Chambers Bay: Don’t let U.S. Open scare you from playing it yourself
By Ken MacLeod
Gary Player’s Golf Channel rant aside, there were certainly some valid criticisms but also some wonderful aspects about playing the U.S. Open on a links-style course such as Chambers Bay. Don’t let the way it played in the Open ever dissuade you from giving it a try if you get the chance. I know I can’t wait.
Player tried to create a link between the length and scope of Chambers Bay and everything that ails modern golf (time, expense, difficulty). There’s a kernel of truth there, but 98 percent of golfers who play Chambers Bay are playing it at least 1,500 yards shorter than the USGA setup had the pros playing. The fairways won’t roll nearly as much and the greens will be slower.
The face that a course has to be extraordinarily long to host a modern major championship that plays firm and fast is an issue for the USGA, PGA of America, PGA Tour and golf ball manufacturers to hash out, but not one that affects more than a handful of golf courses in the U.S. And it’s also not necessarily true, as Southern Hills, Colonial and a handful of other well-designed layouts continually prove when given the opportunity.
Player is building a family friendly course right now in Branson and that’s great. But as an architect, he should know that the industry has long since realized the error of its ways in terms of building courses that are too long, require too much water and are too difficult and there is a industry wide effort going on to correct those things. The very few courses that are being built today concentrate on fun, resource conservation and time management.
That description actually fits Chambers Bay pretty well for those who venture there to play it. Jay Blasi, who did most of the routing and design details while working for Robert Trent Jones II, told us this week that the way golfers were forced to play it during the U.S. Open is not reflective of the challenges locals or travelers will face.
"If the greens are running at a typical 9 or 10 (on the stimpmeter), you can play off some of those left slopes and be in the middle of the green," Blasi said. "When it gets super fast, a lot of those sideboards that help in every day play can become a hazard. Now you could not go left under any circumstances. It was amazing to watch something that we designed to be a helper for regular play become a hazard for the tour pro.
"This course is built to be super playable. You don’t lose a ball. The fairways are very wide. A lot of errant shots wind up back in play. It was also built to use grasses that conserve water."
The two issues in terms of the USGA and a possible Open return were the lack of spectator access and the condition of the greens.
The few greens on the course that were newer and not infested with Poa annua were fine. We’ve played the fescue greens on all the courses at Bandon Dunes and they were great to putt on. Puzzling to me is why the USGA, knowing that the amount of Poa in the greens in the Northwest will increase every year until regrassing is necessary, didn’t schedule and perhaps help pay for a renovation in 2013 or 2014 instead of playing on many greens that have been getting more and more Poa for eight years. We know the USGA is not in the business of paying for improvements at courses where it holds championships, but it could have worked with Chambers Bay to make sure it happened prior to the Open.
The spectator issue is one that could well be insurmountable, even though more grandstands could be added. Blasi said there came a time in the design stage where, though mindful the USGA wanted fan access on both sides of the fairway, it came down to routing the best golf hole or providing spectator access. You can look at the tenth hole squeezed between towering dunes to see that the integrity of the design won out over spectator convenience in many cases.
Even those who had seats in the grandstands were so far removed as to barely be able to see much. The spectator issue alone I believe will prevent the course from hosting another Open, but doesn’t make it a bad destination.
The Open at Chambers Bay produced a great champion, a wonderful leaderboard, plenty of drama and scores just about typical for an Open.
If the Open or any big event returns, it would be helpful to be able to see the shots both in person and on television. Some of the negative reaction to the visuals may help a traditional and tradition-laden course such as Southern Hills in its quest to land a fourth U.S. Open. But each time the USGA goes to an unconventional site such as Chambers Bay or Erin Hills (2017), the wait gets longer.
Of the players with local ties in the field, the best finishes were a tie for 27th by former Oklahoma State golfer Morgan Hoffmann after a closing 66 and by Edmond North graduate Robert Streb. Playing in his first U.S. Open at age 28, Streb gutted out two even-par rounds and tied for 42nd with Jim Furyk and others. He has now moved from 91st to 72nd in the World Rankings in 2015 and is the 31st-ranked U.S. golfer.
Streb has accumulated nine top-20 finishes in the 2014-15 season and ranks 11th in Fed-Ex Cup points. He may not be ready to contend in a major championship yet, but we would not be surprised to see that happen soon.