How Del Paso Country Club landed the U.S. Senior Open golf tournament

Dan Spector has made his living for two decades as a trust and probate litigator.

His passion for the past five years has been bringing the U.S. Senior Open to Del Paso Country Club.

The skill set required to succeed at each dovetailed during a three-minute phone conversation in the fall of 2010 that has Sacramento on the brink of arguably the biggest sports event in its history.

Five months after Spector let the United States Golf Association know that Del Paso wanted to host a national championship, and with the recently renovated club impressing many within the organization of its worthiness in the interim, the club’s then-president found himself on the phone with Tim Flaherty at the USGA’s New Jersey headquarters.

Flaherty, the official then in charge of doling out most of the USGA’s 15 annual championships, said he had heard good things about Del Paso and was ready to talk about the club hosting an event – the Men’s Team State competition.

“I argue for a living, and I understand the value of silence,” Spector said. “I let it hang. After about 25 seconds, I said, ‘Tim, I appreciate that thought, but that’s not the one we want.’

“He said, ‘Well, what is it that you want, Dan?’ I said, ‘We want the U.S. Senior Open.’”

Flaherty then explained that the USGA makes most of its revenue from the U.S. Open. The Senior and Women’s Opens are also profitable and help fund the dozen championships that aren’t.

As Spector recalls the conversation, Flaherty then said, “So you’re asking me to entrust to you the second-most-important tournament that the USGA runs?”

Spector: “That’s right.”

Flaherty: “OK then, I had better come check it out.”

A lot of things had to line up to get national championship golf back to Sacramento and Del Paso, but things got serious after that watershed exchange.

$13 millionCost of renovation of Del Paso Country Club

Rebirth of Del Paso

Del Paso, opened in 1916, is Sacramento’s oldest and most storied course. It has hosted four USGA championships – the 1957 U.S. Women’s Amateur, the 1964 U.S. Women’s Senior Amateur, the 1976 U.S. Women’s Amateur and the 1982 U.S. Women’s Open – but by the time the new century hit, it wasn’t on anybody’s list of championship courses.

The practice facilities were inadequate, the general condition of the course was deteriorating and its length, at 6,300 yards, rendered it obsolete to even the area’s best players.

The club that in the 1980s and ’90s had a five-year wait to join, had a list of members who wanted out that far outnumbered those who wanted in.

Del Paso’s leadership began interviewing architects with the idea of making incremental changes to spruce up the traditional parkland course. They came across one, Granite Bay-based Kyle Phillips, who saw something in the 150-acre property that no one else had – the ability for a total transformation to bring the course back to contemporary, and just maybe championship, standards.

“The view of themselves and what they could be was less than what I thought they could be,” Phillips said.

Phillips’ vision stuck, and after an arduous yearslong informational campaign, the club’s membership voted in 2004 in favor of a $13 million renovation. After an 18-month closure and a complete reroute and redo that included the removal of 1,000 trees, a new 7,000-yard course emerged in 2006.

It’s nearly impossible today to design a course that works for 20-handicappers and touring pros, even senior ones, Phillips said. Yet he did so with wide fairways that can be narrowed with rough, strategic bunkering that penalizes all calibers of player fairly and greens that feature plenty of benign hole locations for higher handicappers and subtly difficult ones for scratch players.

Dan Spector went from a 20-handicapper learning the game at Del Paso Country Club to a low single-digit handicapper eight years later, competing for the club championship and about to become its president.

Crafting a venue that could again host a national championship was always secondary to revitalizing the course and the membership, all involved say, but the tournament component, spoken about or not, was always present.

“The story is not done there,” Phillips said. “There are more good days ahead.”

‘Do you know anybody?’

Spector joined Del Paso in 2002 but wasn’t part of the politics ahead of the renovation. He was a 20-handicapper basically learning the game.

By 2010, he was a low single-digit handicapper who competed for the club championship and was about to become club president. Despite an economic downturn that proved to be an ongoing challenge, he wanted to pursue a national championship for his club.

Spector introduced his agenda to the club’s board two weeks ahead of the annual April Fools’ Day changing of the guard, a Del Paso tradition. He wanted to strengthen the club’s brand in the community and lead through golf.

“I asked permission for (general manager) Bob (Kunz) and I to chase (the Senior Open),” he said. “After the board meeting, I went into Bob’s office. I looked at him. He looked at me. And I said, ‘Do you know anybody?’”

Del Paso started with Brian Whitlark, a USGA agronomist the club and its superintendent, Mark McKinney, had gotten to know while implementing labor-intensive and expensive best-maintenance practices for its new rye-grass fairways and bent-grass greens.

