Road Holes — 08 June 2015 by Bob Sherwin
Chambers: A master work in progress

(Editor’s Note: With the U.S. Open starting June 18, will re-publish many of the stories our writers have written of the course over the past months and years. This stories deals with how a huge degraded stone quarry became a world class golf course)

UNIVERSITY PLACE, Wa. – The U.S. Open has been played across America for 112 years but never once in the Northwest. That will change in 2015 when it will be held at the links-style Chambers Bay public golf course.

That’s just one of many ‘firsts’ for the five-year-old course.

It will be the longest Open course in history, at least 7,500 yards. It’s the first time the Open will be played on an all-fescue grass course, including the greens. It was the first time the USGA awarded the Open to a new course after less than a year in operation. The grass wasn’t even grown in – and still isn’t completely. How the course would even play was uncertain.

It also will be the first time in more than 40 years that USGA awarded its prized tournament to a new course, since the 1970 Open at Hazeltine (Minn.).

Because of the newness and uncertainty of play, it’s hard to imagine a golf course in the country under more scrutiny than Chambers Bay.

The man who drove the decision, USGA’s Executive Director Mike Davis, had been involved peripherally in the project since it was 250 wasted acres of an old gravel operation on the south shores of Puget Sound. But Davis and the Robert Trent Jones, Jr. architects all had the same vision. This could work – big time.

Since the announcement, Davis has a conference call with Allen a couple times a month. He visits the course three or four times a year.

“I think he (Davis) staked his reputation a bit on the decision to come here,” Chambers Bay General Manager Matt Allen said. “I don’t think he’s nervous about that decision. (But) it’s a bold move.”

Davis doesn’t think of it as his ‘baby’ but said that Chambers is much like Erin Hills in Erin, Wisc., a six-year-old course that was awarded the 2017 U.S. Open.

“Those are unusual in the sense that the USGA, myself and other people were at those sites before they were even golf courses,” Davis said. “We had interest in both sites before they were even golf courses, so the point being that when we saw the property at Chambers Bay, and the same with Erin Hills, we thought for a bunch of reasons, wow, this could be a spectacular opportunity for the Open if they built the right golf course.

“While we were not overly involved in the architecture, we certainly gave input with respect to what we would look at in terms of the Open. We were certainly involved in the operations aspect of the courses. We try not to cross the line into the architecture.”

Whether the USGA was involved or not, Davis and the USGA have had a tacit influence on the architecture as it has been altered significantly since it opened 2007. It has been altered further since the course hosted the 2010 U.S. Amateur.

Change has come to Chambers. Changes are still coming.

“It’s a brand new golf course and when you think about some of the other U.S. Open venues – Oakmont, Chinnecock, Merion, Pebble Beach – I could go on and on and on – those courses, in a lot of cases, are at least 100 years old and they have undergone substantial changes since they were first built,” Davis said. “If you ask, the architects will tell you they are happy (the changes) have gotten done and made it a better golf course, but the changes wouldn’t have gotten done because they wouldn’t have been funded if a U.S. Open had not come.”

Another change the course made just this week is hiring a new head agronomist, Eric Johnson. Chambers now has a pair of agronomists who have had a long history of working with fescue.

This summer, the USGA will send two of its Championship Managers to Pierce County, which operates the course, to live and work in preparation for the event. That’s generally a year ahead of the USGA’s normal schedule, which indicates how much preparation is needed and how devoted the USGA is in the course’s success.

There are no qualms about the decision, especially after a successful U.S. Amateur in August 2010, but what that tournament did was provide and blueprint on how to improve the course when the professionals arrive in 2015.

With new tees added on many of the holes since the opening, conceivably the course could be stretched to an amazing 8,000 yards. That seems intimidating but it’s a hard, rolling course with just one tree on it so the ball will travel further than most courses, much like the Scottish tradition.

Davis said it won’t be 8,000 yards and probably will be a par-71 each day, but he’s not quite sure yet what the yardage will be.

“Right now, it’s right around 7,500 yards,” he said. “Some of the new tees haven’t even been put in yet, so until I see exactly where they are located, I won’t know the exact yardage. But I will say that whatever it is, it will never play that long on a given day. We won’t play the maximum yardage on any of the (four) days.

“Somewhere around 7,600. That’s really measuring it as a (par) 72, which means both No. 1  and 18 would be par-5s, which won’t happen. On most days, I think you will see Chambers between 7,200 and 7,500, see a 300-yard difference on certain days, depending on how the winds are on a specific day. I always come in with a master plan, but it always gets adjusted and sometimes it gets adjusted significantly based on weather conditions.”

Some of the major changes to the course are already in place. Some are currently under way and some are in the planning stages. Here’s a look at the significant changes since the course opened:

No. 1, par-4, 490 yards

Yes, this is a par-4, but it has been altered since the Amateur. The area in front of the green has been built up and softened. Before the change, approach shots hit toward the middle or to the left of the fairway would invariably trickle well down a hill onto the adjacent 18th fairway. That was deemed unfair so the changes help keep the ball in a better position.

