If you dare to be different, you really should do something exceptional. Chambers Bay is very different and it is exceptional but is it a good golf course?
In 2001 the Pierce County Executive had a vision for the region and it was realised last week with the hosting of the 115th US Open Championship and the first US Open to be held in the Pacific Northwest, ever. But John Ladenburg’s goal was economic development not just building a new and exceptional golf course on an old gravel pit.
Over 50 architectural firms bid to design the radical new departure for the State of Washington. Under the imposing gaze of mount Rainier and overlooking the picturesque Puget Sound it was naturally an architect's dream opportunity and the chosen one turned out to be the established designer Robert Trent Jones junior.
Robert is clearly a man of aesthetics when he likens the unification of the 'composer', himself, the 'conductor', Mike Davis of the USGA and the players as the musicians to the magisterial combination in creating a symphony of unprecedented sound in the Northwest. Alas, there was a cacophony of missed notes from the makeshift locker room at Chambers Bay, where the 'musicians' were a little miffed by the composition and slightly misled by the conducting.
What sound was Mr. Jones trying to create and what tempo did Mr Davis want the musicians to keep? The US Open is the biggest golfing event in the United States with 9,882 original entrants trying to qualify to compete last week, with at least eight miles of walking, 200 feet of ascent and the world’s press in situ. The US Open was nothing if it was not an attention grabber. The challenge was to be the complete opposite of target golf, you needed to be as creative as the designer.
In the final analysis it was hard to take Chambers Bay seriously. At the risk of repetition, golf, the game of inches, went metric last week and the millimetres won.
In terms of publicity the course did its job, from a golfing perspective I think it has done a disservice to the game in a number of ways.
A frequently repeated mantra of the USGA is one of ‘growing the game’. What about growing some grass. The greens last week were undoubtedly the worst I have seen at the US Open. If you do something different, do it very well. Four of the greens at Chambers Bay were at best on life support – at worst deceased.
Links golf is indigenous to British and Ireland, men with money have yet to replicate that unique type of golf outside that environment no matter how much they spend. You cannot buy nature. The course was the closest I have seen to a links course in the US. For some reason the extra twist of dramatic elevation changes negated the otherwise well replicated look of traditional links. Sometimes an architect has to get an odd hole up a hill due to restricted space. You could have fit two rambling courses into the Chambers Bay complex, the fact that two holes on the front nine ascended so dramatically uphill left me breathless for more than physical reasons.
The margin for error was so slim with the amount of run-off areas around the greens that sometimes the worse the shot you hit the better the result. A course designer and a golfing great, Gary Player did not hold back when asked what he thought about the course. Others, including Greg Norman, Fox TV's chief analyst , was more diplomatic.
Player’s point was that the USGA is trying to ‘grow’ the game. If they want to get new people playing golf they need to present more public courses such as Chamber Bay that are playable for an average golfer. They need to be encouraged to come back because they enjoy the experience and the challenge. They do not need to be humiliated into playing a less embarrassing game because of the nature of the course.
What I found most offensive was the difficulty of access for the public. For those who travelled huge distances to the extreme northwest in order to watch the best players battle it out in the toughest test of golf, Chambers Bay was the worst possible destination.
There appeared to be no thought put into the walking spectator. Although there was room for 18,000 seated spectators, it was impossible for those more mobile to follow a group and see them play. The message from the USGA was, sit in our stands or stay at home and watch it on television. Yes on TV it really looked picture perfect. With the alluring coastline and outlying islands, distant mountains, blue sky and sea, stunning stills of players hitting while the north pacific rolling stock lurched bye and the vast expanse of the Trent Jones fescue festival, it was an alluring vista.
The finale to the Open was as dramatic as the course, the back nine provided enthralling viewing for TV viewers or those in the stands. Jordan Spieth is a worthy champion but the Trent Jones and USGA symphony need a better tune-up for the good of the game.