, and the Alaska scenery is going to be all about the welcome reception. There’s [also] a player’s dinner that’s being held at the [Hotel] Captain Cook that will be all about Alaska and experiencing downtown and all that it has to offer.”

Committee members are working on scheduling a private cruise out of Whittier for players and getting special discounts or offers from businesses for players and officials who identify as being part of the tournament.

Parsons says Alaska is a bucket list destination for many players, some of whom are equal parts intrigued and slightly intimidated at the prospect of playing a tournament in Anchorage.

“I definitely think it’s going to be a little bit different,” she says with a laugh. “I don’t think a lot of people have seen moose or bears on the golf course, and certainly there’s the scenery. I think it’s going to be pretty impactful for those players who advance and get to compete.”

Olson says the committee estimates the championship will bring 500 visitors to Anchorage, a net positive for the economy, particularly given COVID-19’s effect on local businesses. He believes the novelty of hosting a professional championship will fill a void for sports enthusiasts who still feel the loss of the Great Alaska Shootout and the Alaska Aces pro hockey team.

And he thinks the tournament will provide a jolt of excitement not just to Anchorage but to the USGA as well.

“They’re going to put on a show,” he says. “We’re going to put on a show. It’s going to be something they’ve never experienced before, so I think it’s going to be a nice coming-out party for Anchorage after a pretty tough two years.”