BY Art Thiel 06:30AM 04/28/2015

Thiel: Chambers Bay, a golf run for thinkers only

After playing Chambers Bay Sunday, Greg Norman said it best: “There’s nothing like it in the world.” Golfers who prefer predictability have no chance at the U.S. Open in June.

Spectators will ogle; golfers must think their way around Chambers Bay. / Gary Breedlove, Sportspress Northwest

UNIVERSITY PLACE — The slickest, lumpiest, bumpiest, uppiest and downiest course to host a U.S. Open will debut to the greater golf world in 48 days. Those us who have taken in Chambers Bay know its glories and perils. Buy what will the crusty veterans of the PGA and world tours think of the unique track in their first visits?

“There’s going to be some players who just love this ground game, who love the imagination, who embrace it,” Mike Davis, the U.S. Golf Association executive director, said Monday. “Then there’s other players who just want predictability. They want something right in front of them. They don’t want to have to guess what’s going to happen when their ball lands.

“So it would not be a U.S. Open if we didn’t get some chirping. It’s a part of it. We accept that. In fact, we joke internally sometimes that if nobody’s complaining, we have done something wrong.”

Much chirping, then, shall ensue, because predictability is nowhere to be found in the sandpit-to-showcase place, according to Greg Norman, who knows s little something about golf around the globe.

“Nothing like it in the world,” he said after playing a round Sunday. “They’re not going to figure it out in two rounds.”

Davis and Norman, the Aussie “Shark” who won two British Opens and was a seven-time world No. 1 in the annual rankings, were in town as part of a delegation hosting media day Monday, a chance to begin spreading the word in earnest.

The eight-year-old course on Tacoma’s western shoreline that features views of mountains, islands and an inland sea, which on this day was as benign as the course was wicked, is nearing its worldwide closeup.

After the week of the June 15 tourney that concludes with a championship June 21, the winner likely will not be heralded as a conqueror but as a survivor, the guy whose legs and mind were strongest against a course that will be the champion.

By tradition and design, the U.S. Open is the world’s toughest test of golf. Chambers Bay is up for it. Although it is billed in architectural style (not in history) as “America’s St. Andrews,” the home of golf in Scotland is the standard links (“links land to sea”) layout – a flat seaside.

Along the northern reaches of the English coast, there is little “up.” Not so along western North America.

In the great scouring of the most recent Ice Age, glaciers dug a deep trench down the middle of what we now call Puget Sound, and left shoulders of land on either side often covered with moraines of sand and gravel. The site of the course near the mouth of Chambers Creek was, from 1859 to 2003, a sand and gravel mine.

In geologic time, this place was 10,000 years in the making. It just took civilization the last 10 years or so to clear away what wasn’t golf course/meadows/hiking trails. Which included removing every tree but one.

In Western Washington, a course without a tree is like is like a castle without turrets. What’s the point, right? Yet it is that contradiction that makes Chambers Bay, to the discerning eyes of local golfers, so compelling.

Instead of narrow fairways of fir sentinels, Chambers Bay has the widest fairways in Open history, some as wide as a football field is long. Yet the course is thick with scrubby brown mounds of carpeted sand and capped with giant, many-humped greens that crest and fall like small waves.

As with most shorelines around Puget Sound, “up” happens  abruptly, such as a 300-foot climb up to a simple clubhouse that is achingly suburban muny. When the summit is reached, an odd thing happens: The entire course is visible from a stationary position. That stunt for every other course requires a helicopter.

“I heard people say it’s a  ‘wow’ site,” said the obviously enthusiastic Davis, who grew up in Pennsylvania, went to college in Georgia, lives with his family in New Jersey and doesn’t get vistas like this. “This is a bold site. It’s a big site — obviously expansive.

“I say that because we don’t have anything that we play a U.S. Open on that’s remotely similar to this.”

To the maniacally shaped topography, the USGA adds its own bit of the diabolical.  They will change not only the pin placements on each of the four day, some but a good chunk of the hole. On a par-70 course of anywhere from 7,200 to 7,600 yards, the plan on certain days is to flip the pars on No. 1 and No. 18, which lay side by side, from five to four and from four to five.

“Why did we do that?” Davis said. “We weren’t trying to be innovative; we weren’t trying to be cute.

“It all got down to the architecture of the course. It gives so much wonderful flexibility that the drive zones as a par‑4 and par‑5 are, for both those holes, completely different. And they play different. There’s a risk-reward element to both holes.“

Basically, the USGA made a hard course harder. Which is the point of a U.S. Open.

“There are so many slopes and undulations to this property way – that’s the way it was designed,” Davis said. “If it’s firm and fast, then you add slopes and undulations, from a player’s standpoint, you really have to think your way around this golf course.

“There is no way — no way — a player would have success here at Chambers Bay unless he really studies the golf course and learns it. “

Golf has always been a game of the head. The survivor in June will have accomplished a splendid deed by not beating himself, even if the course beats him.

“Jack Nicklaus used to love when he would walk in (to an Open clubhouse) and hear certain players chirping,” Davis said. “He would say, ‘OK, that player’s gone, I don’t have to worry about him.’

“I really do think that there’s something to that.”

Perhaps Chambers Bay will be for the world’s best golfers an acquired taste, such as oysters. The rest of us will enjoy their grimaces as the first one goes down.



  • jafabian

    Looking forward to how Chambers Bay is received by the golfing community. With some luck a successful event could positively impact how golf is viewed in Washington, both in hosting more events and either upgrading current courses or how future ones are put together. It’s great to finally see some nationally recognized sporting events in the Evergreen State after a long drought of not hosting any.

    • art thiel

      This will be the biggest event the NW has hosted. Goodwill Games in 1990 had lots of participants and local interest, but wasn’t really on the national/intl radar as the Open will be.

      • dingle

        With any luck, it will be more sunny than soggy. Or at least just overcast instead of wet.

        • art thiel

          I’d like to see a 30 mph tropical zephyr. Just one day.

          • Team Achievement

            Me too

  • Jamo57

    This is going to be a lot of fun to watch. I trust the trains will continue to run along the water during the tournament. The course is always a highlight of the trip to PDX.

    • art thiel

      I think the course and the way the top pros play it will be a revelation to many. And yes, the trains will run, just as they do past some of the links courses in the UK.

  • poulsbogary

    I disagree with the manipulation of holes and their pars. It should be a STANDARD test of golf. They are opening themselves up to disaster. I hope they re-think this.

    • art thiel

      The standard is that it’s equal for each player. Let’s see how it works.

      • poulsbogary

        I am concerned that if it becomes ridiculous in some unfunny kind of way, then no golf tournament–let alone a major–will ever come back here for a hundred years. Ian Poulter has already come out and stated it is a farce, and apparently some of the other players have agreed with him. How do they announce what the par for a hole is? The night before the round? the morning of the round? What if some player doesnt get the memo? What if Joe Buck announces on national tv on the 18th green that Rory’s 4 footer is to save par, when in actuality it is to make birdie? The USGA is playing with fire here.

        • art thiel

          I would be surprised if USGA hasn’t thought through each contingency you mention. Getting out the message, in this day of technology, should be the least of their concerns.