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Laudable Audible

Why would the USGA go off script and pick a brand new muni for the '15 U.S. Open? Because Chambers Bay is that good

Chambers Bay

The green at the 425-yard, par-4 16th offers a number of options, the nastiest a cup cut in the back right "thumb" area.

February 15, 2008

For those who don't know much about it, the best way to describe Chambers Bay is that it is one great big meteor crater. Not just because that's what the course looks like, but because that's the kind of impact it has had on the world of golf. In play only since last June, Chambers Bay, a dry, firm, windswept, nearly treeless man-made links hard against Puget Sound, is already the designated site for the 2015 U.S. Open, as well as the 2010 U.S. Amateur Championship.

Located in the Tacoma, Wash., suburb of University Place, and owned by Pierce County, Chambers Bay is the hottest municipal golf course on the planet. Hotter than Torrey Pines, site of this year's U.S. Open, hotter than Bethpage Black, which will see its second U.S. Open this decade in 2009, hotter even than the brand new Castle Course at St. Andrews, Scotland, which, though utterly spectacular, will probably never receive an equivalent blue ribbon, a British Open.

Funny thing is, Chambers Bay looks like it ought to be hosting a British Open instead of America's national championship. It bears no resemblance to a typical tree-lined U.S. Open venue such as Winged Foot, Pinehurst No. 2 or Olympic. There's but a single tree on the entire Chambers course, a Douglas fir behind the par-3 15th green. It is a thoroughly unconventional layout, which is why it is a bit startling to learn the course is the product of veteran golf architect Robert Trent Jones Jr., previously known mainly for ornate but sedate formulaic designs.

When contacted last week, Bobby Jones was quick to share design credit with his partner Bruce Charlton and their young associate Jay Blasi. "We're beyond happy," Jones said. "For our team, for Pierce County, for public golfers everywhere."

Chamber Bay Facts

It is a career pinnacle for all three, but particularly for Jones, who at age 68 finally has one of his designs awarded a major championship. It puts him 1 up against his brother and fellow course designer, Rees Jones, who had established his reputation by refining The Country Club near Boston for the 1988 U.S. Open and has since doctored a succession of national championship sites, including Congressional, Pinehurst, Bethpage and Torrey Pines, but has never had an original design host the big show.

It draws Bobby closer to the achievements of their father, the legendary Robert Trent Jones, who gained headlines for turning Oakland Hills into a "monster" for the 1951 U.S. Open, revised a handful of other Open courses and had two original designs host Opens soon after their debuts: Missouri's Bellerive in 1965 and Minnesota's Hazeltine National in 1970. (How is this for family bookends? Chambers Bay is the first new course to be awarded an Open since Hazeltine National.)

"I'm not comparing myself to my father," Bobby said, "but I have to say I think his spirit was with us on this project. In fact, we held a grand opening on June 20, 2007, which just happened to be the 101st anniversary of my father's birth."

Chambers Bay was created from a mined-out gravel pit, a huge gash in a hillside, its eastern edge a vertical escarpment leading up 80 feet to a city street, its western edge separated from the shoreline of Puget Sound by a set of railroad tracks. The site begged for something Scottish, and Jones, Charlton and Blasi were intent on proving they could fashion a natural-looking, windswept pseudo-links.

It helped that Chambers Bay had an abundance of sand. The site was, says Charlton, "a 250-acre sandbox," basically flat except for a few existing spoil piles. By the time the last bulldozer left the site, 1.4 million cubic yards had been pushed around to form gigantic, rugged land forms, massive waste areas and bunkers with gnarled, eroded faces. Last summer a great many of the faux dunes still bore bulldozer tracks. By this summer, wind and water erosion, and growth of tall fescues and patches of Scotch broom, will have removed all evidence that the dunes were machine-manufactured.

Chambers Bay

Chambers Bay's only tree and Puget Sound set the scene for the par-3 15th. Photo: Stephen Szurlej

Chambers Bay was designed with a potential U.S. Open in mind. During construction, USGA officials visited the site several times and offered suggestions concerning course strategies, gallery circulation, spectator vantage points, locations for concession stands, TV towers and the like. (As a gag, Charlton had bag tags printed that read, "Chambers Bay -- site of the 2020 U.S. Open." He missed his prediction by five years.)

Chambers Bay's par is 72, and it tops out at 7,585 yards, although it's unlikely it would play from the tips for a U.S. Open. The scorecard offers plenty of flexibility. The opening par 4 can measure 498 yards, downhill and into the prevailing wind, while the 604-yard 18th plays slightly uphill, with the prevailing wind, and therefore could be a reachable par 5. In between, the par-4 fifth plunges down five stories to two separate greens, one 150 yards farther than the other. (Think what fun the USGA could have alternating play on this hole on consecutive days.)

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