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Unprecedented Crowds Pack Merion For U.S. Open Practice Rounds

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Fans wait for autographs during a practice round at Merion Golf Club (credit: Scott Halleran/Getty Images)

Fans wait for autographs during a practice round at Merion Golf Club (credit: Scott Halleran/Getty Images)

Pat Loeb Pat Loeb
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By Pat Loeb

ARDMORE, Pa. (CBS) - In the late spring of 1981, the Main Line hosted a major athletic competition/exhibition. Roads were closed, traffic was snarled, parking was nearly impossible — not just for the weekend but the week of events that had built up around it.

That event was the Devon Horse Show.

Meanwhile, a couple of weeks later, a few miles away, Merion Golf Club hosted the U.S. Open, its politely subdued crowd of earnest golf fans barely registering in the surrounding community except for their enthusiastic applause.

Tiger Woods is a big reason why golf popularity is soaring. (credit: Rob Carr)

Tiger Woods is a big reason why golf popularity is soaring. (credit: Rob Carr)

The drastic change in the fortunes of those events is a textbook case in sports marketing. In fact, Temple sports marketing professor Joe Mahan plans to use it in his fall classes.

“The sponsors and the media, combined with the talent, the increase in talent on the course, have made the open a sought-after event,” he says.

He attributes a lot of the Open’s growth to Tiger Woods, who has attracted fans and sponsors that fuel media coverage, including 24-7 cable channels devoted to golf, and create buzz around major events.

“It brings so many eyes and so many more dollars to the table, a tournament like this will spiral out of control in terms of size,” he says.

Indeed, the Open sprawls onto the nearby Haverford College campus where sponsors have set up hospitality tents.

“They’re willing to put millions or more forward in order to get, not just that positive exposure, but also they can get the tangible benefits of tents that you see next to the course, tickets and luxury suites and other things.”

Political consultant Neil Oxman has seen how the money has changed the event since its last two outings at Merion.

“It’s by geometric leaps and bounds, how different going to the United States Open is today than from 40 years ago,” he says. “Merion really looks very different from ’71. There were no stands in ’71; now there are spectator bleachers all over the golf course. As someone was just saying, the head pro at Merion in 1971 sold hats and shirts from a card table near the entrance. Now there’s a 16,000 square foot merchandise tent behind the 16th hole.”

Oxman, who has caddied at many major tournaments all over the world, says the growth in U.S. golf events has been gradual.

“The spectacle of the golf has taken on a much larger element in the last 25 or 30 years,” he says.

Mahan says it’s been part of a cultural shift.

“It’s the world we live in where sport is a much larger part of society, whether it’s golf or otherwise, we’re in a much different place than we were 30 years ago.”

And the Devon Horse show? Well, maybe one of Tiger’s daughters will be interested in riding.

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