Chambers Bay and John Ladenburg: He Built It, They're Coming

Friday June 12th, 2015
2:56 | Golf Plus
Designer Robert Trent Jones Jr. Previews Chambers Bay

John Ladenburg stops on the 18th fairway at Chambers Bay Golf Course near a bunker tunneled into the fairway, a trap so deep it's called Chambers Basement. With stairs needed to reach the bottom, it more resembles a meteor crash site, or a wine cellar, or the safest place in University Place, Wash., to take cover during a tornado.

Of course, it's unlikely a cyclone will ever rip through western Washington; in fact, it's about as likely as the grand vision Ladenburg conceived more than a decade ago, when he proposed that University Place (pop. 32,000) build a championship-caliber, links-style golf course atop an abandoned gravel mine.

A solitary fir, the only tree on the golf course, stands watch over the green at the par-3 15th. At 139 yards, Lone Fir is the shortest hole at Chambers Bay and, with Puget Sound alongside and Fox Island in the distance, also one of the most picturesque.
Kohjiro Kinno

University Place—U.P.—is a suburb of Tacoma, and Tacoma is known for many things: the "Tacoma aroma" that envelops commuters as they pass through on Interstate 5, wide swaths of suburbia, industry, the port, nearby military bases and the Tacoma Dome, site of my high school graduation and home mostly to minor league sports in a minor league city. Tacoma will forever be in the shadow of Seattle, the overlooked half of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. Except when it comes to golf.

"Nobody saw this," Ladenburg says with a laugh. "I had to break a few legs and twist a few arms."

He chips onto the 18th green. The Olympic Mountains form a spectacular backdrop beyond the train tracks and the blue waters of the Puget Sound and the waterfront homes on Fox Island. Later this month the world's best golfers will descend upon University Place, and the trains will rumble by, and a bald eagle may drop in, and an international television audience will see U.P. for the first time. That's because a golf course once labeled Ladenburg's Folly will host the U.S. Open. Yes, that U.S. Open.

Ladenburg putts out, then retires to the clubhouse restaurant, which sits high above the course, the best views in Tacoma spread below. He orders a Chambers Bay Ale and begins to tell another unlikely success story—his own. For years Ladenburg, 65, worked as a federal prosecutor. He tried criminals for sexual abuse, gang violence and racketeering. In his spare time he traveled the country playing slo-pitch softball. Ladenburg is the third oldest of 16 children, and his family tree was stocked with so many softball enthusiasts it yielded two teams. Everyone wore the same jersey, with Ladenburg stitched across the back. The clan was even featured in SI.

One of 16 children, Ladenburg trekked around the country playing softball with family during a time when the gravel mine was up and running.
Rich Frishman

At 48, Ladenburg quit softball and took up golf. In 2000, he was elected Pierce County Executive. And that's how a trial lawyer and a recreational third baseman came to be interested in creating a golf course now nicknamed America's St. Andrews.

Chambers Bay buzzes with construction. The merchandise pavilion is mostly assembled. The corporate tents are in various stages. The Open, the crown jewel of the U.S. Golf Association, is taking shape.

It will be an Open of firsts: the first held in the Pacific Northwest, on fine fescue grass, with the potential to be played at more than 7,900 yards, contested on a course that opened a mere eight years ago.

The first Open in my hometown.

Ladenburg finishes his beer. He can picture it: Tiger Woods on 18, near the cement holding pens that resemble a Northwest Stonehenge; Rory McIlroy on 15, next to a forsaken fir, the only tree on the course; Jordan Spieth taking suggestions from a caddie who only a few years ago was teaching math to sixth-graders down the street from Chambers Bay.

A U.S. Open. In University Place. Who'd have thought?

While others scoffed, Ladenburg saw the potential in building not just a golf course, but also one that was worthy of hosting major championships.
Rich Frishman
 
Every street is a memory, a reminder, a landmark. Years have passed since I spent any real time in Tacoma proper, after my father moved away and I relocated to New York. Here I was, another dreamer who left U.P. for someplace else, somewhere bigger, somewhere unfamiliar.

 

"For all of us, the initial reaction was, It's a pipe dream," says Tipton. "It's just not going to happen."

Everything is different now, and yet the memories remain vivid. I drive past the restaurant where I downed 25 ribs to impress the father of my high school girlfriend ... past the Jack in the Box where everyone gathered after football games ... past the apartment complex my mother moved to after she and my father divorced ... past the cemetery where we buried my childhood friend Shane.

And then ... a golf course.

A golf course? That's the last thing anyone could have expected.

