U.S. OpenJune 17, 2015

Fifteen things to expect from Chambers Bay, per USGA mad scientist Mike Davis

Mike Davis, executive director of the USGA, is the man most responsible for the unique character of the U.S. Open. And by "unique," I mean "incredibly demanding." Every year, a certain number of players will complain about the difficult setup of the U.S. Open course, and Chambers Bay, with its sloped tee boxes and shifting par-4/5s and massive four-tiered greens, is no exception. Davis held his pre-tournament presser Wednesday, and we'll get to the main takeaways in a second, but I want to talk quickly about something I noticed -- his total composure. In the maelstrom of gripes levied by players and media, he kept his cool, deflected criticism, and seemed to have a logical answer for every question and every doubt.

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At the end of his performance, I couldn't resist approaching to ask him a question about his own personality -- despite the uber-rational performance he'd just given, was there any part of him that derived a secret pleasure from the way his courses tortured a certain kind of player? He started laughing even before I finished my question, which I took as a good sign.

"Honestly," he said. "I get a real kick out of showcasing architecture. What was the architect trying to do? Knowing this is a U.S. Open test, you're setting it up closer to the edge of being unfair than the players see from week to week. To me, where I really get a kick out of its when the golf course players properly. What I don't like is when it's unfair."

You can imagine his pleasure, then, when he first laid eyes on the garbage-strewn defunct gravel mine that Chambers Bay was in 2003, and imagined how Robert Trent Jones Jr. would transform it into a beautiful, links-like course with gorgeous views of the Pugett Sound.

Before his assistants ushered him out, I asked Davis how he would feel if I described him as "impish" or a "mad scientist." He only laughed and turned slightly red, but I like to think there's a wry sense of humor operating beneath the surface, and that any time a lesser player complains about the creativity needed to navigate a U.S. Open course, there's a small, fiendish part of his brain where the synapses light up in joy.

Here are 15 things we learned about this week's U.S. Open from Davis' presser:

  1. A warm, dry May and June is going to make this course very, very fast, which will simultaneously give the long hitters an advantage, but also keep the short hitters in the game due to the significant roll-out for anyone who hits the fairway off the tee.

  2. The wind is actually going to fluctuate over the course of the tournament, and will likely shift from the south to the north over the first two days -- as if things weren't hard enough.

  3. The elevation changes will be greater than "any Open we've seen." I can confirm this after walking the course -- it is an absolute hike. Davis described it as an "endurance test."

  4. Players can put the fear of a 7,900-yard course, which is what it plays if every tee is back, to rest. Davis said the course will fluctuate between 7,300 and 7,700.

  5. Furthermore, the course will actually play shorter with the dry fairways, and some of the longer par-4s, like the 14th, will play 35 yarders shorter because they're downhill. Davis made it a point to diminish length concerns.

  6. "We want to see how they think on their feet, how their caddie thinks on their feet." This is in line with an older quote from Davis, which is that he wants a player to feel like he's going through a round with a pebble in his shoe. The philosophy "is to have a very fair test of both their physical and their mental capabilities," added the USGA's Diana Murphy.

  7. As expected, Davis said that players will have multiple ways to play a hole, whether it's a modified bump-and-run that stops short of the hole, a traditional high shot with spin, or playing off the various banks around a green. None of these are "right" or "wrong," but he seemed happy at the prospect of this variety.

  8. The fast conditions will also lead to different choices off the tee. Davis predicted that we'd see at least one threesome on Thursday or Friday where one player took a driver, another a 3-wood, and another a long iron...all off the same tee.

  9. Green speeds will fall between 11 and 12 on the Stimpmeter.

  10. Contrary to what some players have been saying, the greens will actually speed up as the day goes along. Even though the poa annua grass (interspersed with the fine fescue) will grow as the day progresses, it actually loses friction, and won't slow a ball down like you'd expect.

  11. The greens "look splotchy" due to the two types of grass, but Davis is happy with the smoothness of the roll, and less concerned about appearance. Brad Fritsch, a Canadian player, actually expressed similar sentiments on Twitter yesterday. Most other U.S. Open courses use poa annua and bentgrass, which are the same color, but fescue and bent are different, hence the mottled appearance.

  12. It's hard to distinguish between the greens and the fairway for the simple fact that both are predominantly fine fescue grass.

  13. His biggest anxiety is "managing the firmness." With the dry weather, the USGA won't be sabotaged by rain (as you could argue they were last year at Pinehurst on Thursday and Friday), and the concern now is not to go too far in the other direction, with a course so dry and fast that good approach shots won't hold the green -- Davis' main fear, and something that happened at Shinnecock, where they had to take the unique step of watering greens between holes.

  14. His pace-of-play target for the first groups off the tee is four hours, 45 minutes, though he has no delusions about sustaining that pace for the entire field.

  15. The choice of where to place the tees on any given day will depend on several factors, including hole location and prevailing wind. He is emphatically not concerned with complaints that it's too unpredictable, because he wants players to think on their feet, even if they've been practicing at Chambers Bay for a week.

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