Providing 'the best experience in golf'

Trey Miller
June 13, 2016

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Each year, the U.S. Open is played at a different course around the country. Despite moving annually, there has been one Penn State constant at the championship, which is one of golf’s four majors, in all but one year since 1993.

From 1993 through 2015, alumnus Pete Kowalski, the director of championship communications for the United States Golf Association (USGA), has been at every U.S. Open with the exception of 1996. He volunteered for five years before joining the USGA full time in 1999.

This year, the U.S. Open will take place June 13-19 at Oakmont Country Club near Pittsburgh. What separates Oakmont from other courses, according to Kowalski, are treacherous, fast and unique greens and the almost perpetual U.S. Open condition of the course itself.

“The fun part about the U.S. Open is it’s in a different place every year. This is now the fifth USGA championship that I’ve worked at Oakmont,” said Kowalski, who anticipates a familiar setting for his 23rd U.S. Open this year.

“You kind of feel like you know everybody. It’s the same people. As a matter of fact, in the Pittsburgh market, the media are basically the same. That makes it fun, too,” he added. “But, at the same time, you don’t want to disappoint your friends, so you have a little bit more pressure to do the right thing.”

Kowalski, a 1978 journalism graduate, has been in sports communications/public relations since the 1980s. After stints at Penn State and Rutgers, Kowalski joined the USGA team in 1999 as an assistant manager of media relations, moving to his current position in August 2011.

Throughout the event, Kowalski and his team are responsible for taking care of all of the media’s numerous needs. These include a variety of tasks such as granting player access, coordinating shuttles to and from the course and making sure the media building is functional.

In addition, the communications team distributes credentials, answers questions, answers phones and transcribes quotes. Kowalski expects his team will give out between 800 and 1,000 credentials this year. Among the media contingent will be several Penn State alumni and a group of students from the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism who have partnered with the USA Today Network.

All of this work makes for long days. Typically, Kowalski is on the first shuttle from the hotel in the morning, which leaves between 4:30 and 5 a.m. The team then has a staff meeting at about 7:30 or 8 a.m. to make sure everyone is on the same page. The days end around 9:30 or 10 p.m., when media members are filing their stories and all the statistical reports are distributed and questions are answered. Usually during play, Kowalski is monitoring all of the media functions and facilities to make sure everything is going as planned, and handling any issues that might arise.

For help, Kowalski relies on dozens of volunteers, including “the Minnesota 10,” a group of 14 volunteers from Minnesota that helps out every year. The group initially included 10 members but has since grown, even though the nickname stuck. One of the great things about this group, according to Kowalski, is that its members already know what to do, and he doesn’t have to train them each year.

In addition, the USGA fills out its volunteer crew with sports information and public relations professionals from the region. This year, the crew will include members of the University of Pittsburgh and Pittsburgh Steelers sports information staffs, as well as College of Communications alumnus Rob Boulware, who earned his degree in journalism in 1986 and works for Seneca Resources Corp.  

“My focus with the group that I work with is making sure that the media have the best experience in golf,” said Kowalski. “So, just like Jason Day or Jordan Spieth or Rory McIlroy would say, ‘Man, I really know I played in the U.S. Open,’ we want the media to say the same thing, ‘Man, I really feel like I covered a U.S. Open. Everything was the way I thought it was going to be in terms of what was provided.”

While being at the U.S. Open 23 times helps Kowalski in planning, it ultimately leads to a lot of memorable moments. In 1999, Payne Stewart won at the Pinehurst Resort in Pinehurst, North Carolina. On his way out of the media relations area at the end of the tournament, Kowalski recalls Stewart saying “I’ll see you guys next year.” Tragically, the following October, he died in a plane crash. At Pinehurst in 2005, he remembers Michael Campbell, who defeated Tiger Woods by two strokes, demanding that Kowalski let him sign his hat and drink a Heineken with him.

At Oakmont in particular, a vivid memory stands out from 2007 when Ángel Cabrera came out on top. Kowalski remembers Cabrera leading on the 12th hole on the final day and hardly anyone was following him because they were all following Tiger Woods.

“There are countless stories of good things that people do whether they are volunteers, or players or media people,” said Kowalski. “I probably should write a book, but I can’t remember half of the stuff that I’m probably supposed to write about.

“I’m very blessed to have found this job and continue to have fun doing it and people still think I’m worthy to perform the duties.”

  • Pete Kowalski

    Pete Kowalski

    IMAGE: USGA/Steven Gibbons
Last Updated June 15, 2016