Open Experiment

When Robert Trent Jones Jr. first walked the property – in a thick morning fog that is common in the area – he almost immediately thought the 950-acre industrial wasteland, on the shores of Chambers Bay 40 miles south of Seattle, was ideal for a links style course. Surprisingly, he also mused that such a course could have championship potential. This month, in the first U.S. Open staged in the Pacific Northwest, on the first new course in the USGA’s Open rota since Jones Sr.’s Hazeltine National in 1970, the best golfers in the world will decide if Junior was right.

While the layout is sublimely photogenic – especially from the top of the escarpment overlooking the rolling fairways divided by massive fescue-topped mounds, the Bay glistening in the sun, the Gulf Islands outlined on the horizon – pre-Open reviews have been mixed, Ian Poulter’s site unseen “It’s a farce” tweet aside.

Chambers Bay had a test run just three years after its 2007 opening by hosting the U.S. Amateur when the famed Congressional Country Club had problems with its greens and begged off. Chambers Bay got it. That was stunning enough for a brand new course – and a muni! – but there was an even bigger surprise coming. In late December of 2007, the members of iconic Winged Foot decided against hosting the 2015 Open. Hello Chambers Bay.

The 2010 Amateur exposed a few flaws in Jones Jr.’s design. USGA Northwest Division director Larry Gilhuly cited the 7th hole as an example. “We had shots that were getting to the back of that green, but rolled off the front and went 150 yards down the fairway.” Changes followed – 41 to be exact – some minor, some major, so to speak.

The work has included new green complexes on holes 4, 7, 13, and 16; new championship tees on, amazingly, 11 holes; and an extension of the championship tee on 17. Bunkers have been added – for example a pot bunker 120 yards short of the 18th green – numerous rough lines shifted and moved, green surrounds re-contoured, dunes removed or levelled, cross bunkers deepened, and greens reseeded. That’s a lot of changes in five years. The amateurs of 2010 would recognize the look of the place, but not how the course now plays.

The USGA has never been shy about thinking outside the golf box: witness the retro Pinehurst layout last year. But this is still a gamble. This Championship will be played on a links-like venue, hard by salt water, and on fescue. Mike Davis, the USGA’s Executive director said: “While we’ve played golf courses before on fescue grasses, we have never played a National Open Championship on fine fescue greens. This is a first.”

And, there is a massive amount of climbing and descending and circling of the faux dunes. The layout is not an easy walk – the caddies will hate it – and the USGA has acknowledged that rounds will take some time to play. There are blind shots, and players will, at some point, have to play the ball on the ground.

“This is a one of a kind site at a U.S. Open,” said Davis. “There’s going to be some players who just love this ground game, who love the imagination, embrace it. Then there are other players who just want predictability. They don’t want to have to guess what’s going to happen when their ball lands. So it would not be the U.S. Open if we didn’t get some chirping.”

Built on sand in the old quarry – there is one tree on the property – Chambers is designed to play hard and fast. If the fickle PacWest weather cooperates, if the rain holds off, and if the fog doesn’t roll in, this Chambers Bay coming out party could provide a test of golf quite un-American for a U.S. Open. It should be interesting.

The USGA projects that the Championship will bring $140 million (US) into the area. Some of that will go to great courses other than Chambers that visitors can play.

Just about an hour’s drive south of Chambers around the bays and inlets is Salish Cliffs Golf Resort. Gene Bates’ superb design on 320 acres of deeply forested dramatic terrain has 600 feet of elevation change. Unlike at the stark Chambers, players at Salish are constantly reminded that they are deep in the lush rainforest of the Pacific Northwest.

In Brewster three hours east of Seattle, on 300 acres of sandy hills above the Columbia and Okanagan Rivers, David McLay Kidd – who as a 26-year-old unknown Scot crafted Bandon Dunes, the first course at the now iconic Oregon resort – created Gamble Sands. Golf Digest’s Best New Course in 2014 has massive fairways – most are 60 to 80 yards wide, some 100 yards wide – contoured to guide shots away from hazards. It’s a wonderful walk with spectacular golf and views.

For half the year in Washington State, it’s all about the Seahawks. But this summer at least, it’s all about golf. By the time the ’Hawks head to camp, the results of the USGA’s Chambers Bay experiment will be in and we’ll know if Junior was right.

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