UNIVERSITY PLACE, Wash. – Surveying the landscape at Chambers Bay, it is clear that the USGA has arrived at the far end of the world.
Browned-out fairways. Dusty walking paths cutting through undulating dunes. Nearly 8,000 yards of beastly golf carved out of a seaside crater, with ashen bunkers that recall its gravelly origins.
Oakmont or Winged Foot, this ain’t. As one player described it while walking off the range Tuesday, Chambers Bay is like playing golf on the moon.
The U.S. Open is traditionally an examination in endurance, a 72-hole sweatbox that tests players as much mentally as physically. This week that notion is amplified, as players prepare to embark on a journey that will be part golf, part pinball.
Want to get at the pin tucked left on the par-3 third hole? According to Phil Mickelson, the best play is to bank it off the hill to the right of the green. Miss the target left on No. 1? Expect the ball to roll some 60 yards back down the fairway.
“You’re going to see some different things this week than you have probably any other major championship that we play,” Tiger Woods said.
Ah, the unknown. The greatest enemy of a player, even more so on a major stage. Players tend to embrace the familiar and run from change, whether in pre-shot routine or crafting schedules around friendly venues. This week that playbook is out the window, as the fescue fairways and quirky greens of Chambers Bay offer plenty of variables.
With potential setbacks lurking around every corner, will the trophy go to the player with the most imaginative short game? Perhaps the biggest bomber off the tee?
Try the guy who remains the strongest between the ears.
“You have to understand that there will be some bounces that may not go your way,” Rickie Fowler said. “So as much as it tests your game, it tests you mentally even more so.”
This championship has always been part golf and part chess, with players required to plot and puzzle their way around various layouts. This week it’s more like a game of minesweeper, a ginger attempt to tiptoe through four rounds without causing a total detonation.
There are certainly traits that will prove beneficial toward that end, but Jack Nicklaus recently took the notion of “horses for courses” and flipped it on its head when it comes to this championship, one that he won four times.
“It’s not supposed to suit your game,” Nicklaus said earlier this month. “You’re supposed to suit your game to the golf course.”
Those words were echoed this week by Rory McIlroy, whose U.S. Open win in 2011 came on a soggy and lush layout at Congressional – the polar opposite of the course he will try to tame this week.
“I’d like to say that I can adapt my game to all different types of courses and conditions,” McIlroy said. “I feel like I’ve won enough in different conditions that my game is adaptable to wherever you go.”
The edict of adaptation seems simple coming from the lips of an 18-time major champ or the world No. 1, but it’s easier said than done. No player wants to come to a major championship searching for his game, let alone trying to invent new shots and trajectories for a four-day trial run.
But the stubborn players will be easily swept aside this week at Chambers Bay, as will those who bristle at good shots inevitably punished by a bad hop or carom.
“At times it may not be fair, if you look at it that way,” Fowler said. “But understanding links golf and what can happen, you kind of have to be ready for anything, and you have to be able to take the punches when they come, accept it and move forward.”
Woods highlighted the sprinkler heads that line the greens as potential obstacles, circular discs that could provide an inadvertent launching pad for approach shots like the wicker-basket flagsticks did two years ago at Merion.
“It will be interesting to see how many guys hit it, or how many guys just roll the ball off the green and they’re on the steps or up against the steps (in a bunker), take a ruling, have to drop it in the bunker and have it buried,” he said. “Now you’re going to have a lot of fun.”
Indeed, once a ball hits the ground at Chambers Bay, the fun has just begun. It then will journey through swales and dips and over crests, sometimes rolling toward the target but often finding less desirable destinations.
The USGA’s newest toy features plenty of ups and downs in terms of elevation, but the true test will be putting aside any preconceptions and enduring the emotional roller coaster that will indelibly mark this tournament.
“Let me put it this way. It really makes little difference what remarks have been made about Chambers Bay,” Nicklaus said. “You’re going to play the tournament there, and somebody’s name is going to be on the trophy at the end of the week.”
Golf’s first lunar championship is upon us. May the strongest mind win.