The U.S. Open Rainmaker
"Afterward," Rains says, "I went home, watched Arnold Palmer win the U.S. Open and was hooked for life."
That hook ultimately drew a U.S. Open to San Diego.
In the spring of 2001, Jim Brown, owner of San Diego's Marvin K. Brown auto group, received what would prove to be a memorable phone call from Rains. A local attorney, Rains was a former president of the Century Club, the local nonprofit corporation that serves as administrative backbone for the annual Buick Invitational golf tournament. Brown was president of the Greater San Diego Sports Council and deeply involved in community affairs.
The phone conversation included an invitation for lunch, which was accepted. The luncheon conversation included a comment that initially seemed preposterous even to Brown, who is widely admired locally for can-do enthusiasm. Rains told Brown he thought it might be possible to bring a U.S. Open Championship to Torrey Pines, the city's spectacular - and nationally prominent - 36-hole municipal layout.
"My first reaction was 'What are you smoking?'" Brown says. "But Jay already had done quite a bit of research. And he'd formed a plan. I love stories where a person has a vision, plus the courage and drive to convert it to reality."
At the core of Rains' plan was the renovation of the Torrey Pines South Course. During his term as Century Club president (1999-2000), Rains had traveled east to attend another Buick-sponsored event and afterward toured Baltusrol Country Club, a Springfield, New Jersey, monster that has hosted a number of U.S. Opens. This provided a feel for the level of course character the United States Golf Association demanded for its most prestigious championship.
Rains also visited with David Fay, the USGA's executive director, who was not committed to always staging the Open at private clubs. Fay, in fact, already had been instrumental in persuading the Championship Committee to award its 2002 tournament to Bethpage Black, a public course on Long Island.
"What came out of that discussion," Rains says, "was an understanding that acquiring the Open was a complicated process. And the golf course is that important - with a capital I. So that left me thinking, 'How are we going to handicap whether this is a pipe dream or not?'"
"Although Fay didn't confirm it, I'd heard there was interest in bringing the Open to Southern California. Riviera [which hosted in 1948] had been mentioned. I didn't know at that point if Torrey South could be upgraded to Open level."
For an answer, Rains turned to noted golf architect Rees Jones. They met at Pebble Beach, where Rains asked Jones if he would take a look at Torrey Pines South to determine if it had "the bones" to be a U.S. Open course. After touring the acreage, he offered high praise for the routing and declared it potentially an ideal site.
Less than ideal was the cost of renovation - projected at $3.5 million.
"I met with city people to see if they'd support redoing the course," says Rains. "I knew there was no chance of public funds to pay for it - the lawsuits attached to Petco Park still were ongoing. But there was agreement the city would bid for the tournament if the course were deemed acceptable. And the Century Club put up the money for Rees Jones to do the plans."
How to raise $3.5 million to execute those plans, though? That was the principal item in the agenda Rains revealed to Brown during their lunch meeting in the spring of 2001. He suggested they go to friends, acquaintances, financial heavyweights with a history of supporting civic endeavors, and pitch their case. "We both knew people who love golf, love San Diego and were economically able to be partners," Rains says.
The only promise they could offer, however, was that Torrey South would have a new and, to some, terrifying look once construction was completed. There would be no assurance a renovated venue would satisfy the USGAis critical eye or - even if it did - that a U.S. Open would be awarded.
"Sometime in the late spring," Rains recalls, "I told David Fay, 'We're now in the process of raising funds to redo the course. The cost is $3.5 million. If you think we're crazy, this would be a good time to tell me.'"
Fay offered only limited encouragement, and no assurances.
"IF YOU THINK of what that group did, it's pretty amazing," says Mike Davis, one of the USGA's field people who evaluate courses and other necessities for hosting an Open. "I can't think of anything comparable in any other city."
"It definitely was a gamble. When we first heard what they were planning on doing, the message from our end was 'That sounds great, but we can't give you any definite response until we're in a position to evaluate the finished course and all other aspects of Torrey Pines as a potential venue.'"
Rains and Brown asked each potential donor for a minimum commitment of $100,000. "The list we assembled was broad-based, from old-line guys who've been involved in supporting civic endeavors for many years to tech people newer to the community," says Rains. "Regardless of who it was, the first question I usually got, and a fair one, was 'Well, how much are you putting in?'"
Jim Brown says he can't recall a single turndown. Rains says there were a couple, probably when Brown wasn't present. "Jim was the one most effective at pleading our case," he adds.
"Most were great experiences. When I walked into [Mesa Distributing president] Ron Fowler's office, he said up front, 'I'm going to write you a check. Now let's talk about what you're trying to do.' San Diego is unique in that way. It only took us from May until the end of August to reach our goal."
The 28 who participated are now members of a group called Friends of Torrey Pines. (See sidebar.)
"Together they provided the $3.5 million that was adequate, just barely, to fund the renovation," Rains says. "Separately, about a year later, the city provided a payment to Friends of Torrey Pines in the amount of $900,000, what originally had been budgeted to redo the South Course greens in its five-year capital improvements plan. As is the case with any funds raised as a result of the U.S. Open, upon receipt of the payment, the FOTP committed that amount to charity.
"There also was a donation in terms of approximately $1 million in pro bono legal services from our law firm," DLA Piper U.S., LLP.
Although Rees Jones' redesign was not greeted with unanimous applause by local municipal golfers whose handicaps were nudged upward, it attracted favorable reviews from USGA officials, who persuaded the six-member Championship Committee that the new Torrey Pines South was, indeed, of U.S. Open quality.
"The golf course showed so brilliantly at the Buick Invitational that year  - and got such great feedback from Tiger Woods - I thought we had a good chance," says Rains. "When word came the following October that we'd host the 2008 event, it was a very emotional moment."
ALL WAS NOT SLICK as an Open green from that day forward, however. "For some time, [the redesigned course] we gave the city wasn't taken care of," Rains admits. "Since the arrival of Mark Woodward, though, course conditions have changed dramatically. Mark's done a wonderful job in a short time of retuning us to Open standards."
Son of an Arizona family that has been building and tending golf courses since 1938, Woodward was hired as golf operations manager for the city in February of 2005. "Shortly after I arrived, I told my boss Torrey Pines - in the condition it was in at that time - was equivalent to about a $30 experience," Woodward says. "We've since raised the bar substantially in terms of daily maintenance and customer service. We're very proud of where we've come in the past 20 months.
"The work that Jay Rains and others did to bring the Open to Torrey Pines amazes me. We owe them - in the sense of making certain the course is in absolutely peak condition. I think it will be a great venue. I expect the tournament to return."
Woodward is reminded daily of his Open connection. The USGA already has a full-time employee on site: Mike Antolini from the USGA's Far Hills, New Jersey, office is lodged in a trailer near the course and in the process of recruiting the 5,000 volunteers required to present a U.S. Open. (To submit a volunteer application, visit 2008volunteers.usga.org or phone 858-824-1762.)
Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson lead a field of top pros this month in the Buick Invitationaloon the same Torrey Pines course that will host the U.S. Open next year. For tickets to the tournament, January 22-28, or the January 20 Diamond in the Rough gala headlined by Jay Leno: buickinvitational.com.