UNIVERSITY PLACE, Wash. — The golf course is often the star, in the days leading up a U.S. Open’s first round. That’s particularly true at one of the novelty sites: Pinehurst last year and Merion the year that. Or when the Open goes to Bethpage or Shinnecock. But in your life you’ve never heard so much golf-course chatter as there has been coming out of these man-made sand hills here at Chambers Bay.
The course will be spectacular for all to look at it, difficult for spectators to walk and may or may not be impossible to play. We’ll find out.
Justin Rose and Rory McIlroy can talk until Golf Channel runs out of tape about the course compares to the true linksland gems of the British Isles, but until shots are played in anger we really won’t know how this creature plays.
The great pre-tournament moment so far came when the course’s architect, Robert Trent Jones, a man gifted, as many modern architects are, in the art of self-promotion, asked Tiger Woods in a crowded press conference what he thought of the course. He reminded Woods that they had known each other since Woods was 14. The subtext was painfully obvious: The great Trent Jones, son of a golf-course design legend and a legend himself, was fishing for a compliment. And Woods, bless his hard-ass soul, wasn’t going to go there.
Oh, he answered Mr. Jones. Answered respectfully and at length. But he never said a single positive or negative thing about the course.
Naturally, all this was in code, as all real conversation in real life is. Trent Jones asked about alternatives to the hole. And Woods talked about how the course’s true nature will not be revealed until Mike Davis of the USGA sets the tee markers and cuts the holes, while other gods decide things like wind direction. But underneath his civil language, was this message: Dude, we are about to commence war, pro against course, and see what the sod will yield. I ain’t playing patty-cake here.
Ben Hogan captured this exact theme for eternity when he won the 1951 U.S. Open at Oakland Hills in suburban Detroit, a course that had been beefed up inextremis by Trent Jones’s namesake father. Hogan said, “I’m glad I was finally able to bring this course, this monster, to its knees.”
Others have been taking other approaches on this course that is driving the caddies absolutely crazy, because of its width and featurelessness. There are scores and scores of sprinkler heads—water availability is no problem here, unlike last year at Pinehurst, in the Sand Hills of North Carolina, which has almost a desert feel to it. The yardage books are so crammed with dots representing sprinkler heads the bagmen need magnifying glasses to sort through them. But Phil Mickelson is playing nice with the course, on the theory that if he is nice to the course the course will be nice to him. People have tried that approach forever, and it does not work but that doesn’t stop anybody from trying. Mickelson said that he had put in a bid to be the course designer, and that the course he envisioned was nothing like the one Trent Jones built, but that didn’t mean he doesn’t like the course. Oh, no—not at all.
It was interesting to hear Jack Nicklaus talk about the Chambers Bay, a true municipal course, with apparent admiration. Nicklaus’s main occupation for the past 25 years or so has been course design, and the architects are notably competitive with one another. Robert Trent and his brother Rees are emblematic of that. But Nicklaus went out of his way to praise the course, although he pointed out that he has never played it. A Nicklaus course has never held a U.S. Open, and the stars seemed aligned for that to happen someday. The first open year is 2024. (Yikes!) Big Jack will be 84. The likely Nicklaus courses for an Open would be Muirfield Village outside Columbus, Valhalla outside Louisville and Castle Pines outside Denver. None of them seem to be exactly what the USGA is looking for, though. Maybe Nicklaus has a course in the works that will be just perfect for the 2030 U.S. Open.
New is OK these days for the USGA. For proof, look no further than Chambers Bay. It’s manmade and has no history, no trees, no old-guard USGA fairways-and-greens mentality. That offends some of the old guard, who view bringing U.S. Open to wide-open Chambers Bay sort of like bringing a British Open to a parkland course. But the USGA is reinventing itself, right before our eyes. That’s why Chambers Bay, a showpiece of a course, is the focus of so much chatter right now. Pretty soon here, we can start to focus on the really important question: how many shots will it take for the best player this week to play it over 72 holes.