The USGA Is Rolling the Dice With the U.S. Open at Chambers Bay
When John Norville was dreaming up the character of Roy McAvoy, the dirt-poor driving-range pro played by Kevin Costner in the classic golf film Tin Cup, it seemed only fitting to have him hail from West Texas: A philosophizing Everyman with a Southern drawl emerges from the land of tumble-weeds to come within a layup of winning the United States Open.
But the real inspiration for Norville, who co-wrote Tin Cup with the film's director, Ron Shelton, came from the public courses of his youth in Portland, Ore. Norville's family lived a block from Eastmoreland, a beloved muni of curving, conifer-lined fairways where his father would play nine holes on Thursdays after work with a pull cart and his pals, then unwind in the clubhouse over cigarettes and bottles of Olympia Beer—golf in the Pacific Northwest.
"There is a really wonderful egalitarian culture here," Norville says, looking out his window in central Oregon and seeing the moon rise over the Deschutes River as a hiker wends his way up a canyon trail. "That's the Northwest, anyway, but it's writ large and writ wonderfully on the golf course. It's really a public golfer's environment, even though there are plenty of private courses here. It just has that feel."
As Norville points out, the historically blue-blooded USGA—housed on a red-brick campus in suburban New Jersey—has never before held the U.S. Open in the relative wilds of the Northwest. One could have argued that our national championship was "national" in name only, but that's not the case now. This year, the USGA boldly breaks with history, bringing the Open to Chambers Bay. A broad-shouldered and picturesque links on Puget Sound, 45 minutes south of Seattle, the course is county-owned and open to the public. When it opened, in 2007, Chambers Bay so impressed USGA officials that they designated it a future U.S. Open site only eight months later. Not since 1970, at Hazeltine, has the Open been staged on what is effectively a brand-new course.
Among golfers in the Northwest, excitement is running high. "It's about time," says Peter Jacobsen, the seven-time PGA Tour winner and NBC Sports announcer, who is a proud Portland native. "You see so many U.S. Opens and major championships held east of the Mississippi. Very rarely are they held in the West."
Since the first United States Open was contested at Newport (R.I.) Country Club in 1895, the tournament has been played, with wartime interruptions, 114 times. More than a third of those competitions have been held in the Mid-Atlantic, often at fabled and exclusive clubs synonymous with the event: Shinnecock, Winged Foot, Oakmont, Merion and Baltusrol, to name a few.
The U.S. Open's absence in the Northwest belies a rich history of golf in the area. The Pacific Northwest Golf Association, founded in 1899, is the country's third-oldest regional golf association, after those in Philadelphia and metropolitan New York. Many of the region's golden-era courses bear the artistry of a Chicagoan, Chandler Egan, one of two visionaries from the Windy City who would reshape golf in the Northwest. Born into a well-heeled family, Egan began playing as a boy and at Harvard won the national intercollegiate team and individual titles in 1902. Two years later, he claimed the first of back-to-back U.S. Amateurs.
In 1911, having retired from competitive golf and moved to Kentucky to work in the railroad business, Egan sought a fresh start out West. He purchased an apple and pear orchard in Medford, Oregon, but golf soon drew him in again. He resumed competing and seized upon a new opportunity: designing courses in a region starved for places to play. His first original layout was Eastmoreland. Egan redesigned another Portland landmark, Waverley Country Club, along the banks of the Willamette River, where Peter Jacobsen would caddie and work on the grounds crew.
Professional golf of the highest level arrived in the Northwest in the 1940s. The PGA Championship was held in Spokane in 1944. Two years later, the event went to Portland Golf Club, where Ben Hogan captured his first major title. The Northwest made golf history again in 1947, this time with the Ryder Cup. Wholesale grocer Robert Hudson revived the biennial exhibition after a 10-year wartime hiatus. He arranged for the matches to be played at Portland Golf Club and underwrote both teams' travel expenses.
Ensuing years would bring the Portland Open, a Tour stop until 1966, and the LPGA's (ongoing) Portland Classic. In 1986, Jacobsen founded the Fred Meyer Challenge, a charity event played initially at Portland Golf Club, a classic Pacific Northwest course defined by elevation changes and doglegs woven through the Douglas firs. As host, he attracted the likes of Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino and Greg Norman.
"They were all just absolutely enchanted," Jacobsen says.
