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Sunday, February 26, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Blaine Newnham

Sahalee deserving of more championships

Special to The Seattle Times

On a brisk winter day, the tall trees at Sahalee Country Club retain their place in golf history as witnesses to the crowning of Vijay Singh as the 1998 PGA Champion.

But is that all there is?

Memories?

Inside the new clubhouse, work is afoot, a resolve to keep the club at golf's forefront, to bounce back from the PGA of America's decision to not play its 2010 championship at Sahalee as promised.

Sahalee is seeking the U.S. Senior championship, and by all indications will get it for 2010, the first year that Fred Couples would be eligible to play the senior circuit. The tournament is traditionally held in late July.

"We have an invitation for the senior championship from Sahalee, and others," confirmed Tim Flaherty of the United States Golf Association.

"We don't talk about future sites, and no announcement will be made until a contract is signed. But I will say we have an interest in Sahalee and the Seattle market. We think it would be a good place for the Open."

Last week, members at Sahalee were notified of the club's interest in the Senior Open, and that negotiations with the USGA were under way.

The Senior Open — the biggest event on the Champions Tour — will be held this year at Prairie Dunes in Hutchinson, Kan., and after that at Whistling Straits in Kohler, Wis., Broadmoor near Colorado Springs and Crooked Stick in Carmel, Ind.

The first open date is 2010.

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The tournament has drawn more than 100,000 spectators the past four years, and attracts the year's best field.

"Basically," said Flaherty, "every player who is healthy will be there. We've had strong fields playing on great golf courses. We played the first Senior Open in 1980 at Winged Foot and since then have been at places like Inverness and Oakland Hills."

Flaherty said he had made two visits to the Sammamish plateau.

"I think it's a great golf course," he said.

But that's what the PGA of America said after its 1998 championship. Mark O'Meara, who won two majors that year, said he liked Sahalee better than San Francisco's Olympic Club and said the greens were "the best we've putted on all year."

David Kindred of Golf World magazine called Sahalee "the amazing course with trees up to the clouds. They divide Sahalee into 18 theaters of magic."

Jim Awtrey, the CEO of the PGA of America, said, "There is no place our players have ever enjoyed more than Sahalee. It was a beautiful week in Seattle."

But despite the successes of 1998, Sahalee, which spent 25 years trying to get the tournament in the first place, was asked to wait 12 years to do it again in 2010.

Then last year, the PGA of America, citing concerns over competition for corporate dollars with the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, B.C./Whistler, withdrew the commitment.

The date would later go to Whistling Straits, which would also get a PGA five years later in 2015, and the Ryder Cup in 2020.

Obviously, the PGA's success at Whistling Straits in 2004 — when a record 300,000 spectators roamed the manufactured links course — changed the dynamic.

It was like the PGA was more concerned about getting a commitment from Whistling Straits than it was avoiding the Olympic Games.

But the question was, and it still is, will the PGA of America bring its championship back to Sahalee.

"We had a letter-of-intent to hold the tournament at Sahalee in 2010," said Awtrey last year, "and we take that letter seriously. We intend to come back."

But Awtrey has since retired as the CEO of PGA of America, and dates have been filled with other courses. The lineup is formidable: Medinah this year, Southern Hills in 2007, Oakland Hills in 2008, Hazeltine in 2009, Whistling Straits in 2010, Atlanta Athletic Club 2011, and Kiawah Island in 2012.

The most immediate open dates are 2013 and 2014.

There is concern the PGA Championships have outgrown Sahalee and Seattle, that the 27 holes isn't big enough to do the corporate tent thing, that there isn't room for enough spectators, that Seattle has shown less than robust corporate support.

Concern, too, that the course isn't big enough to handle 350-yard drives.

After the PGA in 1998, Kerry Haigh, the director of tournaments, was asked about the tightness of Sahalee's fairways limiting the use of the driver among players.

"It was their choice and it made for long iron shots to the greens," he said. "Some players hit more drivers than others, and none of them, as far as I know, complained."

The PGA of America wanted to expand its horizons, it wanted to bring the tournament to the Northwest.

It found a different and spectacular course, one that could quiet technology with nature. It found an excitable community, and it enjoyed benevolent summer weather.

The PGA of America ought to be about America. A major championship ought to be played in the Northwest.

In the meantime, and to its credit, Sahalee has gone after the U.S. Senior. The club has honored its commitment to the history and future of golf, even if others haven't.

Comments to Blaine Newnham: e-mail sports@seattletimes.com

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