From Pit To Prince

May 26, 2015

Chambers Bay shows off its new look after the mining days (below). Here, the par-3 15th with the lone tree on the course.

Chambers Bay is unknown by most, unproven to many, and undeniably a strange concoction. Why is it positioned to set so many U.S. Open records? The players have yet to tee off, but the 2015 U.S. Open, the first in the Pacific Northwest, is already making history. A decade ago the course, as improbable and unconventional as they come, didn't exist. Now it's hosting the U.S. Open? Inconceivable.


If it hasn't happened before in an Open, it's probably happening June 18-21 at Chambers Bay.

1. IT'S THE FIRST U.S. OPEN TO BE CONTESTED IN A SAND BOX. Chambers Bay lies in an old sand and gravel pit on the western edge of the Tacoma, Wash., suburb of University Place. It's a tilted bowl, open on the west, with railroad tracks and gorgeous Puget Sound beyond. To the east is a high, long cliff. Atop its rim is Grandview Drive, where rubberneckers can stand with binoculars and scout for Rory, Phil & Co. some 80 feet below.

The pit was first mined in the 1890s, and over the next century it's said to have provided 90 percent of the material used to create the skyline of Seattle, 40 miles north. Lucky for golfers, it was mostly gravel—not sand—that was removed. After the Pierce County wastewater district bought the 900-acre site in 1992, mining continued until 2001, after a pit-bull prosecutor named John Ladenburg was elected as the chief county executive and decided the waterfront property should be redeveloped for public recreation, including ball fields, hiking trails and a golf course.

In 2003, the county issued a bid to design and build the course, and 55 firms responded. Those who walked the site were blown away, not by winds off the sound (which are common) but by the texture of the soil: pure sand, the ideal surface to grow tight turf, remove intense rainfall, and provide bounce to every golf ball and spring to each step.

This will not be the first U.S. Open played on sandy soil. Shinnecock Hills on Long Island has been an Open site as far back as 1896, as recently as 2004 and will host again in 2018. But Shinnecock consists of holes that were staked along tree-dotted sand hills, following lines of least resistance. Chambers Bay was dotted with piles of mining spoils, free to be sifted, shifted and molded to creative whims. A sand box, in which 1.5 million cubic yards were pushed around.

2. IT'S THE FIRST COURSE DESIGNED SPECIFICALLY TO HOST A U.S. OPEN. In January 2004, Ladenburg and an advisory committee interviewed five finalists. They were Robert Trent Jones II (a firm consisting of partners Robert Trent Jones Jr. and Bruce Charlton); Hurdzan/Fry Design, at the time creating Erin Hills, which will be the Open site in 2017; Bob Cupp, who designed the 36 holes at Pumpkin Ridge near Portland, long considered a front-runner for an Open; Phil Mickelson, at that point yet to win a major; and local favorite John Harbottle III.

Ladenburg notified each firm that a U.S. Open was his goal, and that he wanted a links-like course. So each of the five proposals envisioned a British Open-like layout. The recommendations of the advisory committee were not unanimous. Ladenburg, who had the final say, selected the Trent Jones firm.

What was the determining factor? It was not, as has been widely reported, that the Jones team concluded by handing each committee member a metal bag tag, embossed with the Pierce County logo and the words "Chambers Creek" (the working title of the project at the time) and "U.S. Open 2030."

"That was a cute gesture, but it wasn't a factor," Ladenburg says. "Besides, they got it wrong by 15 years."

What swayed Ladenburg was the vast global experience of Trent Jones Jr. He'd done links designs before, in California and abroad. None of the others had.

From day one, the pressure was on to create a course good enough to attract the Open. Leaving nothing to chance, Charlton soon spoke to Ron Read, then a regional director of the USGA, who in turn contacted Mike Davis, now the executive director. When construction started in January 2006, Davis and Read walked the property with the designers. "This has potential," Davis said. "Don't screw it up."

3. IT'S THE FIRST ROBERT TRENT JONES JR. DESIGN TO HOST A U.S. OPEN. Hard to believe that in a hugely successful career of over 50 years, with 300-plus designs and redesigns to his credit, Trent Jr. (or Bobby, as most call him), never had a course that even sniffed a U.S. Open. For Bobby, 75, this Open is a lifetime achievement award of sorts.

But like Amish barns and children everywhere, it takes a village to raise a golf course, and Bobby is generous in sharing credit for the collaborative design. "Everything was debated," he says. "Constantly. Sometimes with great passion."

