UNIVERSITY PLACE, Wash. – When the U.S. Golf Association announced last year that a fresh-faced, county-owned links course south of Seattle would host not one, but two of golf’s most prestigious championships, it was a head-scratcher to more than a few in the golfing world.
“A U.S. Open at a links course?” golfers pondered. “Has the USGA lost its mind?”
On the surface Chambers Bay is anything but U.S. Open-like: A links course built in 2007 on 100-percent fine fescue grass, it has as many trees on it (one) as community jogging trails running through it, and it's located in a not-so-golf-obsessed region of the Pacific Northwest.
How to get there
40 minutes south of SEA-TAC Airport on I-5. 2 1/2 hours north of Portland. Exit 130.
$169 - weekend
$109 - after 3:30 p.m.
How to play it
Book a tee time at their website or by calling 877-295-4657.
A pint of Northwest beer on the patio overlooking the course is a pretty good way to unwind after your 7.5-mile jaunt around Chambers Bay.
Proof of its destiny, construction of the course hadn’t even been completed before Pierce County officials and architect Robert Trent Jones, Jr. knew they had something special. So with grass still growing and local taxpayers still questioning their investment, the county put a call in to the USGA.
“It’s not uncommon that we get calls from people who say, ‘We’re building a course and we think it’s good enough for a U.S. Open,’ ” said Mike Davis, USGA senior director of rules and competition. “But I remember a number of years ago when we got the call from the folks at Chambers Bay. When I heard it was in the Pacific Northwest, on the water, on nearly 1,000 acres, it really piqued my interest. And when I heard it was a sand pit and it was going to be a fine fescue course, we decided we better go out there and pay a visit.”
What Davis and the USGA found is something they’d only dreamed of – a course that was larger than Oakmont, as panoramic as Pebble, and as pliable as Silly Putty. Chambers Bay, they discovered, is a perfect storm of U.S. Open venues, and it’s a course Davis wishes other USGA venues could be more like.
“It might have as much flexibility as any U.S. Open venue we’ve ever had,” said Davis, adding that, “it’s tough, but in a different kind of way.”
Etched out of a former gravel mine on a hillside at the southeastern end of Puget Sound, Chambers Bay is characterized by large dunes, wide fairways and wispy rough. The course is designed to play hard and fast, a principle the USGA openly prefers.
“We like when the best in the world have to think about what happens when their ball hits the ground,” Davis said. “One true disappointment about Bethpage [site of the 2009 U.S. Open] was that players were essentially throwing darts. For the really good player, it doesn’t take as much skill to do that. Even if it rains at Chambers Bay it will still be firm, and we like it that way.”
While it’s still too early to tell just how long the course will play, the first hole, a 498-yard par 4, will probably be one of the toughest; it plays into the prevailing wind and shares a fairway with the par-5 18th, akin to The Old Course at St. Andrews.
In fact, those two holes already have Davis’ creative juices flowing. He said he’s already tinkering with the idea of changing the par of these holes, mid-tournament. No. 1 could play as a par 4 one day and a par 5 the next. No. 18 would be vice versa, keeping the total par the same.
It’s further proof that Davis is unafraid to challenge the ways of old.
“We realized the wonderful architecture of those holes. All that matters is that we’re going to give away the trophy to the guy with the low score.”
While its bookends are indeed intriguing, so are Chambers Bay’s interior holes. The par 3s are a blend of short (No. 3, 165 yards) and long (No. 9, 227 yards), but all play downhill into the prevailing wind. The ninth hole is the most severe, and also the most exposed. Commit to your tee shot and hit it pure, or bogey beckons.
The back nine features a drivable par 4 (No. 12), a 600-yard par 5 (No. 18) and a par 3 (No. 15) with the previously mentioned one-and-only tree standing tall, with Puget Sound as the backdrop. The Lone Fir – as it’s known – is an iconic figure, and a subplot to Chambers Bay’s Cinderella story after it was vandalized in 2008.
It’s presumed that a mischievous youngster took a boy scout’s axe to the tree.
“There’s a three-mile public trail that runs through the course that’s used by many more people than the golf course,” said Chambers Bay’s general manager Matt Allen, who had just joined the staff when the tree was damaged. “The public outcry when the vandalism occurred – l can’t tell you how many phone calls I got from arborists, nature conservationists and just regular people who wanted to help.”
Just 12 months after local residents doubted Chambers Bay’s place in their community, they were donating their time to help maintain it.
For those residents who remain uninspired by the Lone Fir, the economic boon the surrounding area will receive from hosting a U.S. Open might help. Early estimates have the economic impact at $100 million ($40 million more than the 2001 Major League Baseball All-Star game in Seattle).
“It’s like hosting the Super Bowl for four days in a row,” said Pierce County Executive John Ladenburg.
Davis said that while taking on a new site has its challenges, the good outweighs the bad.
“There’s real appeal to go to different venues because it’s easy for us to get in that cookie-cutter method where you just narrow the fairways. I think that 2015 will be so different because the fairways and greens at Chambers Bay are firmer than at any U.S. Open.”
A deviation from the norm. Maybe the USGA hasn’t lost its mind after all.