It's early March, and a quilt of snow covers the campus of the USGA headquarters, in Far Hills, New Jersey. With its manicured grounds (including a putting green) and mix of neoclassical and contemporary buildings linked by walking paths, the setting looks like a cross between a country club and a northeastern college. Mike Davis, the USGA's executive director, sits at a conference table in his spacious second-floor office. In a far corner leans a flagstick from Merion, topped with the iconic red wicker basket.
Davis oversaw the 2013 U.S. Open at Merion, a course so hemmed in by its suburban Philadelphia neighborhood that the players' lounge was in the living room of a private home. Last year, in a historic first, Davis brought both the men's and women's Opens to one course, Pinehurst No. 2, in successive weeks.
This year's U.S. Open may be Davis's biggest bet yet. A firm links course of striking elevation changes, massive bunkers, and fescue greens that neither cushion approach shots nor coddle putts, Chambers Bay is sure to befuddle many players in the field. Davis readily acknowledges as much.
"Is there risk there?" Davis asks, noting he prefers not to use that word. "I guess there is, because it's a brand-new golf course that we've never been to. So it's harder for us to know how it's going to play. If we go to Oakmont, we know almost everything going in: how the course is going to play whether it's wet, dry, windy or soft. We know how the hole locations impact [play]. We know what the rough height should be."
He adds, referring to Chambers Bay, "Here, there are a lot of unknowns."
Over the years, USGA officials considered at least half a dozen courses in the Northwest as potential Open sites, including historic Eugene Country Club, the Oregon Golf Club, designed by Jacobsen, and the Golf Club of Newcastle, which Seattle native Fred Couples helped design.
The strongest contender was Pumpkin Ridge, a 36-hole, semiprivate club built on farmland near Portland with the goal of holding national championships. In 1992, only a month after opening, it was selected by the USGA to host the 1996 U.S. Amateur. There, Tiger Woods snatched his third consecutive Amateur title, defeating Steve Scott in extra holes, before turning pro weeks later. Watching from the gallery was Phil Knight, cofounder of Nike and a native Oregonian.
All signs pointed to Pumpkin Ridge landing the Open. During the 1996 Amateur, David Fay, the USGA's executive director at the time, said "there would be no downside" to the Open being played there. The USGA thought enough of Pumpkin Ridge to award it two U.S. Women's Opens, in 1997 and 2003. Based on discussions he had with USGA officials, club cofounder Gay Davis says he thought it was a matter of when, not if, Pumpkin Ridge would be awarded the U.S. Open.
That day never came. Neither Pumpkin Ridge nor any of the other courses under consideration offered all the requirements that an Open site demanded, Mike Davis says. One issue was that many Northwest courses are built on heavy, slow-drying soil, and U.S. Open week, in mid-June, comes during the rainy season.
Not only must an Open course be long and, ideally, firm enough to challenge the world's best players, it must have enough room to accommodate galleries and infrastructure, plus proximity to a major airport and hotels. "There are some wonderful, wonderful golf courses in the Pacific Northwest," Davis says, "but we needed a lot of space."
In 1990, Mike Keiser was searching America for sand.
The cofounder of Recycled Paper Greetings, a greeting-card company in Chicago, Keiser wanted to build a links course, and he had the wherewithal to do so. Like fellow Chicagoan Chandler Egan, Keiser would leave a lasting mark in the Northwest. He had become enamored of links courses on trips to the British Isles, inspiring him to build a links-style private nine-hole club near his summer home on Lake Michigan. Now, in an effort "to get as close to the Scottish-Irish experience as I could," Keiser says he was determined to create a course that was on the ocean; that would be fun, not punishing, to play; and that, unlike nearly all of America's finest courses, would be open to the public.
In 1991, after months of combing both coasts, and just before giving up, Keiser found a windswept property in southern Oregon that bore all the hallmarks of a linksland, that sacred golf ground that stitches mainland and sea. The sellers had failed to win approval to develop a golf resort in the face of Oregon's famously restrictive land-use laws. Keiser forged ahead. In a tortuous, six-year process, he convinced state officials that, rather than degrade this spectacularly pristine stretch of land, the course he envisioned would celebrate and preserve it. "Nature perfected," as he once put it, likening the emotional effect of a great golf course to that of a Wordsworth poem.
Over the next decade and a half, Keiser developed four 18s, plus a 13-hole par-3 course at Bandon Dunes Golf Resort. Each course is walking-only, and each is planted with fine fescue, a drought-resistant grass that produces the firm and fast playing surfaces associated with the British Open.
