In 2004, Robert Trent Jones Jr. first viewed the site that would become Chambers Bay. His team saw “a degraded, mined-out, hundred-year-old gravel quarry,” Jones recalls. “There was dust flying, people choking. It was an attractive nuisance.” Still, Jones compares the moment to Michelangelo looking into a quarry at a raw piece of marble. “There was sand, elevation changes, views of the Puget Sound and mountains — there was potential.”
Pierce County Executive John Ladenburg had the same reaction when, in 2003, he began a campaign to build a municipally funded, U.S. Open–worthy course on the site of an abandoned mine about 10 miles west of downtown Tacoma, Wash. Making the quest even more improbable, Ladenburg, from the start, had a U.S. Open in his sights. His first step was to line up a world-class architect. Enter Bob Jones.
Initially, Chambers Bay was intended to be a classic tree-lined course with 27 holes, evocative of the region’s top-ranked spreads. That changed when the Robert Trent Jones II firm presented their daring Plan B. “We proposed the alternative of an authentic links course of 18 holes, due to the sandy nature of the site and the maritime climate fronting saltwater Puget Sound,” Jones says. “With all of that sand and a railroad line that edged the property, the course seemed ideal as a links. This could be [Ireland’s] Ballybunion on steroids.”
Jones’s vision for an 18-hole championship links grabbed Ladenburg’s attention. Jones’s USGA connections, and the ambitious plans his firm submitted, aligned with Ladenburg’s goals. However, the links-course concept wouldn’t work unless they could employ wall-to-wall fine fescue grass, the turf most prevalent on Scottish and Irish links. Fine fescue had only been used in America at Oregon’s Bandon Dunes. A huge drawback to fine fescue is that it doesn’t hold up well to heavy traffic, and will fail unquestionably under the strain of golf cart traffic. If cart paths were implemented, the championship links design would be compromised. But Ladenburg and county officials understood the benefits of cart revenue on the bottom line. At a January 2005 meeting, Ladenburg delivered the news: “We will call it Chambers Bay, and we will walk it.”
But unlike Bandon Dunes — where the rippled, undulating terrain was naturally suited for golf — Chambers Bay was an unattractive mess, save for the views. Jones maintains that even today, the course is more gritty than pretty. “The primary challenge was building a golf landscape from a degraded site that had no inherent golf features,” he says. “We moved 1.5 million cubic yards of material and sculpted a landscape. We recrafted the land to make large, firm and fast fescue surfaces to bring the trampoline effect of the ground game as the main defense of par at the championship level. We utilized large expanses of sand that appear to be “blown out” by the harsh winds of the Tacoma Narrows of Puget Sound. Chambers Bay was designed with no trees, no water hazards and no rough. Its defenses are invisible hazards: wind, elevation change, terrain.”
Fine fescue grass was needed to get the course performing like a true links. The experiment largely succeeded, with the greens a nightmarish exception. In recent years, they were abysmally slow at best, bumpy and inconsistent at worst. With reduced play in the winter of 2014-15 and some schooling in maintenance practices, the greens are ready for their close-up.
Jones says, “Because of the popularity of Chambers Bay, and being dry underfoot during the dormant winter growing season, there was a “green thumb” reeducation of the agronomy staff on how to best produce firm, fast and true fescue putting surfaces during the growing season.”
Mission accomplished, says USGA chief Mike Davis. “The greens are very good now. Historically they had all struggled in winter, but they’re where they need to be.”
For his part, Jones says Chambers Bay evokes St. Andrews (“the spirit of the game lives here,” he says), Pine Valley (“our vast, sandy wastelands”) and fickle bounces (“things will happen you have to accept”).
We know this for certain: There’s never been a U.S. Open course like it.