US Open 2015: USGA Could Return to Chambers Bay, But Only After a Few Tweaks

June 23, 2015
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Well, that was different.

By which I mean, the U.S. Open at Chambers Bay, a spectacular, beautiful eight-year-old public course on the outskirts of Tacoma, was nothing like the 114 U.S. Opens that preceded it. The player revolt, over the crazy bounces and the splotchy greens, was only part of it.

The national championship was played in the Pacific Northwest for the first time. The Hertz counter at Sea-Tac Airport smelled of freshly brewed coffee. The kid working security at gate 5 one morning, on the top of the hill at Chambers Bay, looked like a recovering hippie. (Down in the hollow, and more than once, I smelled the sweet aroma of burning weed. Possession is legal there.) The lady driving the shuttle bus one night was rocking out to Come Together, as if the Beatles classic were a brand-new 45. All the while, the whole sun-splashed spectacle was televised by Fox, a smashmouth network new to golf and its dulcet sounds.

Among the spectators, in addition to the usual congregation of white men in pleated shorts and TaylorMade baseball caps, were people who bore the stamp, accent or color of rural Canada, distant Pacific islands, nearby naval bases, Africa, Asia and some other continents. More than a few women carried open umbrellas while walking the club’s sandy roads—the sun was intense for four straight days. But the temperature never hit 80. Were you watching, Oakmont?

Oakmont is the site of the 116th U.S. Open. It will be the ninth one at the suburban Pittsburgh course, and the place will be a sweatbox. The players will shower in the sprawling, creaking clubhouse before they clock out for the night. There will be constant weather advisories. The greens will be green and the fairways will be too, and they will be lined by fans. Break into Broadway song, if you like: Tradition—TRA-DI-TION! If somebody breaks 280—even par—he’ll win by a bunch. Everything will be back to normal.

The year’s event was a strange, fascinating golfing experiment. The U.S. Open at Chambers Bay—which two-time Open champ Andy North called “a joke”—will not be a one-hit wonder. There will be a second playing, sometime in the late 2020s. Jordan Spieth should be hitting his prime right about then.

Yes, there will be a return engagement, despite the fact that players and caddies were tripping and even falling in the rough, chipping successive shots from the same place, three-putting from 12 feet on greens that were likened to broccoli (Henrik Stenson), cauliflower (Rory McIlroy) and death (Ernie Els). And that the course was a logistical nightmare for paying fans who came to watch live golf.

I should note that no one is talking about a new slot in the lineup officially. Chatting with reporters last week, Mike Davis, the executive director of the USGA, did not commit one way or the other. Other USGA officials said there would have to be the promise of smoother greens for the Open to return to Chambers Bay. That would mean replacing the fine fescue, the type of grass on the greens now, with a different strain, likely a perennial poa (different from poa annua). Perennial has the ability to stay green and smooth even in the face of long stretches of intense sunshine. It was the strong sun that caused the fine fescue to go dormant and brown on the greens and even more so in the fairways and the rough. Officials said the ability for paying fans to see repeated shots and follow a golfer from start to finish would have to be vastly improved for the Open to return to Chambers Bay. All of that can happen.

What Gary Player will say about the course in, say, 2028 we of course cannot predict. (He’ll be 92 then, no doubt still doing an unconscionable number of sit-ups a day.) What he said about the course last week, in a Golf Channel interview, was an epic rant even by his high standards. It began in response to the question, “Good morning, Mr. Player. How are you?”

There were so many delightful, half-crazy moments in the ensuing six minutes with the 1965 U.S. Open winner, it is hard to pick just one. But I’m partial to this gem in the man’s elegant, clipped South African accent, “There have never been so many people who are so happy to miss the cut and go home.”

Come to think of it, Tiger Woods (80–76) did look pretty happy as he split the scene on Friday afternoon, walking toward his courtesy car with Steve DiMeglio, the USA Today golf writer, his right hand on the newspaperman’s shoulder. Woods was sort of ambling along, punch-drunk, surely bewildered at both the state of his game and what constituted a U.S. Open course in 2015. (Woods has won his Opens at Pebble Beach, Bethpage Black and Torrey Pines.) I should note that Player’s design company was in the running to get the Chambers Bay project. It went, instead, to Robert Trent Jones Jr. His father’s designs tended to be over-the-top too. One of the best moments last week came during Tiger’s pretournament press conference, when Jones got a microphone and went fishing for a compliment. Woods did not bite.