"The grass grows slowly and uses little water," explains David McLay Kidd, the Scotsman who designed Bandon Dunes, the first course to open at the resort, in 1999. "And the ball bounces and chases and cavorts and does all sorts of things."
USGA officials took interest in Bandon immediately. Mike Davis visited "countless times," he says, walking the property with Keiser during each course's construction. "Mike is a visionary," Davis says, adding, "He's held to his principles and, thankfully for golf, he's more than succeeded."
In the early 2000s, John Ladenburg, the executive of Pierce County, Washington, came up with the idea of turning a disused sand-and-gravel quarry on Puget Sound into a tourist-worthy golf course. He had two inspirations: Bethpage, the New York state parks course that had just become the first truly public venue to host the U.S. Open; and Bandon Dunes.
Ladenburg says he and other officials in Pierce County, whose largest city is Tacoma, kept coming back to the same questions: "Why is Bandon so successful? What's going on down there?"
For one thing, Ladenburg learned that the Pacific Northwest has what meteorologists call a marine west coast climate. Shared by only a few other parts of the world, including the British Isles, the climate is distinguished by mild temperatures and moist air, in the form of seasonal fog and light rain blowing in off the ocean. And, as Bandon Dunes had shown, the climate is ideal for growing fine fescue.
Ladenburg knew the USGA wanted to bring the Open to more public tracks, and was enthralled with Bandon Dunes. But Bandon Dunes is too remote to host an event as large and sprawling as the U.S. Open. The nearest major city is Portland, more than four hours north by car.
Ladenburg added it all up. "Well, they've never played a U.S. Open in the Northwest," he said to himself, "they've also never played on fescue grasses, and they're not going to go to Bandon because there isn't enough infrastructure." From then on, he says, every decision the county made regarding Chambers Bay was centered on the desire to land the U.S. Open. After hiring Robert Trent Jones Jr., Ladenburg told the renowned architect, "Build me a course that can have 50,000 people walking on it [but not] in play."
In 2006, Jones drew up plans to transform an industrial scrape of earth into an expansive links unfurling across 250 acres, twice the size of Merion. Jones invited Ron Read, a longtime friend and the USGA's western chief at the time, to visit the site. Read marveled at the scale of the property and the panorama of Puget Sound and the Olympic Mountains beyond, to say nothing of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe rail line that skirts the water's edge, or the lone fir standing sentinel behind the 15th green. He returned a few months later with top USGA officials, including Davis.
"We were looking at raw sand," Read says. "It looked like a dream come true."
Still, more pieces needed to fall into place, and they did. Congressional Country Club, slated to host the 2010 U.S. Amateur and the 2011 U.S. Open, bowed out of the Amateur. Winged Foot, in the running for the 2015 Open, withdrew from consideration over its members' frustration that the 2006 Open had cost them use of the club's East Course for much of the season. Suddenly, two prized USGA events—the 2010 U.S. Amateur and 2015 U.S. Open—needed host sites.
Ladenburg got a call from Davis in December 2007, six months after Chambers Bay debuted, letting him know of the openings on the championship calendars. Ladenburg overnighted a letter of invitation to the USGA for both events. Two months later, the USGA announced that Chambers would host the Amateur and the Open, in 2010 and 2015, respectively. "I was stunned," Ladenburg says.
He assured Davis that the Pacific Northwest would embrace the Open. "I said, "This will be a much bigger deal than you think, because we don't get the World Series or Super Bowls or world championships."" People across the region, Ladenburg said, "will fall head over heels to be involved in this."
Sure enough, 5,000 volunteer positions for U.S. Open week filled within 36 hours, when it typically takes the USGA up to three months to fill these ranks.
No one seems more excited than Mike Davis, whose legacy is more likely to be made at Chambers Bay than at any traditional Open venue. He cites the 2002 U.S. Open at Bethpage Black—an initiative led by his predecessor, David Fay—as a historical comparison. Famously bedraggled before the USGA arrived, the Black is now a showpiece, played and enjoyed daily by locals and pilgrims alike.
Davis hopes this year's event will have a similar lasting effect at Chambers Bay, and that it will help spread the gospel of links golf. And if championing the course is the USGA's way of making amends with the golf-rich Pacific Northwest for a history of inattention, the gesture just might work. "If people say, "I like Oakmont better. I like Pebble Beach," well, that's okay," Davis says. "We're fine with that."