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Before Chambers Bay became Chambers Bay, it housed lumber companies, a paper mill, a railroad operation and a succession of companies that mined more than 250 million tons of gravel over more than a century. The gravel was used to build freeways and highways and roads. The abundant sand was used in part to construct area courses.

Pierce County Department of Public Works

In 1992, Pierce County purchased most of the 650-acre tract of land and its scrub trees and gravel mounds and shallow drainage pounds for $33 million. It needed a site for a wastewater treatment plant; the land and the views remained hidden beyond a barbed-wire fence. On the rare occasions it snowed, my friends and I would hop that fence and slide down the slopes.

Though he grew up in South Tacoma, Ladenburg was only vaguely aware of the gravel mine. But shortly after he took office, he went to view the property, and what he saw—a vast expanse of land with two miles of western exposure perched on a beach—startled him. Grandview Drive wound along the top of the property, and although the view below lived up to the name, no one, save for those who worked at the mine, actually saw it.

In the early 2000s, U.P. added a trail and sidewalks along Grandview. The enhancement wasn't seen as simply an assist to walkers and joggers. Rather, Ladenburg wanted to broaden the county's vision of what was possible for the gravel mine. To sell it, though, he believed the locals needed to see what lay below. Then, maybe, his idea wouldn't sound so far-fetched.

Ladenburg's grand plan: He wanted to build a golf course that was strong enough to host the U.S. Open multiple times.

O.K., it was a crazy idea. But perhaps, with the trail, less so.

Inspired by a book about Bethpage Black, the layout on Long Island that is by most accounts the first public course to host a U.S. Open, Ladenburg set his sights on the golf course. The county had a 50-year plan for the property, but he whittled that vision down to eight years. "Everyone thought I was crazy," Ladenburg says. "I mean, we had to remove 1.4 million cubic tons of sand." He hired consultants, one of whom told him, "This is as good as Pebble Beach, maybe better." More than 70 firms applied to design the course.

Most decisions pointed toward making the venue U.S. Open--worthy. The state-of-the-art water treatment system. The open areas with room for tens of thousands of spectators. A ridge above the property that provides views of every hole. Stadium golf, Ladenburg calls it. Still, Tony Tipton, the director of the county's Parks and Recreation Department, recalls, "For all of us, the initial reaction was, It's a pipe dream. It's just not going to happen."

Kohjiro Kinno

The plan required a $24 million commitment and the approval of three city councils. Robert Trent Jones Jr. was one of five design finalists to accommodate the county's request for a 27-hole layout, but his company also included plans for an 18-hole routing. Building two nines made more sense, particularly for marquee tournaments, because it opened up more space between holes. That cemented the county's decision to go with Jones. When the bid was submitted, his team passed out metal bag tags. They read: CHAMBERS CREEK GOLF COURSE—U.S. OPEN 2030.

Josh Lewis has an office that feels more like a bunker: concrete and windowless, shelves lined with books about agronomy and soil and golf architecture and a pamphlet titled Noxious Weeds of Washington State. An NCAA basketball tournament bracket sits near his computer. The tournament starts on this March morning, and then the Masters will be played and Floyd Mayweather Jr. will fight Manny Pacquiao. And then the sports world will turn its attention toward Chambers Bay and the U.S. Open.

As course superintendent Lewis is charged with maintaining championship conditions. Appropriately, his Twitter handle is @turfyoda. He walks the course on this day with a pair of Walkie Talkies clipped to his belt, a gunslinger agronomist ready to draw. Yellow signs dot some fairways. They read: GROUND UNDER CONSTRUCTION. Hammers nail. Cranes beep. The symphony of construction plays vigorously.

A whiteboard in the maintenance break room says simply: 87 DAYS.

Jones's team passed out bag tags. They read: CHAMBERS CREEK GOLF COURSE—U.S. OPEN 2030.

Lewis, 32, oversees a staff of about 45, 28 of whom work strictly on the course. At a meeting that morning Lewis tells his troops to stay focused on the finished product, to not overthink the task ahead. Some good news: Thanks to a mild winter and reduced traffic on the course, they are a month ahead of schedule.

A native of the Pacific Northwest who previously worked on Bandon Trails, Lewis is a fan of links designs "that fit into the terrain. I want to showcase golf played that way."
Rich Frishman

A native of Coos Bay, Ore., Lewis started in course maintenance—the art of making grass grow—at 16, mostly to fund his golf habit. These days he rarely plays. Along the Oregon coast he helped turn a forest into Bandon Trails in 18 months. The 72 holes at Bandon Dunes are similar in style to those at Chambers Bay, with native grasses, plants and animals (eagles, osprey, rabbits and coyotes). Lewis wants to promote a style of golf unique to three regions: New Zealand, Great Britain and the Pacific Northwest. Links golf. Pure golf. "Everything doesn't have to be perfectly edged and manicured," he says. "We build golf courses that fit into the terrain. I want to showcase golf played that way."

