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Sunday Brunch: Foster Breathes 2019 USGA Senior Open Every Day

Aug. 11, 2018 By John Heisler

John Foster already has a full-time job.

He’s the longtime general manager and head golf professional at the University of Notre Dame’s Warren Golf Course.

For another year, Foster has a second occupation.

He’s the general chairman of the 40th United States Golf Association Senior Open Championship to be played at the Warren Course June 24-30, 2019.

That will be the third in a series of major events on the Notre Dame campus in 2018-19 — following a fall Garth Brooks concert at Notre Dame Stadium and the January 1 National Hockey League Winter Classic game between the Chicago Blackhawks and Boston Bruins, also set for Notre Dame Stadium.

Between now and next June Foster seldom will go an hour — much less a day — without devoting time to preparation for the Senior Open event:

  • There are plenty of details to be arranged to enrich the player experience.
  • There are a wide variety of corporate hospitality sales to be wrapped up—”We’re 80 percent there,” says Foster.
  • There’s a planned initial site visit by FOX (it owns the live television rights) in October.
  • The company providing all tents for the event also will visit in October. Foster says that build-out will start three months before the event and will take six weeks after the championship to tear down. Expect to see approximately 15 tents on the course (30 by 40 feet on average) plus 200 feet of “sky box” hospitality on three other holes.

Entrance to the course will be by the round-about at the north edge of campus — with two acres of parking conveniently adjacent. Lexus will have a pavilion there as a sponsor, there will be an 8,000-square foot merchandise tent at that locale, a health and wellness pavilion and there also will be a kids’ tent.

“That area will be a really cool little village, right there at the spectators’ entrance,” says Foster.

There are all kinds of behind-the-scenes details to be addressed — everything from determining the number of temporary generators needed from Caterpillar to building out the Irish Club, a 9,000-square-foot upgraded ticket sports bar setup on what will be the 17th hole.

Foster works extensively with the Bruno Event Team, the event’s marketing partner that now has six people working full-time locally to execute the plan. One of Bruno’s jobs is to sell tickets – using everything from Notre Dame athletics channels to recent full-page ads in Sunday editions of the South Bend Tribune.

Foster’s biggest concerns a little less than a year out from the event?

“It’s about the player experience. A lot of the players will stop by the Warren Course in advance to see it and play it. The USGA is interested in all details of fan experience. How are we routing fans on the holes? Where will crosswalks be? How much rope do we need and where do we string it? All of those on-course things? I’ll be up to my ears in all that,” says Foster.

“Much of my time will be spent on player movement, crowd movement, concession stands.”

A new plan for hole rotation already has been developed and will be in use beginning next spring. Play will begin on the current 16th hole, the back nine will start on holes seven, eight and nine—and the current sixth hole becomes the finishing 18th.

Foster expects that Robbie Zalzneck, the USGA director of the Senior Open Championship, will make five or six more trips to South Bend over the next year. Zalzneck is responsible for everything outside the ropes, while fellow USGA director Ben Kimball handles everything inside the ropes, working closely with Warren superintendent Matt Cielen on the golf course. Foster speaks with either Zalzneck or Kimball at least once a week about some aspect of the championship.

Foster is confident solid plans already are in place for parking and traffic routing.

“I’ll probably devote 80 percent of my time to this event for the next year,” he says. “It’s quite enjoyable. I thought I knew golf events until I got into this and saw the amount of planning and thought that it takes — it’s really daunting.”

The 2017 version of this USGA event took place in late June at the Broadmoor in Colorado Springs, Colorado — and Foster led a Notre Dame delegation that spent the week there taking notes.

“It was a valuable week for all of us,” he says. “At the Broadmoor, for example, they had a bottleneck where players accessed the driving range — the players needed to cut across a fairway in between spectators to get there. Based on what we saw we’ve changed how we will shuttle players to the range.

“There were probably 10 of those things that we saw — and it all made perfect sense when you actually saw it in action.”

Foster does not expect to have to deal with one challenge organizers faced at the Broadmoor — bears attempting to enter concession stands at night.

Hosting the championship provided the opportunity to make some modifications to the course itself that will enhance the golf experience for all players in the future, thanks to the generous support of Bill Warren.

“Once we knew we were going to host the Senior Open, we quickly determined that we were going to do some things we had always wanted to do,” says Foster.

“Coore and Crenshaw (architects and developers of the Warren Course) had a list of items. Matt and I had our own list. Bill Warren gave us a generous gift to prepare for the championship. None of this was absolutely necessary and yet this became a perfect reason to do these things. Bill topped it off by providing an endowment to handle future equipment needs for the course — and that investment would not have happened if it had not been for the Senior Open.”

Much of the on-course work and changes already has taken place. Cielen and his staff have added four bunkers, expanded greens, removed seven bunkers and reshaped 14 fairways — to go with a practice range rebuild. A fairway topdressing program is underway that will provide firmer, faster and more consistent playing surfaces during the championship and beyond.

“We’ve transplanted two acres of bent grass reshaping fairways — and it’s already all done,” says Foster. “In the course of changing the order of the holes we removed cart paths that were in play and put them in areas where you couldn’t see them. Plus, the amount of tree pruning and removal for sightlines has been incredible because a golf course is a living organism.

“(Bill) Coore and (Ben) Crenshaw are just so proud of this golf course now. And they will be here that week.”

Here are more tidbits, facts and figures for fans planning to attend the USGA Senior Open Championship:

  • The 2019 event will be the first USGA Senior Open played on both a college campus and a public course. The only other time the event was held in Indiana was in 2009 at Crooked Stick Golf Club in Carmel. Fred Funk was the winner that year.
  • Tickets are now on sale. Gallery season tickets for weeklong access are $109 each (compared to $275 if purchased daily at the gate). All children 18 and under are admitted free when accompanied by a ticketed adult. Irish Club season tickets are $199 for weeklong access, featuring entrance to a state-of-the-art pavilion at the 17th hole. Each season ticket incudes daily complimentary parking, an official program and more.
  • More than 2,500 volunteers are needed for the event to fill 23 committees. Interested volunteers should visit Volunteers must purchase a $129 package that includes two golf shirts, a piece of outerwear, a cap or visor, a water bottle, a backpack and a credential good for all seven days of the championship.
  • Former Notre Dame football greats and Pro Football Hall of Famers Jerome Bettis and Tim Brown are serving as honorary chairmen of the event.
  • FOX will provide live television coverage of all four rounds to more than 100 countries.
  • The USGA previously came to the Warren Course to hold the 2010 U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links Championship. The Warren also served as a site for 2005 and 2010 NCAA men’s golf regionals and 2011 and 2015 NCAA women’s golf regionals.
  • The field will include 156 amateur and professional golfers age 50 and older.
  • The event is projected to provide a $20 million economic impact to the community (roughly the equivalent of a Notre Dame football weekend).
  • Total attendance in 2018 at the Broadmoor was 134,500 — including 28,700 on Saturday and 31,000 on Sunday for the highest weekend attendance since 2013.

John Heisler, senior associate athletics director at the University of Notre Dame, has been part of the Fighting Irish athletics communications team since 1978. A South Bend, Indiana, native, he is a 1976 graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism and a member of the College Sports Information Directors of America Hall of Fame. He is editor of the award-winning “Strong of Heart” series.