UNIVERSITY PLACE, Wash. — Chambers Bay is either one of the best or worst sites ever selected for the U.S. Open. Only extreme opinions on this matter are allowed in the world of golf this week because the course itself is so radically confrontational. Like its architect, Robert Trent Jones Jr., Chambers Bay has attitude and a chip on its shoulder.
The reviews of this course are as split as the views of this Open’s co-leaders, Dustin Johnson and Henrik Stenson, who shot 5-under-par 65s on a course that looks as if St. Andrews has been teleported to the banks of Puget Sound.
“It’s different. Of its kind, it’s one of the finest,” Stenson said dryly as reporters chuckled. Chambers Bay is, in fact, so different — and deliberately so — that it can only be the best of its kind because there are no others.
Stenson then went on to discuss how physically difficult Chambers Bay is to play — a 10-mile walk with so many elevation changes that you climb up — and walk down — more than 600 feet. That’s 50 feet more than marching up the Washington Monument.
Stenson mentioned that the course was so steeply sloped that it was dangerous for everyone to walk, including fans. His caddie already has his arm in a cast from a flip he took Wednesday, minutes after saying, “I hope I don’t fall this week.”
The Swede also suggested that fans should “bring equipment” for spectating, by which he meant binoculars. Some holes are so inaccessible that no fans are allowed on them at all. From several spots on the course you can see almost every hole and, theoretically, almost every player — if you brought along the Hubble Telescope.
“Honestly, I didn’t know what to think,” said Johnson, who has heard Chambers Bay described as “tricked up” by some and “ridiculous” by two-time Open champ Andy North.
“There were a handful who liked it. And more than a handful of others that didn’t like it,” Johnson said. “I saw pictures. I like links golf, the British Open. Thought it looked great. Came and played it and loved it.”
Just how controversial is Chambers Bay? The course is set in one of the more beautiful spots in the Pacific Northwest, an area that has never held a U.S. Open. Imagine an abandoned sand and gravel mine beside gorgeous Puget Sound with the Olympia Mountain range etched along one horizon and, over your shoulder, sparkling Mount Rainier in the distance.
Everywhere, water vistas and deep emerald conifer forests. You have 1,000 acres to build a fabulous public golf course at the center of a vast recreational park. So what do you build? Answer: St. Andrews II.
This is the U.S. Open, yet everyone from Phil Mickelson to Jones himself says that Chambers Bay was created to play exactly like a British Open course — in particular St. Andrews, the birthplace of golf, with all its humps, bumps, banks and bunkers so deep you need a ladder to enter.
The real British Open will be played next month at the real St. Andrews. Remind me again why America had to have an ersatz version this month.
“Chambers Bay and St. Andrews are very different,” Johnson said, referring to their geographies. “But they play the same.”
Despite its idyllic surroundings — or perhaps because of the stunning contrast — Chambers Bay has been called a desolate moonscape or a post-apocalyptic vista on which it is impossible to discern any actual golf holes, even when you’re on the course. You might put a peg in the ground, aim in any direction, find a flag in the distance and, who knows, that might actually be the hole you’re supposed to play.
As you approach, the sound and the huge oval of Chambers Bay spreads below you. Everywhere, you see water and emerald trees. Except the course: It has no water at all, one lone tree behind the 14th green and everything looks brown. I jotted: “a former golf course in the last gasp of dying from an interstellar fungus.”
Chambers Bay may be the most inhospitable course for fans and caddies in the history of the Open. “It’s not just the 10-mile walk, with lots of distance between greens and the next tee,” a proud Jones said as he stood beside the 18th fairway Thursday. “There are extreme elevation changes that should make it a challenge to stamina, too. There are 200-foot elevation changes on the front nine and another one of 214 feet up to the 14th tee.”
Golfers, no longer criticized as non-athletes, are still sensitive to the notion that a mere walk might tucker them out. “It’s a challenging walk. There’s a lot of steep climbing, and I’m sure there will be some tired glutes by the end of the week,” Stenson said after his opening 5-under 65. “It’s definitely dangerous with those slopes, and the grass gets shiny. A bit like ice skating out there.”
I have covered about 90 major championships and never have seen a course remotely as difficult for spectators. The most heard phrase this week may be, “Where am I?” and the most heard answer, “You can’t get there from here.”
In fact, Chambers Bay treats fans who choose to follow the action or cheers for a specific players as an inconvenient afterthought. Go sit in the plentiful grandstands or perch on a hillside.
“Yes, it’s weird,” Mickelson said of holes that no fans can reach. Miguel Angel Jimenez held up his hand to accept applause after a shot at the fifth hole only to realize there was no one there. When Mickelson, who loves to interact with his followers, birdied No. 8, there was silence. Nobody there either.
Not even his wife. “Amy wants to come out and follow, and she simply can’t. She just can’t, first of all, see.” That would be caused by the gigantic mounds that block the view of entire holes.
To all this, Jones seems quietly bemused after a lifetime of building courses and growing up hearing his father’s classic courses criticized. “I remember 1970, when they played the U.S. Open at Hazeltine [in Minnesota]. Jack Nicklaus criticized my father’s course. Now it’s highly respected.”
What Jones saw here — and could not resist — was a site with “sand, sand, sand,” which is ideal for a links because it drains so well. “A links has to be near or on the sea, near an estuary, sandy landscape with fescue grasses and no trees,” Jones said.
With a huge site at his disposal, Jones went for grandeur, which begat a spacious feeling but also one of isolation and inaccessibility. Everything that’s said against Chambers Bay is, in a sense, why Jones is so proud of it.
However, the sustainability of the course, its low cost to maintain and its low water usage were all appropriate to the 21st century. “H.L. Mencken said, ‘The West begins where the rainfall ends,’ ” Jones said. “To me, this all-fescue course is beautiful. In spring, it’s silver green. At the summer solstice, which comes this weekend, it turns to summer gold, an alchemist’s change.”
And when he gazes around, what does he see? There are bald eagles that sometimes land in that one lone tree and a pod of orcas frolic in the sound.
“I see a violent nature meeting an industrial site,” he said.
Chambers Bay may take time to appreciate. Some holes you may never see. You may come home in a cast. But for me, the intergalactic fungus is almost gone.
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