“The golfers can use that shape on the right to feed the ball to the green and stay on the green,” Allen said.

There are plans to put an additional back tee in place near the practice green, pushing the distance beyond 500 yards. It will be played as a par-5 for the Open, but, on some days, a par-4.

No. 3, par-3, 200 yards

A new tee complex has been installed, lengthening the hole from about 165 to as many as 200 yards. It also allows for better flow for the golfers to the green. In addition, the area around the tees have been widened and dunes leveled for better spectator circulation. This will be one of the most popular areas for fans because they can see about six holes within a short walk.

“There’s talk of putting grandstands to right of the third tee so they also can see the 11th green,” Allen said.

No. 4, par-5, 568 yards

This green underwent a vast re-construction after the Amateur. The problem was the green was too narrow in places and had a back slope that would return the balls back to the front of the green and often into the waste area. Even good shots were punished.

Before: Here’s No. 5 fairways before the changes. It’s wide open with an ample landing area between the waste areas.

The green is now much wider and flatter with bunkers in back to keep golfers honest. Balls are staying on the green for the most part.

No. 5, par-4, 490 yards

The long hitters (read: professionals) are the focus for fairways improvements on this hole. The second alternate green – a relics to the old Scottish tradition – to the left has been removed. It had lost its value. That waste area on the left and the waste area on the right have been extended further into the fairway. Now it is just 30 yards wide landing area, which, coincidentally, is just about where the pros hit their drives from the back tee high on the hill. It takes a precision drive to thread it now.

“That’s in the landing area,” Allen said. “And everything on the left half of the fairway slopes into that (waste area).”

After: Here’s Chambers’ No. 5 fairway, quite narrow now with just 30 yards of grass landing area, as seen from the high back tee.

No. 6, par-4, 447 yards

A new back tee has been added in another case of just extending the hole. It is at least another 50 yards back. When that is used, the hole will be more than 500 yards. And it will remain a par-4.

The pathway to the right of the tees also has been widened for better spectator traffic flow.

No. 7, par-4, 508 yards

A extensive re-work of the green was done earlier this year and and temporary green will be used until at least next April or May.

“Not only did we feel it did not play right for the U.S. Amateur, but we didn’t think it would play right even before the Amateur,” Davis said. “Matt Allen and Kemper Sports (management company) identified it as a green that just did not play right for day to day golfers.”

In the past, approach shots that hit short – or long and rolled back from the back slope – would trickle back down the false front and roll a football field away from the green. They also would funnel generally to the same area so that patch of green would turn into a patch of divots.

“There were a few instances (during the Amateur) where a shot hit on the green would boomerang off the back slope and come all the way back off the front some 80, 90 yards away from the hole,” Allen said. “So we moved the green down west and south.

“There is still a false front but if you get to the green surface, the ball is going to stay at that level. I think it will play a little more fair in tournament conditions. If may be a bit easier to play day in and day out if you can get hole high in two. If you can’t, it’s going to be as hard as it ever was.”

A bunker also was installed on the right side and balls will naturally drift into it.

The left side is wider and softer and bends toward the hole. That allows a bump and run up to the green.

High above No. 9 par-3 at Chambers. It’s a 90-foot drop to the green.

No. 9, par-3, 227 yards

Most people would see this hole as the course’s signature hole. Its tee is at the course’s highest point. There’s a 90-foot drop. The golfers appear to be hitting off the side of a cliff. It’s going to be quite telegenic and the idea is to make it even more compelling.

There is a plan to have perhaps three different tee locations over the four Open rounds. Besides the high tee 227 yards above the hole, the lower tee could be used as well as a another tee likely will be constructed from an entirely different angle. It will be just over the edge of the eighth fairway and built into the cliff at about the same level as the green.

The idea behind it is that the three other par-3s are all from elevated greens. This, and No. 17, would be the only tee shots on the same plane with the green. It also should be around 200 yards, all carry over the vast waste area. Anything short is dead.

No. 11, par-4, 500 yards

Changes to this hole will be slight but intended to make sure the professionals are precise with their drives.

“On the 11th hole, if you look at the fairway line now, we actually are going to shift that fairway left,” Davis said. “In other words, where the rough is on the left side, will become more fairway. We probably will extend the fairway five to seven yards on the left and right side (of the large mound in the middle).”

No. 12, par-4, 304 yards

The only drivable par-4 on the course, this is going to tempt a lot of golfers to send their drives through the chute through the mounds into the gigantic two-tier green. A new tee is planned to push the drive past 300 yards.

With the removal of a few trees on the out-of-play perimeter behind the hole, a grandstand will be installed. It should offer a panoramic view of the course.

No. 13, par-4, 534 yards

Another 500-yarder. Another par-4.

