Chambers Bay A Stunning, Flawed US Open Host

June 19, 2015

UNIVERSITY PLACE, Wash. — Now we know so much more about her. The Prom Queen opened her mouth and started singing.

We can see, those of us lucky enough to be here, that Chambers Bay is truly a gorgeous spectacle. We can see that she can be played with one golf ball, start to finish, and in very few strokes, provided the pins are in sane positions and the breeze off Puget South remains gentle, as it has so far. Dustin Johnson and Henrik Stenson have already proved that. Mama must have been shouting, when news some of those mid-60s scores made it home.

Rickie Fowler’s Thursday 81 was not some sort of weird proof that the course is unplayable, because it’s not. Something weird happened there, for a golfer in full, as Rickie is, to shoot that score in benign conditions. I am open to the possibility that he had some sort of sympathy illness in connection to ailing playing partner, Tiger Woods his own self, who went for 80. Their wry, half-embarrassed shared smiles when it was over seemed to be a way of saying, one to the other, It’s not us—it’s the course. Golfers are always making excuses, and you can’t blame them. It keeps them sane.

But the course is the major character here, at least so far, and what is becoming painfully obvious in these opening days is that the Chambers Bay Golf Course, site of this 115th U.S. Open, is not a golf course, not in the traditional sense of the phrase, and that this U.S. Open is not a sporting event, again, not in the traditional sense of the phrase. A fan cannot really watch and follow and get inside the action. She or he can have a good time, a great time. (I am, by the way.) But there’s no logical basis for this beautiful, gorgeous course. A golf course should be a downstream river, with a lot of interesting turns along the way. This ain’t that.

I was overwhelmed by the brown beauty of the course when I first saw it in person. I was floored by the elevation changes, the wall-to-wall carpet of fescue, the shimmering sea beyond. The train tracks!

I am only saying me here on the chance that I may stand-in for you, and I likely cannot: My abiding love of seaside links golf is one of the powerful forces in my life. I have thoroughly enjoyed being a spectator at major golf events at many, many courses—or any course, really—where you can walk around and watch the play. Westchester Country Club. National Golf Links. Augusta National. Every last course where the British Open is played. The course in Honolulu, Wailea Golf Club. Walk around and watch the golf. Even Doral.

But at Chambers Bay, it is impossible for a single fan to follow a single golfer through his 18-hole round and watch him endure his trials and tribulations. The course, built with a U.S. Open in mind, is the most fan-unfriendly course I have ever seen. Merion two years ago became a spectacle because it was way too crowded. (In retrospect, if the USGA really wanted to have a U.S. Open on tiny Merion, it should have had many fewer fans, made no changes to the historic course and likely limited the field to about 120 players, so everybody could start on one and change shoes in the clubhouse. It was progress run amok.)

Chambers Bay, the way it was built, is just too big and too hilly, and built on too many ridges, to make it a place where fans can actually watch. The helpful directions volunteers should have a puppet string with a Maine accent: You cahn’t get thare from here.

I’m not saying the fans weren’t enjoying it. They surely are. (By the way, and yes I am generalizing, but if there is a nicer group of people watching golf anywhere in the world than these people in the Pacific Northwest, I have never encountered them.) I am saying you cannot really watch the golf, and that’s usually the main reason to buy a ticket to a golf tournament.

As for the course, it makes no physical sense. It is so complicated, as an engineering riddle, as a walk, as a living play field that must be maintained. I apologize in advance for the italics but I must: every good golf course in the world has this as a starting point: you play the hole, stumble off the green, play the next. You can see the shepherd’s path! And if not, the architect. The Old Course in St. Andrews. Colonial in Fort Worth. National Golf Links in Southampton, N.Y. Bethlehem Municipal in Bethlehem, Pa. This Chambers Bay course is a 10-mile hike, start to finish. I like hiking. But not while wearing Foot-Joys. The bunkers are so much work. If had to go to a Chambers Bay bunker to buy you a half-gallon of milk, baby would do without.

I am in pain, writing this. I love the fact that the U.S. Open is on a true public course, in a gorgeous part of the country that seldom sees the best players in the world. I love—I really mean this—the USGA as an organization and what it does and what it tries to do for our game. I love that Chambers Bay takes its inspiration from the motherland, and that it is so beautiful.

But she’s tricked-up and tricked-out. She is not what she first appears to be, underneath the makeup. Golf, really, is supposed to be a simple cross-country ball-and-stick game. But it is not here. If the equipment has made that statement obsolete, then change the equipment or accept scores below 60.

Despite the message here, we’re going to have a great championship, here at Chambers Bay. We really are. There’s nothing wrong at all with playing a U.S. Open on a course with one lone tree and brown grass and serious elevation change. In fact, it’s great. One of the greatest golf tournaments ever—the 1977 British Open—was played on a course, Turnberry, that would fit that same description. We will have surely have a fantastic weekend here, and the winner will dine out for the rest of his life on what he has done over his 72 holes. But when it’s over, he will really have to tell us what he did and how he did it, because nobody else will have seen it all, not even his caddie.

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