Characters: Mary Lopuszynski

Once a year, the U.S. Golf Association erects a pop-up superstore on the grounds of the U.S. Open. This year, the 37,000-square-foot luxury tent is just downhill from the iconic clubhouse at Shinnecock Hills in Southampton, N.Y.

In its 11 days of operation, the Merchandise Pavilion will process more transactions, 140,000, and sell more individual items, around 500,000, than most mall stores do in a year. It takes 1,300 volunteers and a paid staff of 33 to man the tent, which in peak hours cycles golf fans through 60 checkout lanes. For the last 23 years, the woman in charge of this bedlam has been Mary Lopuszynski, an easygoing workhorse with a delightfully infectious laugh.

“There’s never a dull moment,” Lopuszynski said recently. “We work hard all year getting things ready to sell and then organizing the logistics, but when it all comes together at the Open and you see people excited and happy about the golf and then having a good time in the tent, it’s really quite enjoyable.”

Photo by USGA/Darren Carroll

Lopuszynski’s golf roots go deep. Her first job, as a teenager, was helping out in the pro shop at Winged Foot in Westchester County, N.Y., where her younger brother Mike, now a top teaching pro, picked up range balls and unexpectedly qualified at age 16 for the 1982 U.S. Amateur at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass. Mary was his caddie. During her college summers, she continued to work at Winged Foot, including double time at the 1984 U.S. Open there. After graduating, she worked for famed instructor Jim McLean in the pro shops at nearby Quaker Ridge and Sleepy Hollow. “Years later it occurred to me that I’ve never had a paycheck from a non-golf company,” she says.

Historically, the clubs that hosted U.S. Opens ran merchandise sales and reaped most of the profits. But starting with the 1995 Open at Shinnecock (won by Corey Pavin), the USGA took over the merchandise business and hired 31-year-old Lopuszynski to take the helm.

“The biggest difference back then was technology,” she recalls. “The cash registers were just calculators with cash drawers. There was no electronic inventory system. We didn’t even have email.” The air-conditioning conked out constantly that first year, leaks in the tent canvas and a poor location created three-inch-deep pools of water on the floor, and the decision to go big on straw hats was a bust: only a quarter of the 15,000 in stock found a buyer.

Things are much better now. In fact, the Merchandise Pavilion has grown to be among the USGA’s biggest sources of revenue. The association keeps sales figures close to its chest, but figure on at least $10 million.

One challenge for Lopuszynski and her full-time staff of seven is picking attractive items for the local market. At Oakmont in 2016, black and yellow items sold well, in homage to the colors of Pittsburgh’s Steelers, Pirates, and Penguins. At Shinnecock, look for beachy, nautical knick-knacks. “Black is a big seller on Long Island,” says Lopuszynski, based on her four previous Opens at Shinnecock and Bethpage Black.

“As much as we want to maximize sales, creating a good customer experience is just as important,” she says. That means constantly restocking items from 25 tractor-trailers docked near the pavilion, and replenishing fast-selling items via overnight deliveries from factories in North Carolina and elsewhere that work around the clock sewing on logos.

This year for the first time, the USGA, with Lopuszynski in charge, will expand its merchandising operation to the U.S. Women’s Open and the U.S. Senior Women’s Open, and in 2020 to the U.S. Senior Open. Lopuszynski also oversees apparel for the U.S. Walker Cup teams. In 2015, she spent several memorable days helping outfit the team in Latrobe, Pa., and hanging out with Arnold Palmer.

“There’s a lot of cool stuff I’ve gotten to do,” she laughs.