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Chambers Bay is a links course, in the tradition of St. Andrews. No water hazards. The solitary tree. Sandy soil. It drains as well as any course in the world, which means the greens can get firm and fast, almost like concrete.

All the grass is fescue, mowed to varying lengths. It is more friendly to the environment, requiring less nitrogen, less maintenance, less water. "I call it old-world greenkeeping," says Larry Gilhuly, the USGA's agronomic adviser for the northwest region. "Everyone throws around 'sustainable' now, but it is a sustainable turf type."

Fescue can wear easily, though, like the baseline at Wimbledon in the tournament's second week. To that end Matt Allen, the general manager at Chambers Bay, monitored the number of rounds played. Last October, the course opened three days each week, and as spring approached, a fourth day was added in April.

The Open will be played on fescue grass, which though environmentally friendly, will most likely show wear and tear. "I call it old-world greenkeeping," says the USGA's Gilhuly.
Rich Frishman

Lewis considers all this as he stands on the 10th fairway, while several workers sew patches of grass together as if they are crafting a quilt. He scans the view from the office, the rolling terrain, the water, the mountains. "We're getting close," he says.

Jones first surveyed the property in 2003 using Google Earth, and there it was: sand and sea and the possibility of pure links—in the United States. He has designed or built or remodeled more than 300 courses, but he says, "Every once in a while you get the sense that you can do something special."

As his design took shape, Jones sought to develop an unusual challenge. "The best players in the world tend to be artillery officers shooting from up high," he says. "This requires more than that. It integrates the ground game with the aerial game. You need both."

Jones sees Chambers Bay as a tactical course, with great flexibility built in. A "ricochet romance," he calls it. Depending on the setup, six of the par-4s are drivable, and seven holes can be stretched beyond 490 yards. The course can play anywhere from 6,200 to 7,900 yards. The fairways are 100 yards wide in some spots and as narrow as 10 yards in others; 17 holes are studded with bunkers. "The U.S. Open has never been held at a course like it," says Danny Sink, the USGA's championship director.

Chambers Bay opened in 2007. Then the economy tanked. Yet there was this picturesque, expensive, temple of a golf course, saddled with debt payments until 2046. The number of rounds played fell from 40,000 in '07 to below the number the course required to make its debt payment (roughly 32,000 rounds).

Nevertheless, the wheels to host the Open were set in motion early on. Ladenburg first heard about the possibility when he got a call from Mike Davis, then the USGA's senior director of rules and competition. Davis, Ladenburg recalls, told him that Winged Foot Golf Club in Mamaroneck, N.Y., which had hosted the Open most recently in 2006, had voted not to bid on the '15 Open. He then asked Ladenburg to immediately send the USGA a letter on behalf of Chambers Bay. Ladenburg went a step further, also overnighting letters to the members of the selection committee. On Feb. 8, 2008, the USGA announced it was awarding the Open as well as the '10 U.S. Amateur to Chambers Bay.

The litmus test for whether Chambers Bay could host a major championship came in 2010, at the Amateur. The players struggled with the course, and changes ensued. A tee box was added at the 3rd hole, the 1st, 7th and 13th greens were rebuilt, and the 16th tee was moved perilously close to the train tracks, raising concerns from railroad officials. But the Amateur also showcased how adaptable the course is. Number 9 will play both uphill and downhill at the Open—a 100-foot drop one day, perhaps a 200-foot climb the next. Number 18 will flip between a long but drivable par-4 and a par-5.

Remnants of the sorting bins from the gravel mine frame the home hole.
Kohjiro Kinno

"This is everything I know about the game and then some," says Jones, 75. "I've gone to Opens since I was 10 years old, and the history of the Open is embedded in these holes. It's Royal Dornoch Golf Club in Scotland. It's the Olympic Club. It's Ben Hogan with the 1-iron on 18 at Merion in 1950."

In mid-May, I had dinner with my father. I mentioned that I had driven by our old house during one of my visits to Chambers Bay, how it had been landscaped and repainted, that I had knocked on the front door but no one answered. It has been 17 years since I left, but it still vaguely felt like home.

We both have read the complaints about Chambers Bay: from Tour players who criticized the course and residents who said they were forced out of their homes. My father wondered: How can U.P. pull something like this off?

