UNIVERSITY PLACE, Wash. – Memories fade, but this may take some time.
Regardless of which side of the dusty divide one finds themself when it comes to Chambers Bay and the USGA’s Pacific Northwest experiment, an expansive void that ranges from outright repugnance to lukewarm respect, the post-U.S. Open narrative is littered with warning signs of a championship gone awry.
The rule of thumb when it comes to a U.S. Open venue, particularly an unproven first-time stop like Chambers Bay, is that the course can be the story in the pre-championship build up, but if the conversation hasn’t changed by the time Sunday’s final putt drops – or in Dustin Johnson’s case slides painfully by the left edge of the cup – then something went terribly wrong.
It only compounds the after-action reporting that the litany of problems that plagued Chambers Bay spans the sprawling property – from some greens that were an unsightly combination of dead and dying fescue, poa annua and dirt to an alarming number of “obstructed views” for the area’s ravenous and record crowds.
“They are putting better now. They are basically not living anymore,” Ernie Els said of the greens on Sunday. “The greens are gone. It’s when they had that green growth [poa] coming out of the turf. That’s gone now.”
Billy Horschel was not nearly as subdued in his assessment of the Robert Trent Jones Jr. design, stepping to the microphone on Sunday poised to pounce. “I’ve been waiting for this moment all week,” he smiled.
Although most players offered begrudging respect for the layout from tee to green, the agronomic collision of fescue, poa and unusually high temperatures coalesced to create the worst putting surfaces in a major championship since Shinnecock Hills at the 2004 U.S. Open.
“I’m not going to criticize the design. I was talking about wine last night and some guys like certain types of wine and some people don’t. It’s the same for golf course design,” Els said.
What is certain, Chambers Bay was not most players’ glass of merlot.
“The U.S. Open is a great tournament with incredible history. The USGA should be ashamed of what they did to it this week,” tweeted Chris Kirk. “The course wasn’t overly difficult, just tricked up.”
There was no sugar coating this for most players, the condition of some greens, specifically Nos. 4 and 12, was enough to dislodge players from what has become a politically correct desire to avoid overt criticism.
To be fair, the elevated level of vitriol wasn’t universal. Geoff Ogilvy, normally one of the calmer heads in the locker room particularly when it comes to golf course architecture, took the long view when asked his thoughts following the final round.
“I told someone earlier in the week, whoever wins is going to be a quality player,” said Ogilvy, a nod to a leaderboard that included Spieth, runner-up Johnson and even Rory McIlroy with a late Sunday cameo. “You have to move the ball both ways, you have to use your brain, which is a rare thing in modern golf and something we're not very good at.”
The truth is it wasn’t the dead and dying greens or USGA executive director Mike Davis’ increasingly creative use of wildly varying teeing grounds that prompted the greatest amount of push back from players.
Despite record crowds and stunning views, Chambers Bay proved to be a particularly demanding venue for fans. The rolling layout was such a difficult and dangerous walk that the USGA advised those attending this year’s championship it was best to find a seat in a grandstand, and some holes, like the par-5 eighth, were virtually void of any gallery.
“From the fans’ point of view it’s been a strange atmosphere out there this year, because they can’t get close to the action and on some holes there aren’t any [fans],” Lee Westwood said. “From a fan’s point of view it must have been an even harder trek than it was for us players.”
With the U.S. Open booked out to 2021 and little interest, at least from the players’ perspective, in returning to Chambers Bay, it would be easy to write off the USGA’s first trip to the Pacific Northwest as the wrong execution of the right idea.
Late Sunday, however, an impromptu moment stood out amid all the course criticism and competitive chaos.
Midway through the leaders’ closing nine Davis was asked about the issue with the 12th green when Steve Lesnik – the chairman of KemperSports, which manages Chambers Bay – assured the executive they would remedy all of Chambers Bay’s agronomic woes.
While the USGA and Davis, who marked his 10th U.S. Open as the association’s top setup man last week, remained non-committal regarding Chambers Bay’s future status as a U.S. Open course it seems a publically-owned Pacific Northwest venue is a powerful draw to powerful people in the USGA.
For most players still stinging from a long and dusty week along the shores of Puget Sound it was too soon to consider a return engagement.
“I think a lot of players, and I'm one of them, have lost some respect for the USGA and this championship this year for the greens,” said Horschel, echoing a familiar locker room theme from the week.
Despite the cascade of criticism, it’s seems too soon to label Chambers Bay as a one-and-done venue.
Again Ogilvy with the long view: “It's obviously a fantastic city. Along with New York and Chicago, it seems like one of the best sports town in the U.S. It's logistically got issues, but there's nothing that in 15 or 20 years they can’t work that out, I'm sure. I'm sure they'll come back. I don't know when, but I'm sure they'll come back.”
Ultimately, Chambers Bay’s future will depend on how players and the public remember the 2015 Open, either as a misguided and mistake-riddled championship or the site of one of the most memorable major finishes in recent memory.
Only time will tell.