PGA Tour eyes Fry’s course

The Mercury News
February 27, 2008

PGA Tour eyes Fry’s course

by Barry Witt and Eric Pinkela

The PGA Tour announced Tuesday it would bring a tournament to electronics mogul John Fry’s super-private Morgan Hill course in 2010 — the first time in more than four decades the world’s most prestigious golf tour has come to Silicon Valley.

But in keeping with the strange history of the course, which was built illegally without benefit of required environmental permits, Fry still has several regulatory hurdles to clear before the proposed “Institute Championship” will be allowed — and even appeared to be caught off-guard by the announcement.

A spokesman for Fry’s Electronics said in an e-mail that the 2010 date wasn’t definite and that course representatives “can’t really comment on something that doesn’t exist.”

Nonetheless, the tour’s announcement — later amended to say the tournament would be played no sooner than 2010 at “The Institute” golf course — made clear what Fry’s plans are for his controversial and monstrously long, 7,952-yard course.

Just how prestigious an event the PGA event would be remains an open question. As part of the tour’s Fall Series, it will occur after tour stars such as Tiger Woods usually have hung up their clubs for the season. But any tour event could lead to something bigger in the future, if it’s well-received.

The course, which opened for play in 2001 without having received permits from the city or other regulatory agencies, has been criticized by environmental groups for years. After major construction was completed, studies found the endangered California red-legged frog in a creek that bisects several holes, and federal wildlife officials have ordered Fry to buy new habitat lands off-site to compensate for the destruction. That still has not happened.

Fry’s representatives have long argued that golf was an ancillary activity to the American Institute of Mathematics, an organization Fry founded in 1994 and which will move to a 167,512-square-foot castle on the property once that structure is completed.

When the Morgan Hill City Council retroactively approved the course in 2004, it restricted play to no more than 36 rounds a day during a season that ran from mid-April through the end of September. The city specifically prohibited tournaments.

But Morgan Hill’s mayor and local business officials were thrilled Tuesday at the prospects of big-time golf coming to the area.

“That would be fantastic,” Mayor Steve Tate said. “There are some hurdles to get across in terms of what’s permitted right now. We’ve got to work on those things and see if we can make something happen.”

Cedric Fasbender, general manager of the 214-room Dolce Hayes Mansion in South San Jose, said he was “doing cartwheels” when he heard the news. He has hopes that, as the largest luxury hotel near the course, the city-owned mansion would become a host facility.

“It would be a huge impact for the hospitality industry, lodging, restaurants and the community as a whole,” Fasbender said. “National television would bring a spotlight to San Jose and the whole valley.”

Environmentalists were less enthusiastic.

A golf tournament with tens of thousands of spectators “would have pretty huge environmental impacts on a course that was illegally constructed and is still in violation of many of the permit conditions,” said Brian Schmidt, legislative advocate for the Committee for Green Foothills.

City officials said Fry would need to submit plans on how to handle traffic, parking and crowds on the environmentally sensitive portions of the course before it would be allowed to host a tournament. The 192-acre property is almost entirely landscaped and is unlikely to provide spectator parking on-site, meaning organizers would have to establish a shuttle system, much like one now in use for the annual tournament at Pebble Beach.

The PGA Tour announcement said the Morgan Hill event would succeed a tournament Fry’s now sponsors in October in Scottsdale, Ariz. Former Masters champion Mike Weir won the inaugural event last year.

Los Altos tour pro Jeff Brehaut, who is sponsored by Fry’s, said he saw potential for bringing big names to the planned tournament.

“But they’re going to have to prove to players it’s a special event,” Brehaut said. “It may not happen the first year.”

Brehaut said factors such as the condition of the golf course, the facilities and player perks play a big role in what kind of field a tournament is able to bring together. He said the course itself will be a major draw, saying it’s in “the best condition of any course I’ve ever played.”

When Fry first started talking to course architects about designing the facility in the 1990s, he made it clear his ambition was to have a high-prestige facility, one that might even host a U.S. Open some day. In addition to its prodigious length — enough to handle the ever-growing distances achieved by modern pros when they hit the ball — it has numerous areas designed with spectator sightlines in mind.

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