“As a result of those sacrifices and investments, the USGA knew about us,” Spector said. “We were on their radar from an agronomic standpoint.”

Del Paso then involved Brian Flajole, who lives in Granite Bay and ran the LPGA Tour’s Longs Drugs Challenge for Bruno Events Team, which has overseen 17 of the past 21 U.S. Senior and Women’s opens. Flajole, who became U.S. Senior Open championship director, convinced Spector that his involvement would get Del Paso a deeper look.

“Bob, Brian and I have met every week for almost five years,” Spector said. “There’s no way this happens without Bob, from beginning to end. Mark McKinney, because of his work and how good he is at it, he’s a big part of the story. The USGA had sufficient concerns about our community that I don’t think we get it without Brian and Bruno, either.”

Sacramento economy was concern

For six months after a January 2011, USGA visit, Del Paso heard nothing.

Then in October 2011, Flaherty, USGA managing director Jeff Hall and Tom O’Toole, in line to become USGA president, visited Sacramento. Flaherty and Hall had walked every inch of Del Paso during several previous visits. It was O’Toole’s first trip.

The course was no longer the concern, they said. It was the Sacramento economy. With the departure of the Kings appearing likely, the city looked eerily like Seattle, which lost the SuperSonics before the 2008-09 season and then was lukewarm in its support of the 2010 U.S. Senior Open at Sahalee, the only Senior Open that almost lost money, Spector was told.

With USGA representatives on one side of the table and Del Paso’s people on the other, according to Spector, O’Toole said: “I like the golf course, but I have concerns about Sacramento. It seems like a nice place, but the economy isn’t great. Do you understand the degree to which you have to make a financial commitment in order for this to be a success for you and the USGA?”

Spector responded bluntly: “How much money are you talking about?”

O’Toole: “$3 million. Do you think you can do that?”

Spector: “Yes.”

A month later, for the first time in the history of a USGA event, Spector said, a potential host club was asked to present a due diligence report showing they were financially viable to host. Within 45 days, a committee led by then-Del Paso president Russ Porter secured commitments representing $1 million.

“Word got back to us from the USGA that we had far exceeded their expectations and (our selection chances) looked very good,” Spector said.

Del Paso received word in January 2012 that it was awarded the 2015 U.S. Senior Open. The official announcement came in April. Del Paso had wanted the 2016 event, to coincide with the club’s centennial anniversary, but later learned that the 2016 championship was awarded to Scioto Country Club in Columbus, Ohio, also celebrating its 100th year and where Jack Nicklaus grew up and learned to play.

“You can’t compete with Jack Nicklaus,” Spector said. “In golf, Jack wins.”

125,000 Fans expected to attend U.S. Senior Open events this week

Sense of pride, accomplishment

The past five years have flown by for Spector, 49, the championship’s general chairman and the person most responsible for bringing the U.S. Senior Open to Sacramento.

When he looks out of the clubhouse windows to bleachers at the first tee and 18th green, “It sends shivers down my spine,” he said. “It’s really gratifying.”

He’s particularly proud that the procurement of an event that will bring so much joy to the community was led by private citizens, not a government initiative.

The First Tee of Greater Sacramento will be the sole charitable beneficiary of food concessions and program sales, per Spector’s wishes. The local chapter is estimated to reap $100,000. All standard-bearers will be First Tee members, and food and program booths will be manned by First Tee volunteers.

Spector has no connection to the First Tee. He’s simply impressed with the mission of the youth development organization that was conceived in Sacramento by Haggin Oaks’ Ken Morton Sr., a former Del Paso caddie, and Les Streeper, a former Del Paso pro.

The Kings stayed in Sacramento, the economy has improved and Del Paso ultimately did more than $4 million in hospitality sales. It’s a win-win-win for the club, the USGA and the city’s golf-starved fans who are expected to show up 125,000 strong this week.

“From most metrics, we’re in the top five or six in the (35-year) history of the U.S. Senior Open, and that feels pretty good,” Spector said.

Steve Pajak, (916) 326-5526.

U.S. Senior Open schedule

  • Today-Wednesday: Practice rounds (junior clinic Tuesday at 1:30 p.m. features Mark Wiebe and Kings coach George Karl)
  • Thursday-Friday: First and second rounds, tee times 7 a.m to 3 p.m. each day (gates open at 6:30 a.m.)
  • Saturday: Third round
  • Sunday: Fourth round
  • TV: Thursday-Friday, 11 a.m.-4 p.m., FS1; Saturday-Sunday, 11 a.m.-4 p.m., Ch. 40
  • Parking/shuttle: General parking at Cal Expo; a shuttle to the course is free.
Related stories from Sacramento Bee