UNIVERSITY PLACE, Wash. – If not for a 54-hole leaderboard that touches on all the right notes, the 115th U.S. Open would be in danger of giving the Evergreen State a dusty yellow eye.
Players have groused, quietly at first but at an increasingly more vocal pace in recent days; legends have lambasted the faux links land; fans have lampooned the layout’s restricted access and even viewers across the globe have balked at Chambers Bay’s crusty curves and brownish hue.
But through it all, through the building crescendo over the increasingly poor condition of some greens and even a chorus of safety concerns as players and fans attempt to navigate the rugged terrain, the old sand quarry has risen above the din of criticism to produce all of the essential elements of a classic final round.
It’s part and parcel of Chambers Bay that the same rough edges that have drawn so much scrutiny are the same elements of the Robert Trent Jones Jr. design that sifted through 156 players and left us with the high-profile likes of Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth and Jason Day all tied atop the leaderboard at 4 under par and vying for Sunday’s title.
Consider that Spieth and Patrick Reed stepped to the second tee on Saturday tied for the lead and walked off the green 15 minutes later separated by three shots following a 40-footer for birdie by the Masters champion and a messy double bogey by Reed.
Similarly, Spieth drifted back to the pack after going bogey-bogey at Nos. 4 and 5, all in a Tacoma minute. But that’s the way things roll at Chambers Bay, where danger and discontent loom around every dusty hump and hill.
“‘Appalled’, was the word I used,” said Spieth (71) when asked his reaction after missing the fairway at the par-4 eighth hole. “I couldn't have hit a better tee shot. I thought my ball was in the middle of the fairway. And then I’m in the rough and there was a clump of grass behind it. This is a joke.”
On Sunday, Gary Player said this championship was the most “unpleasant” he’d ever seen, and this is a man who once won a U.S. Open (1965) without ever breaking par in a single round.
The cascade of criticism has ranged from the USGA’s decision to swap par on the first and 18th holes this week to greens that Henrik Stenson said were akin to putting on broccoli.
“I don't think they're as green as broccoli,” said Rory McIlroy following a third-round 70. “I think they're more like cauliflower.”
In simplest terms, a handful of the fescue greens have been infested with poa annua, considered by many a Tour type a West Coast weed, leaving unreliable, and by some accounts unacceptable, putting surfaces.
Those agronomic issues have been compounded by USGA executive director Mike Davis’ insistence on pushing the set-up envelope this week, playing a dramatic game of roulette with vastly different teeing grounds and a sliding par on the first and closing holes.
At the beginning of the week, Spieth figured it was just Davis’ attempt to “get inside our heads,” and after three demanding days it seems the executive has set up shop in the field’s collective consciousness.
As a result of all that creativity, however contrived some believe it to be, Davis seems to have lost the locker room this week, with player concerns slowly building along with the temperature and winds along the Puget Sound.
“Most players are a bit too afraid to say what they think, we’re living in a politically correct world where people can’t voice their opinions, but I think if we had a hidden microphone and camera in the locker room you’d hear a few things that you’re not hearing in public,” Lee Westwood said.
The result has been the most contentious U.S. Open since officials were forced to nurse some of Shinnecock Hills’ greens back to life midway through the final round at the 2004 championship.
With apologies to Day, who collapsed on Friday with what was diagnosed as benign positional vertigo yet produced an inspiring performance on Saturday (68) to move into a share of the lead, Chambers Bay is not for the faint of heart.
Nor is it for a player who is not 100 percent, which Day certainly was not on Saturday on his way to an inward loop of 31.
“I said to him on [No.] 18, ‘That is the greatest round of golf I’ve ever watched.’ It was a superhuman effort,” said Day’s caddie and swing coach Colin Swatton. “I said to him after the round that they might make a movie about that round. It’s up there with Tiger Woods playing with a broken leg at the  U.S. Open.”
Day will set out on Sunday in the anchor group with Johnson – who is an equally compelling story but for drastically different reasons following his self-induced hiatus from the game earlier this season – preceded by Brenden Grace and Spieth, who will be vying to become just the sixth player to win the first two legs of the single-season Grand Slam following his triumph in April at the Masters.
White dots were needed this week to define where greens end and fairways begin at Chambers Bay, and while many in the field appear on the brink of waving the metaphorical white flag, it’s just as telling that the layout has produced a foundation for what is shaping up to be an unforgettable Sunday.