The USGA’s Mike Davis Will Decide If This U.S. Open Is Boom or Bust

June 10, 2015

We knew Chambers Bay was precocious. Shortly after it opened in 2007, it landed the ’15 U.S. Open. But there’s precocious, and then there’s precocious. Chambers began getting its U.S. Open reviews more than a month before a shot has even been struck, and the feedback couldn’t have been any worse if the quirky public track was to blame for Caddyshack II, eight of the last 10 U.S. Ryder Cup teams and toenail fungus. Of course USGA executive director Mike Davis didn’t help matters when he said in April, “The idea of coming in and playing two practice rounds and having your caddie just walk it and using your yardage book, that person’s done, will not win the U.S. Open.”

Webb Simpson joked that he would play for second, Rory McIlroy asked about Davis’s handicap and Ian Poulter said other players told him that Chambers Bay was “a complete farce.” Ryan Palmer played it and worried aloud about the USGA’s losing control of the supersized greens, with their humps, hollows and backboards. Billy Horschel and Henrik Stenson made early visits to University Place, Wash., and used the same word—”different”—to describe the visually sumptuous linksland, which sits on an old gravel mine by the (active) railroad tracks that abut shimmering Puget Sound.

“We all fully expected there would be people who either didn’t like it or didn’t understand it,” says Jay Blasi, who was the main field architect on Chambers (under boss Robert Trent Jones Jr.) and who married his wife, Amy Spittle, senior director of sales and marketing for Chambers owner-operator Kemper Sports, on the 15th tee.

“It’s very, very different, and that’s O.K.,” Blasi, 36, adds. “If I made my livelihood on the PGA Tour and on how the ball reacted after it hit the ground, I would probably feel the same way. Chambers Bay is not the place to hit a 229-yard shot and know it’s going to travel exactly 229 yards.”

Some fairways are more than 100 yards wide, and there is just one tree, behind the green at the par-3 15th hole. (The Seattle Times has already done a feature on it; the iconoclastic fir did not talk to the writer.)

The course has a British Open feel with its dunes and waste areas, while knobs and slopes on and around the greens will redirect balls and dictate scoring. It’s also cramped, Merion style, so much so that the USGA has reduced the number of inside-the-ropes armbands for media from 200 to 50. This will be the first U.S. Open played in the Pacific Northwest and the first to be played entirely on fescue grass.

Still, the x-factor at Chambers, in addition to the unpredictable wind and weather and those noisy trains that go rushing by every so often, will be how well Davis heeds the lessons of past USGA championships.

Hale Irwin shot seven over to win the 1974 U.S. Open, the “massacre at Winged Foot.” During the second round of the 1998 U.S. Open at Olympic Club, Payne Stewart watched his long putt at the 18th hole barely miss—and roll all the way back to his feet. (Lee Janzen beat him by one.) And the greens got so baked at the 2004 U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills, Davis called the wreck-filled final round “a terribly unpleasant day,” but also “a great learning experience.”

That brings us to the 2010 U.S. Amateur at Chambers Bay. For all the early whining this year, the only comments worth paying attention to come from those who either played in or closely observed that tournament, where top-ranked amateur Peter Uihlein beat fourth-ranked David Chung, 4 and 2.

To be sure, there were problems. Michael Kim, who played in the stroke-play portion of the Amateur and now competes on the tour, recalls a moment when his playing partner missed a 30-footer at the par-4 11th hole, then watched as his ball rolled off the green and down a swale, coming to rest 50 or 60 yards away.

“We thought it was going to be O.K.,” says Kim. “But it kept trickling. After the stroke play ended I saw them watering the greens a ton. They didn’t look as firm during the match play. I think it played all right for that portion.”

Harold Varner III, another pro who played in the 2010 Amateur, recalls the treacherous 7th hole, where a player who failed to get over the false front of the elevated green could look forward to his ball rolling 50 to 100 yards back down an embankment.

“It was so firm,” Varner says. “It was super long, kind of tricked up, burnt out. It was so hot they kind of lost control of it. That place is hard.”

Like Kim, Varner failed to advance to match play. He’s not sure what all the griping is about. “I don’t think the course is unfair—not at all,” he says. “And for $1.4 million I’d play golf on the ceiling.”

Blasi, who has since split from RTJ and started his own design company, followed the 2010 Amateur on foot, clipboard in hand. He charted where shots landed and where they ended up, marveling at Uihlein and his caddie as they outthought the competition. “I was just beaming as I watched them, from 200 yards out, talk about how to use a slope on or near the green,” Blasi says. “Whether to play a cut or a draw, where on the slope to land the ball to try and kill it and get it to stop.

“If you designed a golf course and all the Tour players loved it, I would say you failed miserably,” Blasi adds. “The goal at Chambers was to create something that’s challenging and thought-provoking. It’ll be fun to watch and see which players take to it. There will be someone who comes in and the light bulb will go on and he’ll think: Hey, this is cool. I can shape shots and use my imagination. I can play a sand wedge or a 7-iron or a hybrid or a putter from off the green. That player will be very successful.”

Blasi hasn’t been blinded by the beauty of Chambers Bay; he saw trouble spots in 2010. The entrance to the 1st green—the opener is expected to play as both a par-4 and a par-5—was too severely tilted from right to left and kept funneling balls off the green and over a 15-foot ledge. That slope has since been made less severe. The green complex at the uphill, dogleg-right 7th hole still has the false front, but it has been lowered and recontoured. And the green at the 13th hole, a par-5 for the public, was enlarged and recontoured for the U.S. Open. It will play as a long par-4, so the green must accept longer approach shots. New tee boxes were added to several holes to give the maverick Davis more flexibility in course setup.

If anyone’s neck is on the line at this U.S. Open, it is his. The man who pulled off back-to-back men’s and women’s U.S. Opens last year at Pinehurst No. 2 will get final say on green speed and hole locations. Barring wind and rain, the USGA major domo will dictate how this rumpled gem is remembered: force or farce.

“This has potential,” Davis told designers as he toured the property in 2006 with construction under way, according to Golf Digest. “Don’t screw it up.”

He would be wise to heed his own advice.

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