Jay Blasi Puts Me Right on Chambers Bay

Oh, Chambers Bay, how I love thee, let me count the ways…

For starters, after several decades of use as a rock quarry, lumber yard, railroad depot, bus barn, paper mill, wastewater treatment plant, and sand/gravel mine, the site was eventually developed for what would become a top 100 golf course (golfers can get behind that sort of repurposing). Next, the 18 holes cover roughly 250 acres of a 930-acre regional park owned by Pierce County, making them open to public golfers. The 3.25-mile Chambers Bay Loop that surrounds the course cuts through its western half giving it a real community feel.

The firm, sandy ground is ideal for golf—bouncy, quick-draining surfaces that call for imaginative play and produce exciting moments that don’t end until the ball has stopped rolling. The greens are an engaging mix of wildly contoured and flattish with subtle breaks and, since being converted from the fescue that never quite felt right to the poa annua that works significantly better, have become championship worthy. It’s walking-only, so no unsightly cart paths. Every caddie makes the round more enjoyable. The views are incredible, especially from the 9th and 15th tees. And some of its holes—the 10th, 12th, 15th, and 16th—are among my favorite in all the world.

There’s an awful lot to like about the 2015 U.S. Open venue whose moment in the spotlight was marred slightly by those unfortunate fescue greens and some less than stellar spectator marshalling. I’ve been fond of the place since playing there for the first time in June 2007, and think it definitely deserves another chance to challenge the best golfers in the world. (Sadly though, the next available vacancy for the U.S. Open isn’t until 2036, while PGA Championship venues are known through 2034).

But something isn’t quite right—a few things, actually. While Robert Trent Jones Jr. and associates Bruce Charlton and Jay Blasi obviously created something very special, there are a handful of design elements that don’t make much sense to me, or rather seem inappropriate or out of place.

Blasi, who founded his own design firm in 2012, was intimately involved from the first design meetings in 2003 through the opening in 2007 and U.S. Open discussions into 2012. The California-based architect listened as I shared what didn’t feel right and provided some much-needed context.

Fairway bunkers at the par-four 5th hole

While magnificent in scope and wonderfully natural-looking, the huge bunker complexes on either side of the fairway at this straightish, 465-yard par four are immediately opposite one another and pinch the fairway to just 25–30 yards at about 300 yards off the back tee. Together they make the drive the worst kind of penal, demanding a long, straight shot in order to avoid the sand. The options on which line to take that the golfer enjoyed at the 1st, 2nd, 4th, and which he will encounter several times again over the course of the round, more or less disappear at the 5th.

The hole is reminiscent of the 18th at Bethpage Black, which features similarly large bunkers both left and right of the fairway at a similar distance off the tee. It might look impressive, if a little daunting, but it gives you precious few options on what shot to hit off the tee.

Blasi explained that the symmetrical bunkers were not part of the original vision for the hole. “The 5th actually had two greens,” he says. “There was the current green and another to the left that made a much shorter par four.”

After the 2010 U.S. Amateur, it was decided the long par-four green would be kept for the U.S. Open and, in 2012, the landing area was altered. “It was a shame that short par-four green was removed,” says Blasi, “but I totally understand the USGA’s decision. And though you wouldn’t want a lot of them like that, having one such hole does give the course a little variety.”

The par-five 8th

In stark contrast to the course’s most entertaining and scenic holes, the 8th is a rather insipid, straight, uphill par five that few seem to enjoy. Again, Blasi acknowledges the assessment. “It’s certainly not most people’s favorite hole,” he says, “but I do think it’s a solid par five. The fact is we knew we wanted to get to the high back tee at the 9th—the amazing view from up there was far too good to pass up—and we had the perfect green site at the 7th. We had to get from one to the other somehow.”

The fairway is much wider than it appears, Blasi asserts, though it is a demanding hole, even for a medium-length par five. “The undulations and ridges in the fairway and left-to-right slope up at the green give the hole plenty of interest and ask the player to think and execute off the tee, on the layup, and on the approach.”

Strategy of the tee shot at the par-four 11th hole

The dune right-of-center in the 11th fairway poses no problem for the better golfer who simply lashes one straight over the top. For many, however, it is a strange and rather awkward obstacle that doesn’t really do the hole any favors. The problem is there isn’t any advantage for finding the narrow stretch of fairway to the right of the dune, which makes you wonder why that strip of fairway is there at all.

From the right side, the angle to the green is not as good as your approach must carry a long waste bunker. The golfer who takes the easier line off the tee to the left of the dune still has a long way to go for his second shot but has a better angle, unhindered by the bunker.

jay blasi
Chambers Bay, 11th hole (photo by L.C. Lambrecht)

That doesn’t seem quite right, but Blasi explains. “Like with the 5th hole, the original was slightly different,” he says. “The dune was there from the start, left over from the mining operation, but the fairway was cut much further to the right and was only separated from the 6th fairway by the trail path. That made the slot to the left of the dune the narrower side and gave you the advantage of the slightly easier approach.

Ah, that all makes perfect sense now. And I still love Chambers Bay.

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