Preparing for the U.S. Open: Chambers Bay

When, in February 2008, the USGA revealed that Chambers Bay in University Place, Washington, would host the 2015 U.S. Open, golf’s jaw fell to the ground. Not only would the National Championship be going to the Pacific Northwest for the first time, but to a county-owned muni, no less. Plus the fact it was only eight months old at the time of the announcement and would be just a few days shy of its eighth birthday the week of the Open completed a trifecta of reasons for suggesting Chambers Bay was the most unlikely choice of venue in the championship’s long history.

No one was more surprised than the course’s designer, Robert Trent Jones Jr., and his young project manager, Jay Blasi, who’d had bag tags made up reading “Chambers Creek US Open 2030” (Chambers Creek was the original name) for their final presentation to the Pierce County officials who’d conceived of a 27-hole, links-inspired public golf course in a once-productive gravel mine that had become 930 acres of sand, scrub, and dirty drainage ponds.

Chambers Bay, Hole 16 (Photo by L.C. Lambrecht)

To a layman, this mess would not have aroused even the slightest curiosity. But to Blasi, a then-25-year-old graduate of the University of Wisconsin who had joined Jones’s firm almost immediately after earning a degree in landscape architecture, the site was a little slice of heaven. “I saw it for the first time on December 23rd, 2003,” he recalls. “I climbed up and down the piles of sand, looked out over Puget Sound towards the Olympic Mountains, and was gripped with excitement. I was the proverbial kid in a candy store. The place obviously had incredible potential.”

But he didn’t have the job just yet. At a meeting three weeks later, Blasi, Jones, and Senior Designer Bruce Charlton tried to convince County Executive John Ladenburg that they were a better fit for the assignment than Bob Cupp, Michael Hurdzan, John Harbottle, and a team led by Phil Mickelson—the other finalists from the original group of 56 applicants. The bag tags worked like a charm, but Ladenburg was also aware of Jones’s USGA connections and how they might be a factor in attracting a U.S. Open.

The group had a year to finalize the routing and prepare for construction of the course, which, somewhat controversially, would cost taxpayers $24 million. One and a half million cubic yards of sand and soil needed to be moved to create Chambers Bay, which Jones had convinced Ladenburg would work better with 18 great holes rather than 27 merely good ones.

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Chambers Bay, Hole 3 (Photo by L.C. Lambrecht)

To prove the course was up to staging an Open, it first needed to host a U.S. Amateur, which was played at Chambers Bay in 2010 and won by Oklahoma State junior Peter Uihlein. That event was a solid success, and it gave the USGA a chance to identify areas that needed attention before the Open came to town. On a number of greens, the slopes were so severe it didn’t matter how or where shots approached, balls would inevitably collect at the same low point.

Jones, together with the USGA’s Mike Davis (who was director of Rules and Competitions before becoming Executive Director in 2011), made the appropriate changes and added a new tee at the 9th, making it both a drastically downhill and slightly uphill par three so that on certain days an alternate teeing ground— set at a 90-degree angle from the primary teeing ground and playing uphill—will be used. He also dug a 12-foot-deep bunker in the middle of the 18th fairway 120 yards short of the green that he didn’t care for but Davis insisted on. “Mike kept asking us to go deeper,” says Jones. “I think it’s a little incongruous, perhaps, but it will give the players something to think about.”

The rough for the Open will be thick but graduated, says Davis. Par will be 70 with holes 1 and 18 switching between a four and a five each day, and the course will measure between 7,200 and 7,700 yards. The greens, once cause for concern, have improved considerably since Eric Johnson came over from Bandon Dunes to become Chambers’ Director of Agronomy in July 2012; they should run at around 11 on the stimpmeter.

During the U.S. Amateur, in August 2010, the weather was hot and dry, the course concrete-firm and light brown. June is likely to be cooler and windier, so the course greener and a little softer. Jones wants a mix of conditions—dry, sunny days as well as less pleasant periods of wind and even rain, which he says will help the player with the most patience and widest range of shots separate himself from the pack. “The winner will need all the usual U.S. Open requirements, tremendous skill and strength of character,” the architect says. “But he’ll also need great imagination, and know how to use the terrain to move certain shots toward the hole.”

Blasi, who started his own design firm in 2012, agrees, saying that when the ball hits the ground the real excitement will start. “I think creative shotmakers like Bubba Watson and Phil Mickelson will do well,” he notes.

Chambers Bay, Hole 14 (Photo by L.C. Lambrecht)

The pivotal holes, according to Jones, will be the extremely tough stretch from 4 to 7, which only the very best will play in level par for the week, and the final five. That quintet features two fantastic par threes—one the site of the course’s only tree, Lone Fir, well behind the 15th green—a Cape-style par four that plays over and around five acres of sand, a dramatic short par four paralleling the train tracks that run alongside Puget Sound, and the intriguing 18th, which possesses a huge, heaving green certain to encourage three-putting.

As for a winning score, neither Jones nor Blasi will bite. “The lowest, that’s all I’m saying,” Jones smiles. “You can’t predict exactly what the weather might do, or how the course will play.” Blasi, who is fully prepared for the players to be both complimentary and highly critical of the course, is likewise reluctant to specify a number. “You must be joking if you think I’m going there,” he says.

One man who will go out on a limb, albeit not very far, is Tom Cade, communications director for the Washington State Golf Association and editor of the book America’s St. Andrews, which tells the Chambers Bay story in impressive detail. “If there’s any weather at all, Chambers Bay is an extremely demanding course,” he says. “So if anyone beats par, it won’t be by much.”

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