UNIVERSITY PLACE, Wash. – When Chambers Bay was awarded the 2015 U.S. Open just months after opening there was no blueprint for how the course would react to championship conditions.
Thanks to the experience of hosting the U.S. Amateur last year and, more importantly, time, Chambers Bay will undergo small experiments the next four years in preparation for the major championship.
The first happened over the last nine months with the growth of substantial rough, the kind of gnarly mess the U.S. Golf Association hopes will swallow wayward shots when the Open comes to the Pacific Northwest for the first time.
Trying changes ahead of time is not unique. But many courses in the USGA rotation have held past U.S. Opens or even PGA Tour events where they can see how the course reacts.
Chambers Bay is the oddity.
It’ll be the youngest U.S. Open course since Hazeltine was just eight years old when it hosted its first Open in 1970.
Chamber Bay’s unique fescue grass, large footprint and placement on the shores of Puget Sound make up the setting the USGA had been hoping to find to finally bring its national championship to the Pacific Northwest.
And it’s not alone. Two years after Chambers Bay hosts the Open, the USGA is taking the Open to Erin Hills in Wisconsin, another new links-style course. Erin Hills will host this year’s U.S. Amateur.
“Most times we’re going to Shinnecock or Oakmont or Pebble Beach,” USGA executive director Mike Davis said. “Going to new courses, one of the reasons we schedule it the way we did was we wanted to see how the courses played. At Chambers Bay, it was incredibly valuable.”
When Chambers Bay hosted the U.S. Amateur last year, the challenge for Davis, Chambers Bay general manager Matt Allen and their staffs was simply seeing if the course could exhibit and withstand the conditions the USGA really wanted: a dry, hard fast track that mirrored the look of the links courses of the British Isles.
It worked, even if Davis acknowledged after the Amateur that they had dried out the course too much during stroke play. The course was choked of water for three weeks before the Amateur – sans the Pacific Northwest’s natural sprinkler – and when the tournament was done, it took only three or four weeks for the course to regain some green lushness.
“It tells us frankly in the long run we can maintain the golf course drier and leaner as normal practice, which conserves on water and fertilizer,” Allen said. “And the firmer and faster it plays day in and day out, the better. That’s how it was designed and the ball goes farther and everybody is happy.”
Proving the golf course could maintain and survive that stress gives Davis and his staff the chance to tinker here and there, and make substantial changes elsewhere as the ’15 Open draws closer.
Testing how thick the rough could get was the first experiment and likely the most important. When Robert Trent Jones Jr. and his team designed the course, they did so with hosting a U.S. Open-type event in mind, but not intending on the course having any rough in a true links style. The rough that was added before the Amateur was short and not very punishing.
Because fescue grows at a slower rate than the other grasses used on most American courses, Allen’s staff was told to stop cutting the rough last fall so USGA officials could get an idea of where the rough might be in June – around the time of year when the Open will be played.
The result was nearly 6 inches of tangled mess that was punishing every day hackers so much course officials finally had to ask if they could cut the rough back because pace of play was grinding to a halt as players searched for balls on the already difficult course.
“We know that basically two years of growth from fairway height we got it to where we wanted,” Allen said.
Now that the way the rough grows is known, Allen’s crew will turn to more structural changes.
The biggest and yet-to-be-determined change will likely come on the seventh green, an uphill par 4 with a massive false front on the green. The problem during the Amateur was shots finding the middle-to-back of the green would roll off large mounds and, because of the fast conditions, tumble back to the front of the green, catching the false face and rolling 60 yards back down the fairway. Allen said the solution is still being worked out, but much of the green complex would need change.
“It’s going to get changed and it’ll be an improvement not only for the Open, but it’ll be an improvement the other 51 weeks,” Davis said.
Most of the other changes have to do with the shaping of specific holes. Some of it will be done with the addition of tees, others by removing rough from one side of the fairway and bringing it in on the other. The reshaping of some holes will bring more hazards into play and remove potential bail out areas. The final piece of work is all related to the Open itself with the addition of paths and walkways and the flattening of some of the dunes to make the course safer for spectators.
Many of the changes will take place over the next year to give the slow-growing fescue plenty of time to mature before 2015. By the spring of 2013, everyday players who visit the course will see the basic framework the best players in the world will face two years later.
“That’s really the goal. It takes the fescue a while to get it really right,” Davis said.