Chambers Bay Is a Worthy Major Venue With a Fascinating Backstory

June 17, 2015

I’ve never played the Shore Line Golf Links in Mountain View, Calif., but I hear it used to be a real dump. Garbage trucks came from up and down the peninsula to unload their smelly contents, which were then shaped by bulldozers and sprayed with water to keep down the dust. It remained a dump until 1982, when the golf architect Robert Trent Jones Jr. arrived with a roll of blueprints and a few hundred truckloads of sand and seed. “It’s a non-smoking golf course,” he used to joke, referencing the methane that lurked in the property’s subsoil. “Light a cigar in one of those bunkers and ‘explosion shot’ takes on a new meaning.”

Jones, of course, designed Chambers Bay, site of the 2015 U.S. Open. Chambers Bay was a giant hole in the ground until Jones and field architect Jay Blasi showed up with more blueprints and more seed — but without the sand, because the site on Puget Sound was a recently decommissioned gravel and sand mine. (See “coals to Newcastle.”) Remnants of the old gravel bins remain down by the railroad tracks — strung-out ruins that evoke Britain’s standing stones. “Tacoma is a port town, and this was an industrial site,” Jones said recently. “We wanted to maintain some of that ambiance.”

Joking again, he said, “Architects kill for sand.”

O.K., he wasn’t joking. The point is, the venues for this year’s major championships are as intriguing for what they once were as for what they are now. Whistling Straits, a faux-but-fetching links course overlooking Lake Michigan, will host the PGA Championship for the third time in August, giving locals the opportunity to school us on its history as Camp Haven, a U.S. Army artillery range. “Where today thousands of golf fans congregate and scores of the world’s best golfers vie with one another, tanks and half tracks rumbled across the land,” writes City of Sheboygan historian Bill Wangemann. “Heavy anti-aircraft guns shook the ground, accompanied by the rattle of heavy machine guns and the steady cadence of hundreds of soldiers marching in step.”

The Army detonated most of its ordnance over the lake, the favorite target being an elongated sleeve towed behind a twin-engine bomber. “It was not real uncommon,” Wangemann continues, “for a plane to return to base with a few extra holes in it” — proof that “extra holes” was a feature at Whistling Straits long before Martin Kaymer bested Bubba Watson in a playoff at the 2010 PGA.

O.K., it’s question time. What commercial enterprise occupied the land now occupied by the perennial Masters venue, the Augusta National Golf Club?

Too easy. We all know that Bobby Jones and Alister MacKenzie laid out their dream course on the site of Fruitland Nurseries, a peach-picking paradise known for its horticultural diversity. But only your Masters fanatic knows that the course reverted to cow pasture in the fall of ’42, when the club was shuttered for the duration of World War II.

“The idea was that cattle would keep the Bermuda grass under control while fattening themselves to the point where they could be sold at a profit,” writes David Owen in The Making of the Masters. “One of the club’s members had a son who knew about livestock, and he determined that the club had enough grass to support 200 or 250 head.” At the urging of chairman Clifford Roberts, the club also raised turkeys and harvested pecans, but ranching proved to be a dead end, due to falling beef prices and the predictable damage to the course and the surrounding flora. In a letter to the members, Roberts concluded that “we have a better chance as a golf club rather than as live-stock feeders.”

He was right about that.

Finally, we have this season’s golden oldie, the Old Course at St. Andrews, Scotland. The game’s most hallowed links has been a golf course for centuries, but it has never entirely shed its role as “commonage.” Sheep used to have the run of the place, and then rabbit farmers moved in at the turn of the 19th century, infuriating the golfers. And if architects kill for sand, consider this: The St. Andrews Links Act of 1894 granted James Cheape and his heirs the exclusive right to excavate seashells on the Old Course. “Until you play it,” Sam Snead once said, “it looks like the sort of real estate you couldn’t give away.”

Well, that’s the kind of golf ground we’re celebrating in 2015. A quarry, a cow pasture, a shooting gallery and a bunny ranch. Fortunately, none of them is a real dump.

No offense, Shore Line.

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