Chambers Bay US Open course ‘on edge of fair and funky’

Mentally challenging course promises to do many a player’s head in before contest begins

The “R” word has been used a lot. In the locker room, and on the range; out the course too. On the ninth tee, the elevated one, Alastair McLean – a caddie who has seen virtually all there is to see in the game in his time toting Colin Montgomerie’s bag all these years – shook his head. “Ridiculous,” he muttered, while dutifully noting the information which, in time, would be consumed by his employer.

Chambers Bay isn’t your typical course, that’s for sure. It so badly wants to be a links, even if there is no taste of salt in the air. As far as appearances go, it is certainly dramatic: once upon a time, in a former life, this land was a sand and gravel mine. The old concrete remains of the sorting bins act as a reminder; a sign of the new, changed times being the corporate hospitality tented units erected for this week between the walled ruins.

These days, it has been transformed into a golf course – under the architectural genius of Robert Trent Jones jnr – and, it is fair to say, none of the design maestro's previous works have generated so much debate. For sure, the examination in this 115th edition of the US Open, as aesthetically enthralling as it is, will quite literally do many a player's head in with the mental challenges it is set to present.

For one, there will be moving tees on different days. Some holes, the first and the 18th, will play as a par four one day and a par five another. The ninth tee – where one tee box occupies the highest point on the terrain and another is some 300 yards away down in the base of the old gravel pit – will be changed to offer different challenges.


Vocal critics

One of the more vocal critics of the course selected by the USGA for this latest Major challenge has been US Tour player

Ryan Palmer

. Let’s just say he is not amused. “As far as the greens are concerned, it’s not a championship golf course – not with the way some of the greens are and the pin placements they can put out there . . . the idea of [uneven] tee boxes is ridiculous. That’s not golf, it’s a joke. I don’t understand it,” said Palmer.

There are some players in the locker room who would look at Palmer and his ilk and merely rub their hands and smile, as if the course has already got into their heads; as if another prospective winner has been crossed off.

Palmer, though, has a point. As you walk the greens, most of which have devilish undulations, the only way to work out exactly where the green complexes begin and end is to focus in on the tiny white dots that maintenance staff have diligently placed on the turf. If you’re inside the dots, you’re on the green and can mark the ball accordingly; if you’re outside, you’re off the green, even though there is no discernible difference in the grasses.


Sympathy, as they say, is found in the dictionary. Certainly, there hasn’t been much empathy from the USGA to those put out players by the quirkiness of the wannabe links. As

Mike Davis

, the USGA executive director put it: “Listen, it’s a bit like ice cream . . . some people like vanilla, some people like chocolate; at the end of it, it’s going to be a very stern test. It’s going to show shot-making skills and abilities. It’s going to require the players to really think their way around. It’s going to present a different challenge every day . . . a very unique and one-of-a-kind test.”

Let’s get back to how Chambers Bay came out. When Jones’s design team arrived on site – discovering remnants of an abandoned sand and gravel mine where once, in a former existence many centuries ago, there lived a fishing village inhabited by Native American Indians, the Steilacoom tribe, and later still housed a paper mill and railroad hub – they saw potential rather than dereliction.

The Jones firm was one of 57 to submit bids to build a public course for the local Pierce County executive, which had acquired the property in 1992, although mining operations continued until 2003. That’s when the site became a reclamation project, and the remnants of the enormous gravel-sorting bins alongside the 18th hole are a reminder of its decades of industrial use.

Yet, there is beauty too. For sure. The course sits alongside Puget Sound with views to Mount Olympus off to the west. And, aesthetically, Jones and his team – using the $24 million the project cost to complete – have produced something that is interesting and a little quirky, if seeking to mimic the old seaside designs to be found in Ireland and Scotland.

The dominant grass is fescue, similar to that found on Irish courses. “Fescue is a very, very tricky grass. In one sense, it is a simple grass and it doesn’t require much fertiliser. Mother Nature waters it. It’s not mushy, parkland style turf. It’s hard and firm and allows a game I love, because the ball rolls another 20 yards,” explained Jones.

It has already proved its mettle, as host venue of the 2010 US Amateur, won by current European Tour professional Peter Uihlein. The staging of that championship resulted in some tweaking and changes, one of them the construction of a 12-feet deep fairway bunker on the 18th. A new tee was added on the ninth, making for the dramatically downhill and slightly uphill par three that will be used on different days in this US Open.

Deep bunker

That deep bunker on the 18th is strategically placed and will cause consternation. “Mike kept asking us to go deeper. I think it is a little incongruous, perhaps, but it will give players something to think about,” admitted Jones, who now has the distinction of joining his father, Robert Trent Jones snr, as the only other living architect of a US Open course. Jones snr designed Hazeltine and was alive when it hosted the 1970 US Open.

Jones doesn’t believe Chambers Bay is yet finished. “Generally speaking, the golf course is never finished. It’s a work in progress . . . the game itself keeps changing. I think the new elements we have added are in keeping with our time and the better players can adapt to it. For example, moving the tees are unique . . . those who are uneasy with the newness of it, we will listen to them, but they probably won’t make the cut,” observed Jones.

The pivotal holes will likely be the tough stretch from the fourth to the seventh and then another stretch that encompasses the final five, a run for home that has the potential for carnage. "It's on the edge, between fairness and funky," said a rather diplomatic Darren Clarke, who is actually one of those who could revel on such a setup.

Ryan Moore, a local, who probably knows the course better than anyone, highlights the uncertainly that awaits just about every player. "There's really six or seven places they could put a pin on each hole. I think for all of us, we're preparing and taking guesses . . . . it's kind of like a British Open [course] where you study contours and slopes and where the [ball] kicks. It's just a lot of speculation," he said. Which would seem to indicate that even those players who claim to know the course don't really know what to expect.

Light relief

For sure, the majority of players have adopted the stance of simply getting on with the job.

Bubba Watson

put up a video on social media of holing a putt – how many goes he had at it we don’t know! - where the ball performed a sort of wall- of-death curl before finding the bottom of the hole. It provided some light relief for players in the build-up, although the fact that players have indulged in six-hour plus practice rounds and taken their times to examine every nook and cranny of this course would show their concern.

"It's not their first rodeo," said Jason Day of the USGA's ability to set an appropriate examination. "I keep saying to people, the US Open is all about controlling your attitude, controlling your emotional level and your stress levels because it can be a very frustrating week. The biggest thing is not to beat myself [up] out there, to keep grinding and grinding and grinding and hopefully by Sunday you're somewhere around the lead."

Philip Reid

Philip Reid

Philip Reid is Golf Correspondent of The Irish Times