Chambers Bay Getting Prepped for U.S. Amateur

By: Blaine Newnham

It's a bit of a gamble, but Chambers Bay near Tacoma, Wash., is going all out for this summer's U.S. Amateur, while holding little back for the U.S. Open to follow five years later.

Chambers Bay (photo by Aiden Bradley)

Officials with the Pierce County-owned facility are spending much of the $2.5 million advanced by the USGA for the 2015 Open Championship, money spent not only on a new practice area but on edging bunkers and hydro-seeding acres of dunes to cover them with wavy, knee-high fescue.

The place looks great. "Why wait?" is what Matt Allen, the general manager at Chambers Bay, said. "We want it to look as good as it can for the Amateur, making the lead-up to the Open even more compelling than it already is."

Chambers Bay, located a mile south of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge in the community of University Place, is about as different and upstart as a course can be. It has already been listed among the 100 best courses in the world by various publications and, even more surprising, it is the only course built in this country in the past 50 years to be awarded a U.S. Open.

But first is the U.S. Amateur on August 23-29. A field of more than 300 players - winnowed down from 7,000 original entrants - will play 18 holes at Chambers and 18 holes at the nearby Home Course in Dupont to determine the 64 survivors for match play.

The big push for the Amateur has been to get the fescue greens smooth enough and quick enough. This is a true links course, the only one in the U.S. to ever hold a major championship. The USGA doesn't want the greens any faster than 11 on the Stimpmeter because of the severity of the putting surfaces.

They've improved dramatically over the first two years of operation, a time when they were crusty and glacially slow. Now, they are as fast as the numerous contours will allow.

Chambers Bay will play as long as 7,700 yards for the Amateur, longest in the history of America's oldest tournament. The key will be how Mike Davis, the USGA's senior director of Rules and Competitions, chooses to set up the course. He has plenty of options, more, he said, than he's ever had before.

Over the past year, Chambers Bay has added nearly a dozen new tees, one turning the picturesque 165-yard 15th hole into a 240-yard monster. Par-4s can be made drivable or impossible, depending on the prevailing winds and the placement of the tees.

On one day the first hole can be played as a 560-yard par-5, while the next as a 480-yard par-4. The 18th will swing the other way: one day a par-4, the next a par-5. In any event, par will be 70 with the 13th and 18th holes playing as par-4s and not par-5s. On one hole, the fifth, there is an alternate green that can make it drivable for those crazy enough to take the wheel.

Outside the ropes, nearly 1,000 tickets have been sold for the Amateur. More than 100 folks have volunteered their homes to serve as the local headquarters for many of the 300-some players, and more than 600 people have signed up to be volunteers. In addition, area corporations have bought nearly two-thirds of the tents and tickets available to them.

"Chambers Bay gets high marks," said Robbie Zalzneck, director of the tournament for the USGA, who was on site in March. "Clearly, they understand what the Amateur is all about and are treating it as a special event."

Chambers Bay (photo by Aiden Bradley)

It is special. Bobby Jones won the championship five times, Tiger Woods three times. The first was won in 1895 by C.B. Macdonald, the famed architect whose work will be masterfully recalled this summer when the Old Macdonald Course opens at Bandon Dunes Resort to the south in southwest Oregon.

Besides the Amateur's tradition and young talent, there's a close fan-to-player proximity that just doesn't happen in other major championships. Spectators - tickets are $25 a day or $65 for a week - are inside the ropes, because there are no ropes.

"They have a better look at seeing and hearing what is going than everyone but the caddie," said Zalzneck. "Everyone in the USGA is excited about this place," he continued. "We think the Amateur will be that much better here this year because the U.S. Open will be played here in 2015.

"The interest shown by the local community in providing housing for the players indicates that this will be a well-attended Amateur. Anything close to 5,000 spectators would be excellent."

Unlike for the Open when the USGA pays for everything, Chambers Bay must generate nearly $1 million to stage the Amateur from ticket sales and corporate involvement. "I think we'll do that," said Matt Allen, the general manager at Chambers Bay.

Even in a poor economic climate, Chambers Bay made more than $1 million on its operations last year, but at the same time came up more than $1 million short of paying off the debt incurred to build the $20-million course. Pierce County covered the shortfall with the promise that money from the USGA would pay the debt while improving the property.

Chambers Bay is controversial. Locals chafe at the costly green fees, which can be as high as $175 during the summer months for out-of-county visitors. The course also requires a rigorous walk, and there are no power carts.

But from the beginning, Chambers Bay had little to do with local, public golf. It was built to draw attention to the county, to perhaps get something as grand as the U.S. Open, which without question will be the biggest sporting event ever held in the Pacific Northwest. And it will produce mega-dollars in revenue for the county.

But first is the Amateur. So far, there is little amateurish about it.

Blaine Newnham has covered golf for 50 years. He still cherishes the memory of following Ben Hogan for 18 holes during the first round of the 1966 U.S. Open at the Olympic Club in San Francisco. He worked then for the Oakland Tribune, where he covered the Oakland Raiders during the first three seasons of head coach John Madden. Blaine moved on to Eugene, Ore., in 1971 as sports editor and columnist, covering the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich. He covered five Olympics all together - Mexico City, Munich, Los Angeles, Seoul, and Athens - before retiring in early 2005 from the Seattle Times. He covered his first Masters in 1987 when Larry Mize chipped in to beat Greg Norman, and his last in 2005 when Tiger Woods chip dramatically teetered on the lip at No. 16 and rolled in. He saw Woods' four straight major wins in 2000 and 2001, and Payne Stewart's birdie putt to win the U.S. Open at Pinehurst. Blaine now plays golf at Wing Point Golf and Country Club on Bainbridge Island, Wash., where his current index is 12.6. In 2005, Blaine received the Northwest Golf Media Association's Distinguished Service Award. He and his wife, Joanna, live in Indianola, Wash., where the Dungeness crabs outnumber the people.