What to make of Chambers Bay
__UNIVERSITY PLACE, WASH.--__There were no shortage of opinions last week as to how Chambers Bay held up during the 110th U.S. Amateur Championship. But what's hard for either critics or crusaders of the links-style course, set along the Puget Sound, to dispute was that the creativity and shotmaking that the firm-and-fast 7,724-yard layout required resulted in the amateur game's elite players rising to the top.
Indeed, the foursome of__Peter Uihlein__, the eventual champion,David Chung,Byeong-Hun An and Patrick Cantlay was as impressive a group of semifinalists as I've seen in my 13 years covering the championship. Toss in the fact that the NCAA champion (Scott Langley) and a former Walker Cup player (Morgan Hoffmann) also reached the quarterfinals, and it's clear that there would be no flukes contending for the Havemeyer Trophy.
Still, the questions I heard most from those watching the happenings in the Pacific Northwest were these:
*Just how fair actually was the set-up at Chamber Bay?
And is the course a true championship test?
Regarding the first, no doubt there was a good amount of griping at the start of the week about how Mike Davis and the USGA staff presented Chambers Bay to the 312 players in the field. Davis' candor in admitted that the course became too dry on Monday afternoon only increased the noise that the USGA had started the championship by making a double bogey.
Part of the issue was that Chambers Bay had never been set up in such a fashion before, this being the first time hosting a national championship caliber event. During the practice rounds, Davis knew how hard the course was getting (literally and figuratively) but wasn't sure exactly how exactly to address it. In fairness to those competing Monday in the most difficult conditions, Davis didn't want to soften things up too much for Tuesday's rounds.
Come Tuesday night, however, Davis told the Chambers Bay maintenance staff to "flood the place," soaking the greens with water to help get moisture to seep six to eight inches below the surface and "recharge" them so that while continuing to present the challenges of a firm-and-fast layout, it also remained fair.
"We didn't anticipate the water-management issues," Davis said. "This is something that at least in my time with the USGA we have never encountered."
To hear some of the competitors who played Monday afternoon, you'd have thought the championship had actually been conducted on the runways at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. Granted, the average score for the afternoon was north of 80, and just seven of the 64 players who advance to match play competed in that wave of players. Among those who did though was Chung, who seemed to overcome the bad luck of the draw. All told 25 of the 64 players who advanced to match play had afternoon times either Monday or Tuesday at Chambers Bay, including Uihlein and An.
Ultimately, the overall stroke average at Chambers Bay came in at 79.247, a seemingly high number for a course that was a par 71(only five players broke that number) but not all that out of the ordinary. Five years ago when the U.S. Amateur was held at Merion GC outside Philadelphia, the stroke-play course average was 78.157 with six players breaking Merion's par of 70.
Said USGA president Jim Hyler at the conclusion of the championship: "We were thrilled with the golf course."
Additionally, Davis offered a couple salient points for those concerned about the course set-up as it relates to 2015, when the U.S. Open comes to Chambers Bay. For one thing, the Open being held in June rather than August will likely make it difficult for the course to get to the extreme firm-and-fast condition seen last week. "That's the million dollar question," Davis said. "I think you will not see these wonderful tan and brown hues to it. You'll see tan, but it won't look parched."
Aside from the set-up itself, the topic of Chambers Bay is a true championship test is an intriguing one with arguments to be made on both sides Those who love the course suggest the necessity to think your way around the layout, utilizing the slopes and contours, makes it a breath of fresh air compared to traditional American target-golf facilities.
Conversely, some will argue that watching Uihlein and Chung play the 12th hole, a short par 4 that offers the risk/reward of attempting to drive the green, as an example of the course perhaps being over the top. Twice Uihlein hit the green with his drive during the championship match, each time leaving himself with roughly a 40-foot putts for eagle. Neither time, however, did he actually aim his the putt towards the hole, instead rolling his ball well right of the hole up a "backboard" and then funneling it back down the slope hoping it got near the hole. What's the point of going for the green if you can't actually attempt the eagle putt?
A few other holes also appeared to "outthink" themselves. The first hole plays as either a par 4 or par 5 depending on which tee is used. The green is elevated beside a dune on the right with a massive hill cascading down the left of the putting surface. The contours force players to aim right as the green slopes right to left. Because of how firm and fast the course played, however, even well struck shots toward the right side of the green often rolled off the left side, sometimes trundling 40 yards away from the hole.
Davis acknowledge that he didn't think No. 1 would play quite that way and during a discussion with officials from Chambers Bay and the course architects last Friday suggested taking down some of the slope right of the green to prevent good shots from getting back breaks. Additionally Davis also mentioned some tweak to the seventh and 13th greens he recommened to make them more receptive to long approach shots.
"With most of these things, it's not necessarily change the architecture," said Davis. "It's just taking what they wanted to see happen and massaging it."
Overall, there was something to be said for seeing golfers need to play the ball low to the ground, asking for a more complete examination of a player's skill than another much ballyhooed "links-style" course, Whistling Straits, which offers too few greenside openings for players to run their balls up to the hole to make a true "links."
At the same time doesn't the R&A already hold a British Open each year in July. Does the U.S. Open need to move more in that direction or not?
Personally I liked seeing golfers challenged to be more creative on the course, even if a few the course had a little more elevation changes than you'd find on a true links.
Suffice it to say, the best players in the world have nearly five years to get ready for Chambers Bay. And as they do, they'd be well off to pull out a DVD of Uihlein's triumph over Chung from Sunday to see a blueprint for what it will take to win hard by the Puget Sound.