Equally hard to believe is that Chambers Bay is a Trent Jones Jr. design. It bears no resemblance to anything he has previously produced. Chambers Bay is ragged, jagged, rustic and unkempt, seemingly unfinished in some corners and purposefully quirky in others. Flowery bunkers that Bobby first sketched were replaced by massive sandy waste areas, inspired by Pine Valley, he says, to fit the scale of the site. They built enormous fairways, some over 100 yards wide, but full of trapdoors, false promises and awkward angles into impossibly complex greens.

At his age, Bobby will never match his famous father's Open record. Robert Trent Jones Sr. was the original "Open doctor," with nine U.S. Opens on courses he remodeled, starting with Oakland Hills in 1951, and four on original designs: Congressional, Bellerive, Hazeltine and Atlanta Athletic Club.

But Chambers Bay does put Bobby 1 up on his equally famous brother, Rees, the second Open doctor, who has treated 10 Open venues thus far, but none of his design. (Although Rees says his extensive remodeling of Congressional and Torrey Pines makes them tantamount to his designs.)


4. IT'S THE FIRST ALL-FESCUE U.S. OPEN COURSE. The fescue turf, ideal in a maritime climate, is common on the links of Scotland, Ireland and the English coastline, but not on courses in America.

Today, everything could be mowed at greens height if desired. For the Open, the highly contoured greens will be mowed at .18 inches, which will translate to a Stimpmeter reading of 12, and there will be noticeable grain. There will be a belt of fescue rough at about three to four inches (narrowing some of the widest fairways to 40 or 50 yards), then taller stuff farther out.

"The beauty of fine fescue, besides needing less water and less fertilization than other grasses, is that it's the least tacky grass I know of," Davis says. "You get a wonderful bounce on it."

Adds Bobby: "When a ball lands, it won't be clear when or where it's going to stop."

The idea is to "force players to hit away from the flagstick to end up near the flagstick," Bobby says. "The older I get, the more I like the ground game."

For the Open, Chambers Bay will not be the dry, parched, butterscotch color that it was during the U.S. Amateur in August 2010. The area's winter rains usually end in May, with June as a transition month. Davis guesses the course will be relatively green for the Open, certainly greener than Pinehurst No. 2 was last year.

"There's very little chance we'll water the fairways at all during the spring, or during the U.S. Open," Davis says. "We'll watch the putting-green firmness and water there if needed, and the surrounds, some on the tees. We're not focused on color. We want it bouncy. It can be bouncy and green or bouncy and tan; we don't care."

This year's winner, Davis predicts, will be a player who makes two or three trips to play and study the course in advance. "If anyone thinks they can learn this course in three practice rounds," he says, "they're crazy."

5. IT'S THE YOUNGEST COURSE TO BE AWARDED THE OPEN. Chambers Bay opened for play on June 23, 2007. Less than eight months later, on Feb. 7, 2008, the USGA announced it was awarding the 2010 U.S. Amateur and the 2015 U.S. Open to the place. The selection was helped considerably when Congressional, under contract for the 2010 Amateur, begged off because of pending greens reconstruction, and Winged Foot and Shinnecock declined to pursue the 2015 Open.

The timing of the Chambers Bay announcement was dictated by law. As a county-owned golf course (incidentally, the first county-owned course to host a U.S. Open), it had to immediately disclose its contracts to the public.

The timing was fortuitous. The economic recession had already hit the area. Chambers Bay was not meeting expectations or expenses, and there was grumbling that Ladenburg had wasted $22 million on the course.

"The USGA, by its announcement, saved the golf course," Jones says. Without that, and some funds that the USGA later advanced, "I don't think Chambers Bay would be here today. It would have been a hard political fight to keep it. You don't cut firemen's pay but keep running a golf course."

After the announcement, Chambers Bay steadily became a national golf destination, if not a money-maker. Last year, it showed a profit for the first time.

Chambers Bay will not be the youngest course to serve as an Open site. That distinction remains with Northwood Club in Dallas, which opened in 1948 and hosted the Open just four years later. Chambers Bay will turn eight years old two days after this year's Open concludes.

6. IT'S THE FIRST U.S. OPEN COURSE TO HAVE HOLES THAT WILL ALTERNATE PAR. For the Open, Davis will convert the fourth, normally a par 5, into a par 4, so the course will play as a par 70. "It's a much more interesting drive zone when you move the tee up," he says.

