Compared with most U.S. Open venues, Chambers Bay is fresh-out-of-the-box new.
While its young fairways and greens are a mystery to most of the 156 players vying for our nation's top golf trophy, the course is no secret to me. I grew up around Chambers Bay, and since establishing an academy there five years ago, I've come to know its twists and turns like the back of my glove.
No matter how the USGA sets up this links, only the men who master four specific shots—all on the back nine—will have a chance at the title. But learning make-or-break swings can help you on any course, not just Chambers Bay.
Here's how to master four stroke-saving shots and kick off a summer of red-hot play.
Shot 1: Driving the Green
Location: No. 12 tee (Par 4, 304 yards)
Hitting big blasts off the tee is all about creating optimum launch at impact. Even if you lack the swing speed to crack it 300 yards uphill like the pros will do on No. 12, maximizing the height and distance of your drives is something every player should work on.
Plant your feet slightly more than shoulder width apart. A wider stance creates a wider swing arc — and the potential for more speed— while accommodating a bigger weight shift and greater energy transfer.
At address, lean your spine away from the target so that your right shoulder is well below your left. This positions the bottom of your swing arc slightly behind the ball, letting the clubhead swing up at impact. Hitting up on the ball is an undisputed power move, creating a higher launch and helping the ball stay airborne longer.
After you reach the top of your backswing, laterally shift your weight forward by pressing your front foot into the ground. Then clear your left hip by turning it to the left. Leading with your left hip forces your shoulders, arms and hands to catch up. As a result, the clubhead lags, storing power in the process, then “snaps” into the ball with the high-velocity strike that rewards you with a most beautiful sight: a putt for eagle!
Shot 2: Approach Shot from a Sidehill Lie
Location: No. 14 fairway (Par 4, 496 yards)
One thing you don't realize about Chambers Bay until you get there is how hilly the course is. It sits on an abandoned gravel quarry (my BMX training grounds as a kid!) that slopes hard toward Puget Sound. Make no mistake — hitting the fairway at Chambers doesn't guarantee that your ball will come to rest on a flat swath of fairway. Players will have to deal with plenty of sidehill, uphill and downhill lies. No. 14 dishes out a double-whammy of slopes, because the fairway is crowned; the ball will be below the players' feet on approach shots from the right side of the fairway, and well above their feet from the left.
Sloping lies will go a long way toward determining the champion. They're everywhere. The players who don't mind seeing the ball curve are bound to fare better than those who stick to one shot shape. In fact, almost every swing on this course tests a player's ability to adapt.
HOW TO HANDLE THE SLOPES
The physics of impact dictate that a ball sitting below your feet will, when struck, naturally curve to the right, and one sitting above your feet will naturally curve to the left. Your first step? Don't fight it–simply accept that the ball will curve and go with it. Aim a bit to the right when the ball is above your feet, and to the left when it's below your feet.
BALL ABOVE YOUR FEET
Gravity wants to pull you away from the ball, so the trick here is to maintain your balance. Club up and swing at three-quarter speed, cutting off your finish; you don't need a full follow-through. As you swing through impact, feel your right hip pass in front of the ball before the clubhead does. That move will stop you from overhooking the shot.
BALL BELOW YOUR FEET
This one's easy to lose right, even if you start the ball out to the left. First, position the ball just inside your left heel at setup. This gives you more time to square up before impact and fight off a big miss to the right. Also, more upper-body rotation helps, so feel as though your chest "covers" the ball at impact, then "chase" it with your upper body once it leaves the clubface.
Shot 3: Full Wedge to a Small Target
Location: No. 16 Fairway (Par 4, 396 yards)
The par-4 16th is drivable (if the USGA moves up the tee), but you'll see more players lay up than go for it. That's because the green is only seven paces wide at its center, banked by a bunker on the left and the railway on the right. Unfortunately for the field, the smart play—a 3-wood to the fat part of the fairway—leaves a full wedge to one of the tightest targets in Open history. There's just zero margin for error, so expect to see a lot of bogeys from about 100 yards out. Only the most accurate wedge artists will get close enough for manageable birdie putts. And those who do make birdie here will feel like they picked up two strokes against the competition.
HOW TO NAIL YOUR WEDGES
Hitting full wedges close is all about keeping the shot online. You can't afford to squirt the ball left or right, especially when shooting at targets as small as Chambers's 16th green. Here's a trick: Stand closer to the ball with your feet hip-width apart, then pull your left foot back a few inches. This limits your backswing so you don't overswing and makes it easy to rotate through impact. Use more arms than legs and count out a soft "one-two" tempo in your head as you swing back and through. Finish with your chest facing the target. It's a simple shot, so make your motion as uncomplicated as possible.
SHOT 4: Hybrid Chip from a Tight Lie
Location: No. 17 Green (Par 3, 172 yards)
No. 17 is rated as the third-easiest hole on the course, but I'm not buying it. The green features multiple crowns and saddles, so only a perfect tee shot can get close. And when the pin is up, you'll see more players stop short of the green than risk going long and having to traverse the bumps and rises in the putting surface. Chambers consists of fescue grass, and most of the guys lack experience on this type of turf, so delicate chips from off this green will be fun to watch—and dripping with drama. It will take a lot of nerve and creativity to chip it near the hole. Those who can knock it close will have a big advantage.
YOUR NEW WAY TO CHIP
You can use your wedge or your putter when the ball is just off the green, but I prefer a hybrid off tight, firm grass. "Chipping" with this club is foolproof and with little effort gets the ball rolling at the correct pace.
Set up with your feet together and the ball off the outside of your right foot. Grip down to the end of the handle and set your hands even with your zipper so that the shaft leans toward the target. Hinge the club up using only your wrists, then release the hinge while swinging your hands forward with the force you'd use on a putt from the same distance. Also, avoid the natural urge to "hit" the ball! After you hinge your wrists, simply coax the ball forward as though you're rolling a putt.