“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” - H.P. Lovecraft, American author
Not since the PGA Tour started measuring success with points in lieu of prize money has there been this level of uncertainty among the game’s best players.
Chambers Bay, site of this week’s U.S. Open, is a championship conundrum wrapped in a rolling riddle for most, and what little practical information exists does little to ease anxieties.
In the run-up to this week’s event, the void of uncertainty has been filled with urban-legend stuff like the tale of Scott Langley and Patrick Reed at the 2010 U.S. Amateur that was held at the Pacific Northwest layout.
The story goes that both players made such a mess of Chambers Bay’s opening hole in the second round of match play that when they finally reached the green they had to consult with the walking scorer because neither knew how many swings he had made.
“He made a 7 and I made an 8 and I think we just looked at each other and kind of laughed. ‘Let’s start on No. 2. You’re 1 up,’” recalled Langley, who would win that match in 19 holes.
“It can happen there because there’s fescue and tricky greens and big runoffs. It’s that type of place. You have to keep the ball in play and if you get out of place you have to take your medicine immediately.”
Although a few Tour types have made the trip to Chambers Bay with mixed reviews, what real-world data that does exist about the Robert Trent Jones Jr. design hard on the shores of Puget Sound comes almost entirely from the ’10 U.S. Amateur, which U.S. Golf Association officials used as a dress rehearsal for this week’s championship.
The lessons learned from 2010 will, in theory, keep officials from making the same mistakes this week when the stakes and scrutiny are much higher, and it seems the USGA has made the most of the setup mulligan.
“There needed to be changes made and they made the changes,” said Brooks Koepka, who failed to advance out of stroke-play qualifying at the 2010 Amateur. “I thought the first hole was unfair. You could hit just on the right side of the green and you could end up 80 yards left. They needed to flatten that out which they did ... The seventh green was unfair. The problem is they let the golf course get too firm and it got out of hand.”
Although there have been numerous tweaks to the layout since the ’10 Amateur, the biggest lesson USGA executive director Mike Davis learned from that championship is that there was nothing wrong with Chambers Bay that copious amounts of water couldn’t fix.
The two rounds of stroke-play qualifying were marred by an overly crispy golf course that fell well short of the USGA’s intended purpose of identifying the best players.
Consider that Koepka – now a Tour winner who last year played his way onto U.S. Ryder Cup captain Tom Watson’s short list for a potential pick – failed to qualify for the match-play portion of the championship in 2010 after carding a second-round 81 on Chambers Bay.
The roll call of Chambers Bay victims reads like a “who’s who” of the game’s best young players. Masters champion Jordan Spieth and Tour rookie Daniel Berger signed for 83s in stroke-play qualifying while two-time Tour winner Russell Henley was one shot better.
To put those numbers in context, the scoring average for Chambers Bay on Day 1 of qualifying was 79.87, which made Hudson Swafford’s opening 71 on the links-like layout much more than simply a solid round.
“Best ball-striking round I’ve ever had in my life,” Swafford said. “I’m not kidding. I’m dead serious. It was firm and fast. It’s a crazy golf course. I like the scenery and the link style, it has potential to be pretty good but there was a little goofiness to it.”
Although officials dialed the course back for the match-play rounds, the sting of those first two days still lingers.
“I didn’t like it,” said John Peterson, who managed a 73 at Chambers Bay in qualifying. “I didn’t like how firm it was when they set it up for the U.S. Amateur. For stroke play it was obnoxious.
“I think they learned a lot from that. We were kind of the guinea pigs for the USGA. I’m sure they will set it up fine, but it was not good for the first two rounds of stroke play.”
While opinions have varied from the dismissive (Ryan Palmer) to the delighted (Phil Mickelson) among those who have made scouting trips to Chambers Bay, creativity and a competitive acceptance will likely be the two most important clubs in players’ bags this week.
Holes like the par-3 third, for example, will need to be approached in a more deliberate way, with players explaining that any tee shot at the pin is doomed to find a bunker, or worse, while a shot played 10 yards right of the right edge of the green will likely funnel to within birdie range.
“It’s basically the opposite of Pinehurst last year in terms of all the greens at Pinehurst are a bowl flipped upside down. At Chambers Bay the majority of the greens are actual bowls so you have tons of options when it comes to approach shots,” Langley said. “Some guys would call that goofy; I would call it fun. It’s different.”
“Different” seems to be a common theme used to describe Chambers Bay, which is not exactly what players look for in major championship venues and at least partially explains the heightened level of anxiety going into the year’s second Grand Slam gathering.
Not coincidentally, those who accepted the course’s unique ways and embraced an alternative game were also the players who enjoyed the most success at the 2010 U.S. Amateur.
“It's just different,” Reed explained. “I can see how people are going to have mixed reviews on whether they like it or don't like it but I seemed to play pretty well there when I played in the Am.”
Put another way, it’s not the unknown that players should fear at Chambers Bay so much as it is a reluctance to embrace a different kind of U.S. Open.