Total yardage will vary every day. The maximum length is 7,940 yards, but for the Open, yardage will range from 7,200 to 7,700, depending on weather, wind conditions and tee and hole locations.

For a time, Davis toyed with the idea of playing the course as a par 71 on certain days and par 70 for other rounds because he was undecided on whether to play the first and 18th holes as long par 5s each day (par 71), or one of them as a par 4 (par 70). Then it occurred to him, because the two holes are parallel in opposite directions, he could alternate the par each day and still retain the overall par of 70.

"When we play the first hole as a par 4, 18 will be a par 5, and vice versa," Davis says. "Both holes are so neat architecturally, both as par 4s and par 5s. It speaks volumes for the incredible flexibility of the design."


The straightaway par-4 first hole becomes a dogleg-left par 5 from a new back tee, with different fairway slopes in separate landing areas. The 604-yard, par-5 18th has completely different fairway bunkering when played as a 525-yard par 4.

"I don't know which rounds we'll switch them," Davis says. "Would I rather have 18 as a par 4 or a par 5 on the final day? I don't know. If it's a par 5, there's a possibility of making history, making eagle or birdie to win the Open. That's never happened.

"But part of me says, Hey, this is the U.S. Open. It ought to be set up so a hard-earned par 4 wins it all. I've chewed on that over and over. I suspect we'll look at what the wind conditions will be the last couple of days, and decide then."

In recent years, Davis added a last-minute bunker on the 17th at Olympic in 2012 and turned the famed par-4 fifth at Pinehurst No. 2 into a par 5 last year. For Chambers Bay, he directed that a deep bunker be installed in the middle of the fairway about 120 yards short of the 18th green.

"When playing 18 as a par 5, there needed to be something in the lay-up area," he says. "The fairway was 85 yards wide in that second landing area. A guy could be blindfolded and couldn't miss the fairway. I didn't want to bastardize the hole by bringing in rough. So we suggested sticking something in the middle, so they'd have to play around, or short, or left, or right." A crew dug the six-foot-deep diagonal bunker where Davis wanted it, but he wanted something so deep even a great player couldn't reach the green. So the crew dug some more. The bunker is now 10 feet deep. Curiously, though Davis defends its placement and depth, he doesn't think it will see any action. "If there is one, single, solitary player in the U.S. Open in that bunker, I'll be amazed," he says. "But they're going to have to think about it. And that's the whole idea." Alfred Hitchcock called that sort of device a MacGuffin. Local caddies call it the Chambers Basement.

7. THIS WILL BE THE FIRST U.S. OPEN TELEVISED BY FOX SPORTS NETWORK. With only one previous golf broadcast, Fox is as untested as Chambers Bay. Producer Mark Loomis has plenty of experience, having done golf for ABC and ESPN, but on-air co-hosts Joe Buck and Greg Norman are rookies, as is tower announcer Brad Faxon. Steve Flesch, Scott McCarron, Juli Inkster, Corey Pavin, Shane O'Donoghue and Holly Sonders have done golf commentary, but nothing on this scale.

Fox promises to explore "new avenues" including drone camera views (at far lower angles than helicopter views) and even some drone shots following players at a discreet distance. The USGA isn't comfortable with microphones on caddies, but long-range mics will eavesdrop on the discussions between players and caddies.

Fox also plans 3-D effects to show the extreme contours. "We want to make those greens come to life," Loomis says. In March, the network was setting up a laser network that will plot ball flight and roll and provide instant ShotLink-type yardage data. "We won't have a lot of statistics dancing around the screen," Loomis says, "but we'll provide pertinent information."

Expect to see lots of Sonders. She'll be preparing feature items in advance, handling on-course and post-round interviews and will anchor the network's nightly wrap-up program. Also expect to hear Norman analyze Chambers Bay as a player and as an architect. "We won't force it," Loomis says, "but at this stage in his life, he can't help but look at it from both perspectives."


8. CHAMBERS BAY IS THE FIRST U.S. OPEN COURSE WITH ONLY ONE TREE. It's not that Chambers Bay was treeless to begin with, but the only mature tree was a solitary, wind-warped fir near what became the 16th tee. The designers decided to keep it. The tree was vandalized in 2008 when someone hacked it with an ax, but it recovered and is the background for the wedding photos of project architect Jay Blasi, who married his wife, Amy—whom he'd met on the job—on the 15th tee before the 2010 Amateur.