The U.S. Open doesn't tee off until next week, but Congressional Country Club already is buzzing with golf fans. Swarms of people poured through the gates Thursday seeking something other than lush fairways or premier golf; they came for the merchandise.
The tournament's Main Merchandise Pavilion serves as the main attraction during pre-championship week as it opens its doors free to the public from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. through Sunday. Comprising 36,000 square feet and stretching 300 feet from end to end, the tent is nearly the size of a football field. Mary Lopuszynski, who serves as the senior director of U.S. Open merchandising and helps coordinate the facility's operation, says the tent typically sees between 100,000 and 120,000 transactions over the course of 11 days. Those figures factor in two people per transaction, meaning the tent could welcome upwards of 250,000 golf fans by the end of next week. Not quite your average gift shop.
"On a busier day, we might see upwards of 40,000 people come through," Lopuszynski said. "It gets so busy in here that even though we have 52 cash registers up front, it starts to back up on the floor and we have to close the doors and not let people in until it thins out."
Within the tent's spacious, air-conditioned confines, fans will encounter about 430,000 U.S. Open-logoed items. Among them are 100,000 hats of all shapes and colors; 6,000 rubber, golf-ball designed bouncy balls; 17,000 red-and-blue-colored golf balls; and numerous landscape portraits of the golf course stationed alongside the artists who conjured them.
Everything from shot glasses to stuffed animals to performance fabric pillowcases are available. There are even hand-held periscopes designed and patented by Phil Mickelson's father, who grew frustrated when he was unable to see his son on the course during a tournament in the mid-1990s.
"Isn't this great?" said Chick Cullinane, shopping alongside his wife, Ardi. "This is just amazing."
Cullinane has been a member at Congressional since 1964, the year Ken Venturi won the first U.S. Open played at the Bethesda country club. He recalled people handing Venturi "sun pills" on the day he had to overcome 36 final-round holes in the scorching heat, and the 1997 U.S. Open in which Ernie Els and Nick Price stayed at his brother's house up the street.
While Cullinane lamented the fact that parking prices have doubled since that last major tournament, he smiled at the merchandise tent's vast improvement from the last time he saw it here, a clear indication of how much the game has grown during the last decade.
Among the 50 different vendors represented is Polo Ralph Lauren, this year's official apparel outfitter of the USGA. About 70 Polo employees and volunteers are on hand to guide fans through the multifaceted display, which is divided into extensive sections devoted separately to men, women and children. It's enough to make you think you're in a department store.
"We just can't wait to see the upcoming days unfold," said Luan Pham, a Polo representative and former Golf Digest marketing director. "I'm just observing the reactions of people coming through the tent, and the first thing that you hear is 'Wow.' That means everyone's done their job. It's game day, and we're ready."
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