The elevation change at Chambers Bay, about 220 feet, is extreme. (The course is man-made; it didn’t need to be so severe.) Some of the slopes on some of the greens—the last three in particular—are downright goofy. The depth and size, and the corresponding maintenance headache, of the many traps gives the golf course a beautiful look on TV but makes play slow and arduous.

The great links courses of the British Isles, which are the inspiration for Chambers Bay, are nothing like that. And they have something we don’t: a frequent heavy, wet seaside wind. But the scale over there is always sane. O.K., the small pot bunkers are often insane, and linksland rough during a wet summer can be absolutely punishing. But you get the point.

The seaside U.K. courses are a deep pleasure to walk. (Chambers Bay is an exhausting hike.) Cruden Bay, Dornoch and Ballybunion are famous examples of links courses with significant elevation changes. Still, combined, that trio does not have 200 feet of variation. The putting surfaces of Muirfield and St. Andrews and Turnberry, to cite three courses with drop-dead gorgeous greens, heave ever so gently. Even Oakmont, Augusta National and Pine Valley, all with famously sloping greens, have putting surfaces that are nothing like what we saw at Chambers Bay.

The great links courses were routed by golf-loving men (often with a major assist from Mother Nature herself) through sandy duneland that had no value to farmers. Chambers Bay was built on a defunct gravel mine, with a sand base. There’s nothing wrong with a man-made course; it just puts much of the onus of the outcome on the architect and the rest on the USGA, for its advisory role.

As for the brown fairways, derided by many viewers at home: There’s nothing wrong with them. I’d suggest you learn to love them. They’ve had a great past, and you’re going to see more of them in the future, as U.S. course operators pay more attention to how they use water. Someday, brown will become golf’s dominant color, except at Augusta National.

The player-grumbling last week was a full-blown chorus. (Here’s looking at you, Billy Horschel, Chris Kirk, Sergio García. Love the candor!) But the world’s best players are famously grumpy about the courses on which they make a living and the architects and course set-up people who exist only to try to embarrass them.

Gary Player, in his rant, was taking a broader view. He was essentially saying that the 90-shooter would most likely shoot 115 at Chambers Bay, take five hours to do it, never play it with just one ball, spend a small fortune and come home to an angry spouse. Last week I conducted a dozen or so duffer-in-the-gallery interviews with golfers who have played Chambers Bay. Every last person marveled at its beauty. I didn’t talk to anybody who had ever played it with one ball, in under five hours or close to his or her handicap. It sounds exhausting. Still, I’d love to play the course. I’m guessing you’d say the same.

Let’s go back to Andy North’s comment for a moment, that the course is “a joke.” North, an ESPN analyst, is a measured man. But he has a notion, shared by millions of others, that a U.S. Open should be sui generis. He grew up, just as Jack Nicklaus did before him and Tiger Woods did after him, on fairways-and-greens U.S. Opens. You know the drill: narrow fairways lined by trees and heavy rough, and small, fast pure greens with tucked pins. That’s not the Masters. That’s not the British Open. But that’s the traditional U.S. Open. And it has done an excellent job of identifying golfing greatness. A U.S. Open at Chambers Bay, to North, was like moving a British Open to an inland, parkland course. The USGA was messing with North’s memories, and many others’ as well. Nobody likes that.

But here’s why you can be certain the U.S. Open will return to Chambers Bay. The tournament finished in prime time on the East Coast. The weather was beautiful. The course is on the water, with trains running between the course and the shoreline. The locals are the nicest people you could ever want to meet. The problems can be fixed by hiring the right people to tweak the course and giving them enough money to do the job.

And the best thing Chambers Bay had going for it was: The game’s best player won.

Sorry, Andy. The shuttle-bus driver has a brand-new song on her playlist: The Times They Are a-Changin’.

At the awards ceremony, Joe Buck of Fox essentially asked Spieth what he thought of the course. The champion answered by saying the fans were the greatest. Next time, maybe Spieth will take a page from Gary Player and use a line he would trot out at the slightest provocation: “It’s the finest course of its kind!”

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