Courses & TravelJanuary 6, 2011

The Maturation Of Chambers Bay

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I read recently that Chambers Bay in University Place Wash., continues to struggle financially.  (Click here for the latest from the local paper, the News Tribune.)  The gist of the article: "Meanwhile, the Pierce County enterprise that was built around a celebrated golf course in 2007 continues to lose money and needs loans to survive." So, a mega-muny--where it's hard to walk, harder to score and not exactly easy to afford--tucked into a former gravel pit on the outskirts of Tacoma Wash., is struggling? I wonder if Chambers Bay, still just a Big Baby, will ever live up to the expectations of hosting a major. The course opened in June 2007; seven months later it had been awarded the 2010 U.S. Amateur and the 2015 U.S. Open. It has been three and a half years and if you strictly look at the Chambers Bay books, you might say success seems unlikely.  Through the first three quarters of 2010, the 7,500-yard extreme makeover (course edition) was off budget by $700,000. The U.S. Open isn't for another four and a half years. Forget the question about living up to expectations and hosting an Open, I wonder if the course will even be around in 2015. The answer I keep getting from the experts: Of course it will. [#image: /photos/55ad72fbb01eefe207f69979]|||Chambers_2 (No.10).jpg|||(The 381-yard 10th hole at Chambers Bay.)

In November I bumped into David Fay, the since retired Executive Director of the USGA. Fay was one of the key figures who awarded Chambers Bay two crown jewels of golf and he indicated that the USGA has too much invested in Chambers Bay to let it fail financially before 2015. Then I asked if he thought Chambers Bay would make it to 2016. That answer he wasn't so sure of.  Fair enough. Fay had a vaunted 32-year career with the USGA. As a shepherd of the game, he was credited for the feel great story that was Bethpage Black in 2002, but that's not to say he's capable of predicting the financial future of Chambers Bay beyond 2015. And to Fay's point that he made to me when I was writing a story about the struggles of Erin Hills in Wisconsin, the USGA is not in the business of running a golf course, they're in the business of running golf tournaments. The men's U.S. Open is the USGA's one annual chance to make real money. The reason why Chambers Bay and Erin Hills are now on the schedule--more than anything--is that they both fill a geographical gap in planning Opens throughout the country and they both offer unconditional support; the local municipalities will bend over backward to make sure the USGA gets everything they need to maximize their profits. I don't have any problem with that, but it still seems odd to see this lineup of Open venues through 2017: 2011: Congressional2012: Olympic Club2013: Merion2014: Pinehurst No. 2__2015: Chambers Bay__2016: Oakmont__2017: Erin Hills__ I've walked or played every course on that list; I highlighted the two that struck me as big risks to host a major championship. (To be fair, Chambers Bay was brand new when I played it, and when I played Erin Hills, the course was a mess; little did I know it was weeks away from new ownership.)  David Fay would look at that list of Open venues and say the only real risk for the USGA is Merion. Due to a lack of space, it will be nearly impossible to get more than 20,000 daily fans on that course during tournament week. Chambers Bay and Erin Hills can both hold upwards of 60,000 per day. Fay was known for wearing a bow tie and being an expert on the rules of golf, but he also monitored the bottom line; he openly deferred to the likes of Mike Davis, Senior Director of Rules and Competition for the USGA, to deal with the pressures of making sure the competitive test was worthy of the best. [#image: /photos/55ad72fbb01eefe207f6997c]|||Chambers_3.jpg|||(The 145-yard third hole at Chambers Bay.)

After reading the recent article in the News Tribune, I called Matt Allen, GM of Chambers Bay. Talk about pressure of a bottom line, Allen is the guy responsible for trying to pull a fist full of dollars out of a small hat of potential customers willing to make the trek to Tacoma. "I'll say this: I'm more optimistic today than ever before," says Allen. According to Allen, Chambers Bay had more golfers this past December than the three previous Decembers, which is some good news. And Allen, who started at Bandon Dunes and who has been at Chambers Bay since opening day, says Chambers Bay has a lot going for it in 2011. "Our fescue greens are in great shape, they've have had three years to grow in. It's January and we're one of the few courses in the area that is playing firm and fast. A majority of non-golfers are using the restaurant now, and we'll continue to benefit from the added exposure of the U.S. Amateur." Allen told me that Chambers Bay had roughly 38,000 rounds in 2008, 32,000 in 2009 and 30,000 in 2010 (they were closed for two weeks of their peak season to host the Amateur). Allen says the budget for 2011 is closer to 35,000 rounds and as they continue to get creative with marketing strategies, he anticipates making that number. Chambers Bay debuted as a $170 course on weekends for golfers coming from outside of Pierce County. I just checked their website, the current rate for non-residents for the months of April and May is $139 on weekends. Allen adds they're having early success with an annual membership catering to residents of Pierce County; they can pay $2,400 for a year of unlimited golf. That's roughly $50 per round if they play once a week. "We wanted to create a scenario in which residents can call Chambers Bay their home." So far Allen says he has sold 56 annual memberships. "There's no doubt Chambers Bay requires a long view," says Allen. "Some of the saving graces were the additions of the park and the walking trail. This has become a very popular place for the locals. It has become the community asset John Ladenburg thought it would be." Ladenburg was the Pierce Country executive who was in office at the time Chambers Bay way conceived, and it was Ladenburg who wrote the check for the $21 million gamble. "I told my staff, without great risk, there is no great reward,'" says Ladenburg, who has since left office but says he still has some involvement in the development of lodging at Chambers Bay. Ladenburg is quick to point out that although the books aren't yet balanced at the golf course, there's plenty of evidence that Chambers Bay has increased tourism and benefitted the community. "We have been successful beyond our wildest dreams," he says. "We drew championships and we are drawing tourists. What we've done here will last for centuries." In 2008, as an avid golfer and a big-game hunter, Chambers Bay struck me as rough, even though it was too new to have any. As I played the holes along Puget Sound, locals spoke of cruising killer whales and nesting eagles--I'm a sucker for Discovery Channel meets the Golf Channel. And although I lost my clubs en route to Tacoma and I endured some heavy rain for one of two rounds, I didn't regret taking the trip to Washington. But as Mike Keiser, the owner of Bandon Dunes, said, you need at least two courses to be a true golf destination. Chambers Bay is what I categorize as a very good pegboard course. I hear about it, I book the trip, I play it and I put a peg in the hole next to No. 37 on Golf Digest's list of America's 100 Greatest Public courses. Then I start tracking my next kill.  [#image: /photos/55ad72fbadd713143b424735]|||Chambers_Map.jpg|||I'm glad I can say I played Chambers Bay (northern blue arrow), but I'm not completely inspired to go back. I can't imagine taking a trip to the Pacific Northwest and that trip not involving Bandon Dunes (southern blue arrow). If most avid golfers feel the same way that I do, Allen will be under pressure to sell a lot more annual memberships to the locals.  "Can I meet the pressure of the $175 golfer? I think we're there now," says Allen. And he makes another good point: Chambers Bay is a realistic get if you're going to Bandon via Seattle. -*-Matty G.**

(Photographs courtesy of Getty Images.)

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