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Robert Trent Jones Jr. Finally Gets His Victory Lap at Chambers Bay

A Tour of Chambers Bay With Robert Trent Jones II
Course architect Robert Trent Jones II shows Sports Illustrated's Alan Shipnuck around Chambers Bay, site of the 2015 U.S. Open.

UNIVERSITY PLACE, Wash. – Robert Trent Jones Jr. stood below the 17th green at Chambers Bay, the golf course he designed to host a U.S. Open on the second day of the U.S. Open. He had himself a moment – the blue waters of the Puget Sound, the packed galleries, the international audience for his latest work, all the compliments mixed with the occasional critique.

At that moment, Tiger Woods’ tee shot landed near the pin and rolled … and rolled … and rolled. “It’s still moving,” Jones whispered, as the ball stopped 25 yards from the hole.

“Tiger will get the hang of this course just after he misses the cut,” Jones said, not long before Woods officially did miss the cut.

Fans sipped beers under the late Friday morning sun. Golfers complained about the speed of the greens, which the USGA has more control over than Jones. Crowds bottlenecked. Workers stopped Jones every five feet. “Love this golf course,” one said. “Thank you for this gift,” another said. “The winners aren’t complaining,” yet another said.

Jones was satisfied with how the championship had started. His bid to design the course included bag tags that read Chambers Creek, home of the 2030 U.S. Open, and here they were, 15 years ahead of schedule. Jones does not see Chambers Bay the way most do, as, simply, a golf course. He sees 18 holes born from his life’s work.

Take 17. It reminds him of the penultimate hole at Pebble Beach, down near the water, an exacting par 3. That’s where Jack Nicklaus hit the pin with a 1-iron in the 1972 U.S. Open. That’s also where Tom Watson chipped in for birdie 10 years later. Most holes at Chambers Bay are like that, something Jones saw projected in the course he designed atop an abandoned gravel mine. “I’m evoking the triumphant moments I witnessed,” Jones said. “I’m imbuing this with that sense of drama. I think this green will be pivotal on Sunday afternoon.”

As he watched three groups play 17, Jones carried with him a notebook full of poems. He writes them all the time, on a variety of topics, but with golf an obvious and routine inspiration. He wrote one about Chambers Bay titled “The Opening.”

One verse:

“Now let us struggle in the royal and ancient way

Playing with club and ball our game of golf.

Come now, join us in pleasure upon our holey fields.”

That’s what Jones wanted, a links course, with fescue grass, where creativity and shotmaking and daring would matter as much as longest drives; a course where every shot mattered; where the approach started at the tee box not up near the green. That led to some complaints from the field about how different Chambers Bay was and how it was more British Open than U.S. Open and how the greens played more like concrete than grass. Jones was aware of who made some of those comments – and who relayed them.

He watched Ian Poulter birdie 17 with great interest. It was Poulter who posted on his Twitter page that many pros found Chambers Bay a “complete farce.” He would later clarify that he hadn’t played the course yet, but was only echoing what he had heard from others. As he putted out on Friday, Jones edged toward where Poulter would exit 17 below a grandstand.

“Good luck, Ian,” he said, as Poulter made his way through the tunnel.

Poulter didn’t look up. So Jones introduced himself and Poulter stopped.

“I hope you’re well,” Poulter said, as he continued into the tunnel.

Jones went back to his victory lap, to his poetic descriptions of Chambers Bay. They built the course on top of sand, mostly. Some television viewers found it too gray, or too brown. “The sand is gray because that’s what the color is here,” Jones said. “This is not about artifice. This is art. It’s what nature gives us. It has its own beauty, a kind of crusty beauty. That’s the nature of links courses.”

He first viewed the property in 2002, via Google Earth, and he couldn’t believe what the satellite showed. Here was a large area, untouched except for gravel extraction, filled with sand, right near the water, with views sure to make television executives salivate. In addition to the 27-hole layout that organizers asked for, Jones’s group submitted an 18-hole proposal, too. It left additional room for spectators.

He wanted this design to be different. He knew the best players in the world tended to “be artillery officers shooting from up high,” and he wanted to incorporate the ground game and the short game more. He wanted it to feel tactical, strategic. He wanted the course to reveal itself between holes 4 and 7 – “the Chambers Bay Amen Corner,” he called that stretch – with its narrow fairways and bonanza of bunkers.

Jones said, the winner “would have to dance with this beautiful woman a few times. She’s got a lot of character. They’ll need that.”

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The second dance took place Friday, after one gallery gave Jones a standing ovation and several fans had asked for his autograph, which happens often of course with players but not so often with golf architects who moonlight as poets. “Now look at the sheen on top of this green,” Jones said. “It’s almost silver. So it’s the silver of spring transforming into the gold of summer solstice. The grass is a metaphor.”

He continued on. He mentioned Mike Davis, the USGA executive director. Jones calls himself the composer of this championship. Davis, then, is his conductor. The players are the musicians. He had dinner with Davis earlier this week. They talked about the flexibility of Chambers Bay, how No. 9 would play uphill one day and downhill the next, how 18 would alternate between a par 4 and a par 5.

Speaking of 18, Fox’s cameras picked up Jordan Spieth calling it the “dumbest hole I’ve ever played in my life.” After Spieth finished the first two days of the Open at five under, tied when he finished for the lead, he said that he didn’t think 18 made sense as a par 4.

Fair enough. Jones expected some criticism, anyway. Golfers looked at the course and saw so many different ways to attack it. Dustin Johnson told Jones he felt like it was a driving course. Justin Rose told Jones he thought it would come down to strategy and tactics. Phil Mickelson told Jones the short game would be paramount. In Chambers Bay, golfers saw their own strengths as the strength of the course. That’s what Jones had wanted, all the varied reactions, even from Poulter, who, Jones noted, was four over after 17. “He did not embrace the course,” Jones said. “He was anxious before he got here because it was unfamiliar to him. That slips into the psychology.”

Eventually, Jones left the green at 17 and made his way toward the course’s restaurant, where there were more hands to shake and people to meet, including the wife of the governor of Washington, Jay Inslee. He was looking most forward to Sunday, when Chambers Bay will crown a champion 45 years after Hazeltine National Golf Club in Minnesota crowned a champion on the course that Jones’s father built. That was the last course built specifically to host a U.S. Open before Chambers Bay. That Sunday is also Father’s Day will only add to the emotion.

“I was with my dad at Hazeltine 45 years ago,” Jones said. “He was taking a lot of heat from the professionals, including Jack Nicklaus. Poulter gave me a little heat as well. I said, well, dad you’re with me now.”

Jones pointed up toward one of the few clouds in the sky. “You’re up there,” he said. “Your spirit.”

He continued to walk. “We also want to think about the future,” Jones said. “There’s going to be a Chambers Bay impact on the game of golf. This course is evolutionary. Anyone can play it. And it costs one-third of what it costs Augusta National to maintain.

“You can’t compare it to other things,” Jones added. “Up to now the golf course has been the story. Now, it will be about the golf.”

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