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Number of fans to be allowed at U.S. Open in June at Torrey Pines Golf Course remains a mystery

Golfers play the South Course at fanless Torrey Pines in La Jolla during the Farmers Insurance Open in January.
(Denis Poroy)

Ticket sales have been suspended and volunteers drastically cut back.

Ten weeks before the 2021 U.S. Open, Torrey Pines Golf Course in La Jolla looks like, well, a golf course.

There are no grandstands being erected around tees or greens, no food courts, no merchandise tent, no hospitality footprint, no media center. There was supposed to be by now, as there was by March 2008 before the first U.S. Open at Torrey Pines.

“We would have started building infrastructure for 40,000 to 50,000 people per day, like we did in 2008,” said Danny Sink, the U.S. Golf Association’s senior director for championship events. “It takes a lot of infrastructure to host that many people on a golf course. We don’t have a fixed stadium like other sports. It’s building a small city for a week of a championship.

“There’s a lot of canvas that has to go up, a lot of flooring. It’s usually a three-month build. That would have started in mid-March. That date has obviously come and gone.”

Hard to start building, though, when you don’t know how many people you’re building for.

And Sink still doesn’t know, though the tournament is coming up June 17-20.

“We hope to have fans; we still feel like we can,” Sink said. “But it’s one of those unique things where this is a different year, where we’re taking direction from others. … It’s not up to us how many people we have.”

In 2008, the U.S. Open drew a record 295,000 spectators at Torrey Pines for practice days, four competition rounds and the 18-hole playoff between Tiger Woods and Rocco Mediate.

California’s most recent guidance for outdoor live events allows for 20 percent capacity in counties in the red, or “substantial,” tier of coronavirus risk, which San Diego County currently is in. That increases to 33 percent in the orange, or “moderate,” tier, which the county could move into as early as this week. It can double if everyone is vaccinated or tested.

But that’s for venues with fixed seating, such as Petco Park or an outdoor theater. None of the tournaments during the PGA Tour’s West Coast swing in January and February had fans, including the Farmers Insurance Open on Jan. 28-31 at Torrey Pines. Nor did the women’s Kia Classic on March 25-28 in Carlsbad or the ANA Inspiration on April 1-4 in Rancho Mirage, even as approximately 10,000 fans were permitted inside San Diego’s Petco Park for the Padres.

The guidance says it “is not intended for … general admission venues/activities where the central activity allows or requires patrons to move around shared space.”

Another complication: State regulations prohibit walking around with food and drink and lowering your mask to eat. You must be in a stationary place, which entails building a concessions area where you also consume them, since fans can’t return to their seats like in a stadium. (“That’s something we’re spending a lot of time on and will look different for sure,” Sink said.)

Yet another issue: If attendance capacity exceeds onsite parking availability, you must find ways to shuttle fans to the course with distancing regulations that are more stringent for enclosed vehicles.

A decision on allowing fans at Torrey Pines is looming, likely by the third week of April.

“Let me be clear,” Sink said. “We can’t stretch this out until the day before the championship and then say, ‘OK, come one, come all.’ We think in the next couple of weeks we can figure out our plan and get it approved by the county and then the state and move forward with that. We’re going to do what we can to get some fans onsite.

“But we don’t want to do anything to jeopardize our chances to have the championship. You get careless and something happens and then the championship is at risk. That’s the last thing we’re going to do. Our No. 1 goal is to crown a champion and have a great event. No. 2 is obviously to share it with as many people as possible.”

Tickets had quietly been on sale for months, but that was suspended March 29 “until we have more clarity” about attendance levels, according to the USGA’s website. Sink declined to say how many have been sold or whether it means they’ve reached or exceeded the expected capacity.

Also unknown is whether tickets were purchased by out-of-state fans. The current California guidance for all risk levels, even the least-restrictive yellow tier, allows “in-state spectators only.”

Volunteers received an email informing them that the “majority” of their positions had been eliminated. “The decision … did not come lightly, but we feel it gives us the best opportunity to conduct the championship this year while ensuring the health and safety of all involved,” the email stated.

One silver lining in this is for local golfers, who can continue to play the North and South courses much longer than expected (while the city continues collecting greens fees). The lone inconvenience so far is on the North Course, where a temporary driving range has been built across the first and 18th fairways. All 18 holes remain in play, however, with 1 and 18 shortened slightly, with none of the usual tents erected yet.

Sink hopes to start construction by the end of April. It won’t look anything like 2008, when the grandstand on the 18th hole seated 6,000 and had room for thousands more standing 10 and 15 deep as Woods famously sank a 12-foot birdie putt to force a playoff.

Sink acknowledged there might not be any grandstands at all this year, because they become a magnet for people to crowd into.

“It was such a great event in 2008,” he said. “We were looking forward to replicating that. There might not be as many people there, but we’re still going to crown a champion and there still are going to be the best players in the world competing. That’s not going to change. Inside the ropes, it’s going to be exactly the same.”

— La Jolla Light staff contributed to this report.