"He was a visionary," Davis says of Ladenburg. "I was taken aback by the scale of the site, by the beauty of it."

That assignment falls to various entities but especially to Sink, a man who has a job that is among the most unusual in sports. Every two to three years he moves to a city ahead of a U.S. Open, rents a house and moves in his wife and two young kids. His office is filled with the treasures of his travels: mini NFL helmets from every city in which he has lived, a decanter from Pebble Beach, a bronze putter from Pinehurst, a menu from the White House (West Wing Burger included).

He also has a series of site maps that show how dramatically Chambers Bay has changed from even four years ago. He says that he and other officials will go through around 55 variations, all the way up until about two weeks out.

This marks Sink's 16th U.S. Open, and his team oversees everything from the course layout to corporate hospitality to volunteers to ticket sales to merchandise staging. Three years of work culminates in a single week. "We always joke about how great it would be to run an NFL stadium," Sink says. "You already have everything mapped out. You have parking lots, concessions. Your job is so easy." He laughs.

Sink is overseeing the logistics for his 16th Open.
Rich Frishman

Since he arrived, Sink has spoken to more than 200 civic groups and associations. He has planned for how to handle the crush of 35,000 daily spectators. He arranged parking lots up and down I-5, from as far as 40 minutes away, to accommodate some 17,000 cars. He has lined up 290 buses to shuttle fans back and forth.

Still, because of the logistical concerns, some wondered if the USGA would ultimately move the Open. But Tipton, the parks director, says he never had any doubts. "I've never woken up in the morning and thought the USGA was going somewhere else," he says.

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Back in the restaurant my father posed a question I didn't know the answer to.

"Do you think it will all be worth it?"

Michael Greller attended the first Chambers Bay caddies meeting in 2007. He had moved to the area and accepted a teaching position at Narrows View Intermediate School because he wanted to be close to the course. "I'd be out there, working as a caddie, and my students would be lined on the bluff, yelling down at me," he says. His goal: to caddie in the Open.

At the 2010 Amateur, Greller carried for Justin Thomas, and later Thomas introduced him to Jordan Spieth, another budding star, who turned pro in 2012. Greller worked for Spieth occasionally and was eventually offered the job full time. Greller vacillated. Then one day Greller's wife, Ellie, asked him a question. "If Jordan is in the mix at Chambers Bay, will you be with him? Or will you be wondering why you didn't pursue that?" So he gave up his teaching gig for a golf bag. With Greller at his side, Spieth went on a meteoric rise, and in April, at 21 he won the Masters in record-breaking fashion.

"People in my life were concerned," Greller says. "But we're headed home now."

He can already see the impact: in the golfers who travel to Chambers Bay from around the world to play a bucket-list Open course; in the sale of Open tickets, which were snapped up faster than ever before, so fast, in fact, that demand crashed the servers; in the volunteer lists, which, pocked with his former students and colleagues, filled up overnight. One caddie, Beau Brushert, says that in the last two years play steadily increased, and he has met golfers from as far away as Shanghai.

Imagine that. U.P. as a destination.

Greller, who gave up his job as a teacher in University Place to crunch numbers for Spieth, knows his way around Chambers Bay.
Kohjiro Kinno

University Place is so different now than when Greller arrived, or when I attended school there, or before Ladenburg had this crazy idea to build a championship golf course atop an abandoned gravel mine. Ziegler says U.P. may change its name to Chambers Bay, after the course that now defines a suburb. Tipton says the economic impact of the Open could be between $100 million and $140 million.

But it's more than that. It's a signature moment, a signature event, for a city with a little-brother complex. "I have a lot of friends in Tacoma," Jones says. "Tacoma was always an industrial town, a labor town, and Seattle got all the clips and blips. Tacoma is coming into its own."

Locals hope so. Chambers Bay is more than a golf course; there's a three-mile trail and two meadows, a place for joggers and dog-walkers and bird-watchers. "We're probably there twice a week," says Michael Putnam, a Tour player who lives down the street from the course. "For years, this is something I passed, and I didn't have any idea what was going on. Now they're hosting a U.S. Open. If I qualify, it would be the highlight of my career."

Davis first visited Chambers Bay about 10 years ago, back when it was nothing more than dust and sand and gravel mounds. That's when he met John Ladenburg. "He was a true visionary," Davis says. "I was taken aback by the scale of the site, by the beauty of it. He saw that before anyone else did."

When I went to Syracuse for college, I told people I was from Seattle. It was easier to explain, even if it wasn't exactly true. Chambers Bay provides a new reference point, and a destination, and a reason to return, as little old University Place readies for its close-up.

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