We played 13 as a par 4 during the Amateur because there is not a tee area back far enough to make it a par 5,” Allen said. “We are leaving the fairway 100 yards wide and during the Amateur, we were seeing players hit five or six iron for their second shot. It really does play as a par 4.”

There’s the fairway pot bunker on No. 14 – 290 yards out from the back tee – that’s going to force the pros to decide which way to fly their drives.

No. 14, par-4, 521 yards

The only real problem on this hole for the pros was avoiding the large waste area all along the left side as well as a pot bunker in the middle.

“During the Amateur, they were able to blow right over the top of that bunker,” Allen said. “We want them to go one way or the other.”

So another tee was added well up the side of the hill. That pot bunker is now around 290 yards out so it’s going to take a long and more accurate drive to elude the hazard.

No. 15, par-3, 172 yards

Davis will be able to fiddle with this hole – the one with the lone tree behind it – during the Open. He has the option to use at least three tee positions, ranging from 140 yards to 240 yards. He’ll also vary the tee positions, moving it close to the forward waste area for the short drives and higher up on the green – near the pot bunkers – for the long drives.

The lone tree shadows Chambers’ par-3 15th hole.

“It’s all about hole location here,” Allen said.

No. 17, par-3, 218 yards

The new tee location on the far right, just above the railroad tracks and near the water, probably will be used throughout the Open.

No. 18, par-5, 604 yards

The Chambers brain trust learned a lot from how the Amatuers played the finishing hole. As a result, it has been toughened.

Another 15 yards of waste area was extend along the right side just to make the long hitter – from the back 604-yard tee – steer his drive toward the middle. The bunker on the left also was extended, demanding an even more exact tee shot.

Then there’s the second shot and dealing what will be the course’s most talked about feature – the Chambers Basement. It is a nine-foot deep pot bunker, angled about 120 yards from the green. If a ball drifts into it, it will take an extraordinary shot to reach the green because of the bunker’s depth. (See Jim Street’s story here).

Before the Basement, players could just blast away and roll it toward the hole without much hazard concern. Now they will have to think and have a plan to deal with it.

The green is quite undulating and the back slope allows for an easy roll to the pin when the placement is back left. To counter that, a bunker is being considered against the back wall.

Overall, all the major changes to the course either have been completed or are in the process. There will be no other wholesale alterations after this year.

“They really are (over),” Davis said. “What happens now from here on out is attention to detail, mow lines, grass heights and stuff like that, making sure the argynomics are right. The golf course is healthy. I don’t anticipate any new bunkering. I don’t anticipate any changes to the greens, any new tees. As we get closer, we will look at the fairway lines and decide if they are just right.”

Chambers Bay is many things but it is not the venerable old-time courses that usually host the Open. It’s the first go-around for this kind of course. It’s firm-and-fast. It’s treeless (well, one). It’s fescue and it’s long.

“The courses that have longer overall averages give us more flexibility on our setup,” Davis said. “At Chambers Bay, there is room to really play a lot of the holes different ways. We may do that because of strategy, hole location or because of certain wind conditions.

“When we get to courses shorter in length, I think the Olympic Club this year was an example and certainly Marion next year, which will be under 7,000 yards, they provide wonderful tests of golf, but you don’t have as much flexibility on the setup. It’s not only the length but it’s also some of the design features the architects put in it. Some courses are more straight forward and there are others that offer more options to do things. There is some wonderful flexibility at Chambers Bay. The architects did such a great job.”

Sunday: Two holes, two different pars

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About Author

Bob Sherwin

Bob grew up in Cleveland, an underdog city with perennial underdog teams, and that gave him an appreciation and an affinity for the grinders in golf, guys such as Rocco Mediate, Jhonattan Vegas and star-crossed John Daly. This is the 53rd year for Bob as a sportswriter, the first 34 working for newspapers throughout the west, Tucson (Daily Star), San Francisco (Examiner) and Seattle (Times), and the past 19 years as a freelancer. He has covered just about every sport, including golf tournaments, Tucson Open, Bing Crosby/AT&T Pro-Am, the 1998 PGA Championship, the 2010 U.S. Senior Open, the 2010 U.S. Amateur the 2015 U.S. Open and the annual Champions Tour Boeing Classic. He also writes articles for Cascade Golfer Magazine and Destination Golfer. For most of his 20 years at the Seattle Times his primary beat was the Mariners. He then picked up Washington men's basketball in the winter. He also was the beat writer for the Sonics, including 1996 when they played the Bulls for the NBA title. After a lifetime hacking on public courses, he finally gave in and joined a country club in 2011, Aldarra near Seattle. Despite (or perhaps because) of his 14 handicap, he won the 'Super Senior'' (65 and older) championship in 2017. He has a pair of aces – 37 years apart – and in 2009 came agonizingly close to his ultimate golf goal of scoring in the 70s when he finished with an even 80. He lives in Seattle.

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